In the past decade alone, the deaths of Egyptian Khaled Saeed, Iranian Neda Agha Soltan, and other fatalities caused by repressive governments ignited nation-wide revolutions which were recognized and lauded internationally. A youtube mashup by Andreina Nash of violence against student protests in Venezuela brought international attention and pressure on their government. The massacre of dozens of civilians in Sharpetown by South Africa’s apartheid government crushed their reputation internationally. Same goes for Gandi and the British empire. And today we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. who brought “Bloody Sunday” to the nation’s television sets.
These are all considered examples of “political jiu-jitsu,” when activists use a regime’s repressive actions to damage the regime’s own pillars of support. It is arguably the most powerful weapon available to activists in a nonviolent struggle.
Yet when nearly two million Indonesians were slaughtered within a period of months in 1965, the international community shrugged, domestic reaction was muted, and the authoritarian Muhammad Suharto rose to power and reigned for the next thirty years. Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt best summed up the western world’s reaction to this genocide in commenting that he was pleased since “‘with 500,000 to 1,000,000 [of them] knocked off… it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.”
The difference in results lies in whether the activists or the opponent are better able to manage the outrage or backfire resulting from repression. While the majority of readers may find the above quote by the then-Prime Minister abhorrent in its current form, more than a few would be pacified if the brackets were replaced with “terrorist sympathizers.” The Prime Minister was talking about “communist sympathizers.”
Political jiu-jitsu can nonviolently coerce opponents or even ignite the disintegration of the opponent’s regime. When properly crafted, even if the regime chooses not to repress activists, activists will still be able to claim a victory. On the other hand, if the regime successfully defends against political jiu-jitsu, they can violently repress dissidents without fear of consequence. To understand how regimes fight political jiu-jitsu, the core assumptions behind nonviolent struggle must be examined.
WHY DOES POLITICAL JIU-JITSU WORK?
Perhaps the biggest difference between modern pragmatic theories of nonviolence and Gandi’s beliefs involved explaining the success of this jiu-jitsu. Gandi believed that forcing police to violently repress peaceful civilians would throw off the policeman’s “moral balance” (what Richard Gregg called “moral jiu-jitsu”). This process would be mainly psychological. However, later studies of the Dharasana salt raids found that if the policemens’ moral balance was thrown off, their behavior was certainly not effected. Observers noted that many police became angry at the lack of resistance and even more enraged. Professor Gene Sharp (whose book “From Dictatorship to Democracy” was a guide for several 21st century successful nonviolent revolutions) , proposed that the effectiveness of Gandi’s acts were due to political, not psychological, processes. Namely, the backlash from Webb Miller’s graphic reporting on the British government’s political, social, and economic pillars of support.
Political jiu-jitsu aims to make repression “backfire” in that it creates more support for activists. This is best done by leveraging the pre-existing beliefs of a regime’s supporters against the regime itself. For instance, the Ukranian student resistance group “Otpor” crafted dilemma demonstrations by identifying regime policies that conflict with widely held beliefs and then forcing the government to choose between doing nothing or applying sanctions that violate those beliefs. If the action goes forward without repression, it accomplishes something worthwhile related to the issue. If the regime represses these actions in a way supporters find intolerable, the regimes pillars of support are eroded and the activists gain even more attention.
If, instead, the action can be ignored or tolerated (such as an antiwar rally on Hiroshima day in Japan) or if the repression does not generate popular concern (such as arresting a protester who punches a policeman), there is no dilemma for the regime. In these cases, the regime will always have the option of avoiding political jiu-jitsu.
HOW REGIMES MANAGE OUTRAGE
Violent suppression does not guarantee political jiu-jitsu will occur. This will only happen if two conditions are met. First, individuals with influence over the regime’s pillars of support must believe the repression is unjust, unfair, wrong, or inappropriate (a receptive audience). Secondly, information about repression must be accurately conveyed to those individuals (a secure communication channel). An empirical study of violent repression against nonviolent protests from 1989-2012 found that regardless of severity of repression, the biggest predictor for the success of political jiu-jitsu was pre-existing campaign or communication infrastructure. For instance, what if Gandi had failed make sure reporters like Miller would cover the march? What if Miller’s newspaper was only read by a handful of British citizens, none of whom could include the relevant pillars of support? This was not the first time police had beaten innocent civilians. It was the first time that these acts were conveyed through a secure communication channel to a receptive audience.
Regimes can prevent backfire by ensuring one of the two above conditions are violated. Brian Martin outlined five such methods: cover ups, devaluing the target, reinterpreting what happened, using official channels to give the appearance of justice, and intimidating or rewarding people involved. Cover-ups involve restricting media access, censoring the media, and discrediting any sources. Devaluing innocent Indonesian women and children as “communist sympathizers” allowed the Australian Prime Minister to condone Indonesian atrocities without so much as an angry letter to the editor. Americans in Guantanamo Bay tortured “terrorists” and “criminals” not “men and women imprisoned without due process.” The fairness of repression can be reinterpreted by lying, minimizing, reframing, and blaming. When first asked about the Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor, the Indonesian government claimed that the protesters were carrying weapons (they weren’t), that only 19 people died (271 people were murdered), and that the protesters instigated violence (they didn’t). The American government claimed it did not engage in torture since waterboarding and stress positions leave no lasting (observable) injury. And even if the American government tortures a few arabs, it is just because the alternative is letting a “ticking bomb” detonate on American soil.
