I just finished William C. Kashatus’s biography of William Still, an African American abolitionist from Philadelphia who was a key figure as part of the Underground Rail Road. Something very surprising from the book was that Philadelphia had segregated streetcars in the 1860s that the city’s black population fought against. A full century before blacks fought to desegregate busses in the American South, Philadelphia was experiencing a fight for equality on public/private transit systems. In both cases, in the 1860’s and 1960’s, the social movements for racial equality focused on transit lead to violent protests. Couple the violence from those movements with the violence from recent Black Lives Matter protests and it seems fair to ask, can social change be achieved without violence?
I don’t want to focus only on black protests turning violent. An irrational mob of primarily white people attacked the National Capital on January 6th, 2020 after Donald Trump lost his re-election bid. The group was fighting for social change (not a social change that I would support – they wanted to reinstate a racist, moronic, demagogue as president against the principals of our democracy). Had the group succeeded we would have experienced a tectonic shift in our social and political system. This is in line with a theory that Yuval Noah Harari presents in his book Sapiens. He writes, “just as geologists expect that tectonic movements will result in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so might we expect that drastic social movements will result in bloody outbursts of violence.” The idea is that any major social change will involve violence. Whether it is an attempt to overthrow the American electoral system or to desegregate public transit, violence seems to be part of the system.
But is this accurate or just a misleading perception? I would argue, and despite the quote above I think Harari would support this argument, that violence is not actually a necessary component of major social change. Our perception of increasing violence is likely just due to biases in our thinking. We don’t consider the changes that have occurred without violence because they are not memorable and don’t receive the same media attention. Social changes attached to violence are much more memorable and much more likely to get news coverage and attention than social changes that are not accompanied by violence.
In the last decade in the United States there have been three major social changes that I can think of that haven’t involved any violence but could dramatically change our culture. I can even imagine a world where violence was employed in an attempt to reach the outcomes we have reached without violence. These three issues are gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and reductions in teen pregnancies and sex.
In a decade, the United States went from violence and vitriol around gay marriage to celebrating or passively accepting gay marriage. There has been violence against many individuals, but no major explosions of violence by pro- or anti-gay marriage advocates. Views simply shifted very quickly among the population in a short period of time.
The same has happened for marijuana legalization. A drug that has been unreasonably attacked and tied to racial fear and discrimination is gaining popularity and becoming decriminalized across the country. In a short span, the drug has gone from being a pure evil to something Snoop Dogg and Martha Stuart can discuss live on TV (I don’t know if they have discussed marijuana live on TV, but they do have a business partnership).
Teen pregnancies are also decreasing, as are rates of teen sex. It isn’t obvious that these changes in teenage sexual behavior are taking place, and it isn’t clear why. In the past, teen sex has been harshly regulated and fought against, with young teen girls in particular facing sharp penalties which could include violence against their minds and bodies. Today, teen sex and pregnancy rates are declining while violence employed against young people is also declining (I know some young boys and girls experience sexual violence and physical violence related to sex, but there is no nationwide campaign of violence against teen sex) and many schools are being legally prevented from using violence as a punishment for children.
As Harari also writes in Sapiens, “the tectonic plates of history are moving at a frantic pace, but the volcanoes are mostly silent. The new elastic order seems to be able to contain and even initiate radical structural changes without collapsing into violent conflict.” Certainly violence has not disappeared, but it is striking to note that less violence has been employed for some major social changes in the United States in the last few years. This is a positive trend, and one we can all hope continues into the future. The riots of January 6th and the violence that erupted around protests against racial injustice in 2020 may be more of an outlier moving forward than the rule.