Trump & Thresholds of Violence
In the October 19th issue of The New Yorker last year, author Malcolm Gladwell proposed an earlier hypothesis by Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter to partially explain the increased incidents of gun violence in our country, especially with a focus on the disturbing spate of school shootings throughout our nation.
It is an unintentionally prescient piece of writing and worth your time.
“Thresholds of Violence: How school shootings catch on.”
While Granovetter’s work occurred nearly forty years ago, watching a Donald Trump rally is a fascinating social experiment supporting the scientist’s original theoretical construct of “thresholds” to explain violent behavior – specifically in a riot.
In his essay, Gladwell underscores the elegance of Granovetter’s theory (and not surprisingly, its current application in one presidential candidate’s capricious thrust for power).
“Most previous explanations had focused on explaining how someone’s beliefs might be altered in the moment. An early theory was that a crowd cast a kind of intoxicating spell over its participants. Then the argument shifted to the idea that rioters might be rational actors: maybe at the moment a riot was beginning people changed their beliefs. They saw what was at stake and recalculated their estimations of the costs and benefits of taking part.
This would indicate that the lady sprouting the Nazi salute at the Donald’s recent gathering was compelled to do so by the fervor of the crowd or even the charisma of the self-proclaimed business leader.
“But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them.
“In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.
The man who sucker punches a protestor at a Trump rally is responding to the rest, not the individual being escorted forcefully out of the arena. His act of battery is born by another swing – or even a lesser demonstration of violence which ignites his: a verbal threat, spitting, a racist epithet.
“Granovetter was most taken by the situations in which people did things for social reasons that went against everything they believed as individuals. “Most did not think it ‘right’ to commit illegal acts or even particularly want to do so,” he wrote, about the findings of a study of delinquent boys. “But group interaction was such that none could admit this without loss of status; in our terms, their threshold for stealing cars is low because daring masculine acts bring status, and reluctance to join, once others have, carries the high cost of being labeled a sissy.” You can’t just look at an individual’s norms and motives. You need to look at the group.
Trump has appealed to the darkest angels in each of us and, when herded together in an auditorium or stadium collectively, unleashed the terrible likelihood of capricious violence through rabid xenophobia.
Before application to more examples of school shootings, Gladwell discussing Granovetter’s theory hits perilously home in regards to our current political spectacle.
"Finally, Granovetter’s model suggests that riots are sometimes more than spontaneous outbursts. If they evolve, it means they have depth and length and a history. Granovetter thought that the threshold hypothesis could be used to describe everything from elections to strikes, and even matters as prosaic as how people decide it’s time to leave a party."
For Mark Granovetter’s original work, please read Threshold Models of Collective Behavior.
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