One of the more insidious means for regimes to manage outrage is the use of official channels to give an appearance of justice. Ombudsmen, courts, commissions of inquiry, panels of experts, grievance procedures, and any other formal process for dealing with problems can be exploited to reduce public outrage by creating the perception that the problem is being dealt with. Due to the slow and technical nature of these channels, people’s outrage dies down as time passes. Reports are issued, low level lackeys are sacrificed, charges are dropped as public attention dwindles. When questioned about massacres, the Indonesian government claimed they were investigating the issue of “rogue soldiers” killing civilians. Many committee hearings and investigations occurred into Abu Ghraib, but only a few privates were convicted while the preponderance of evidence showed the abuses were systemic.
Notice how each of these five techniques effect either the secureness/accuracy of a communication channel or the receptivity of the audience. Cover ups prevent either condition from being fulfilled. Devaluing targets lowers the receptivity of the audience by lowering the resulting disgust or outrage. What is unjust about mistreating an inhuman target? Believing the victims were violent or aggressive makes violent repression appear to be a more reasonable (less unfair) reaction. It can even be considered “just” to kill peaceful protesters as long as the audience believes these protesters were a serious threat. Similarly, a sense of unfairness about the repression can be dampened with the appearance of sanction through official channels.
If activists have no control over communication channels, the regime can flood the audience with propaganda aimed at lowering their receptivity or discrediting the very existence of the repression. While the internet has provided an invaluable opening for communication, regimes have equal if not superior access to that channel. If every major newspaper and blogger claims violent repression did not happen, even photographic evidence of the act may not convince the relevant audience. In the future, however, the greatest challenges to the truth will not come from an unified “cover story” but from multiple disinformation narratives that create debates over what should be basic factual information. The recent controversy over “fake news” is a good example of this. What if an activist’s website gets labeled “fake news?” What if a trusted source is secretly turned by the regime and comes out against the activists? What if everyone has a different explanation for what happened because the opponent has purposefully created multiple, contradicting narratives?
COUNTERING REGIME “OUTRAGE MANAGEMENT”
Each regime outrage management technique can be countered. Most immediately, the regime’s cover up will fail if activists can expose the actions with video, photographs, eyewitness accounts, and other forms of evidence. In 1991, Indonesia endured yet another massacre, this time two hundred and fifty civilians. The government informed the international community that it was a “misunderstanding” due to protester-instigated violence. Same as they had for decades.
However, these civilians were part of a funeral procession covered by journalists like Amy Goodman and videographers like Max Stahl. The footage was broadcast across television networks inciting international outrage that lead the US Congress to cut off Indonesia’s military aid. However, had this occurred a decade earlier, Suharto’s iron control over media access would have prevented the story from coming out. The cover up would be complete.
Once repression is exposed, activists must be sure to validate the victim. The regime depends on dehumanization to lower the outrage of the public at a perceived injustice. As noted above, simply referring to civilians as “communist sympathizers” allowed the leader of a western nation to condone borderline genocide without raising an eyebrow. However, what if activists had been able to put names and faces on these “communist sympathizers?” At the very least, the Prime Minister’s reaction to the massacres would not have been so flippant.
If the repression cannot be covered up and the victim’s humanity has been acknowledged, the regime must invalidate the injustice itself. The perception of injustice depends on the perception of the government having a disproportionate reaction to the activists. So, the opponent and activist’s struggle is over how the audience perceives the event. The regime’s lying, minimizing, reframing, and blaming must be actively countered. This is why pre-existing procedures and institutions for communicating activist viewpoints was the best predictor for success in political jiu-jitsu.
Only a deep knowledge of the relevant political institutions will protect activists from being entangled in meaningless official channels to give the appearance of justice. The difference between “congressional hearing” and “independent inquiry” could be the difference between a scapegoated bureaucrat and an overthrown dictator. In many cases, no good official channel exists and nonviolent struggle is the only option. Psychological preparations must be made for resisting regime intimidation or bribes.
Successful political jiu-jitsu is not a simple matter of activists encountering repression. Even genocide, carefully reframed, can be stomached by the masses. Every photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. marching depicts the tip of an iceberg: below it are months of planning and the careful crafting of dilemna demonstrations. This means forcing the government to choose between allowing activists to accomplish a protest-related goal or increasing activist support through repression.
If the regime completely dominates the receptive audience’s information channels (ex. news media, AM radio, internet, etc), it can cover-up violent repression, devalue the victims, reinterpret events as not being an injustice, dampening outrage with the appearance of justice, and even bribe or threaten witnesses and sources into recanting. In response, activists must collect the evidence needed to counter official regime statements that the mainstream news media may parrot as truth. They must actively humanize victims that the regime seeks to dehumanize as unworthy of outrage. Careful analysis by relevant experts must be undertaken before allowing regimes to resort to official channels. The longer the regime can drag out an event, the more activists must fight to mobilize people to maintain outrage. Political jiu-jitsu is not a result; it is a process. And when successful, it can crush the world’s most dangerous and most powerful tyrants.