Sunday, October 8, 2017


Mutual escalation between the US and North Korea has risen to a high level. There have been threats of destruction, personal insults between heads of state, and even claims that a state of war exists. Beyond the realm of words are provocative actions including firing missiles and testing nuclear explosions on the North Korean side, and naval and military aircraft movements by the US.

Assuming the worst, when will nuclear war begin? This is a more complicated question than it might appear. According to the conventional model of escalation and counter-escalation, if both sides do not pull back, nuclear war would seem to be inevitable.

Nevertheless, there are some grounds for optimism. If we look at research on threatening situations of smaller-scale violence, we find that violence does not always break out. In most situations where antagonists insult and challenge each other, violence does not happen. This is true even when both sides have weapons, show them off, and make threatening gestures with them.

I will summarize what we know about when protest demonstrations do or do not turn into violent riots, and similarly about confrontations in bar fights, street fights, and gang wars.

When do demonstrations become riots?

According to Dr. Anne Nassauer, sociologist at the Free University Berlin, most demonstrations are peaceful. Her research focuses on demonstrations in the US and in Germany, with comparisons elsewhere in Europe, where 92-98% of protests are peaceful. The impression that demonstrations easily turn violent is created because the news media ignore most demonstrations unless they are violent.

Even when participants announce in advance they will use violence, that is not enough to predict that a demo will be violent. Nor does it matter whether authorities announce a zero-tolerance policy, declaring that any provocation by demonstrators will be met by force and arrest.

It makes no difference whether or not a demonstration includes participants who come prepared to fight. Since the 1990s, demos have generally included an avowedly violent group known as the Black Bloc-- who wear black clothes, facemasks, body armor and shields, and link arms in aggressive tactics against police and opponents. The names have changed over the years; in the 1960s the pro-violence faction were called “Maoists”, while very recently they have gone under the “Anti-Fa” banner. Such groups are usually a small proportion of a large demonstration. But as we can see in photos of riots, only 5-10% of the those present do all the violence; so a relatively small violent group can potentially make a demo into a riot. The surprising finding is that whether such a group is present or not does not make a difference in whether the demo will stay peaceful or not.

Avowed intentions do not matter much when it comes to violence. Declaring that you are going to be violent does not predict what you  will actually do. On the flip side, declaring that a protest will be peaceful does not guarantee that it will turn out that way; violence can break out even when demonstrators plan to use non-violent tactics and the policing style is hands-off. As Nassauer shows, even when the police announce they will avoid using force, and both sides meet beforehand to plan the protest route and agree on how to avoid confrontations, things can go wrong. At the moment of outbreak, violence is inflamed by surprise and outrage on each side that their agreement was violated.

Why don’t groups of people do what they say they are going to do? In contentious protests, whether the event turns violent is the result of turning points that first increase tension on both sides, and then trigger off a collective reaction. It is less a matter of conscious planning than of emotions building up during the situation when the two sides confront each other face to face. It is an emergent process.  Dr. Isabel Bramsen of Copenhagen University, who studied demonstrations and violence in the Arab Spring uprisings, called her analysis “Route Causes of Violence”-- i.e. the causes of violent outbreaks emerge en route, rather than determining what will happen in advance.

Take the case where we would most expect violence: the demonstrators are ready to fight, and the authorities have said they will put it down by force. Yet, without the emotional turning points en route, this does not happen. Why not? Above all, it is a matter of timing.

Typically, if violence occurs during a protest demonstration, it will break out one to three hours in. A demo does not start out by being violent from the very first minute. Even if protestors intend to be violent, they don’t start off with using rocks, guns, or gasoline fire bombs; nor do authorities immediately fire tear gas and automatic weapons. *  It takes time to build up high tension, to build up the feeling of when the moment is ripe for violence. This is a mutual moment felt on both sides.

*  This is true, amazingly enough, even in Arab Spring locations like Tunisia, Bahrain, and Syria. Bramsen found that even though authoritarian regimes order their forces to use force, they do not start firing at the first sign of a demonstration. Here, too, timing and collective emotions determine what will happen.

A simple formula for avoiding violence is:
-- no violence at minute number 1
-- no violence at minute number 2
-- no violence at minute number 10
-- no violence at minutes number 30, 40, 50...

Then approaching the danger zone--
-- getting through minutes number 60, 90, 100, up to 150... without violence.

If the emotional trigger does not happen by then, both sides start to relax. As if both unconsciously feel, too late now, maybe next time. 

Small-scale violence most frequently aborts

A similar dynamic, based on emotions and timing, exists in small-scale disputes in bars, parties, and entertainment zones.

Curtis Jackson-Jacobs, a UCLA researcher, followed a loosely-organized gang in Tucson, Arizona, as they went looking for fights. It consisted of a couple of dozen young white men, all of them bored with middle-class life style, who went to parties hoping to find someone to fight with. They were looking for opponents who would give them some action and boost their prestige, at least in their own eyes:  black guys, tough guys, Hispanic gangs, bikers, athletes.  But although there were plenty of over-crowded house parties in this desert city, with plenty of loud music and drinking going on, the surprise is how difficult it was for them to find a fight. They took a belligerent attitude, bumped into people, gave people the eye, but most of the time fights didn’t happen. Fights were rare enough that when one happened, the group would spend weeks thereafter talking about it, going over the details, bragging about what they did and even about taking a beating if they lost.

Why did this action-seeking group have so much trouble finding fights? Jackson-Jacobs spelled out the subtle details that had to happen if two sides were going to fight. These little details were only semi-conscious, but they boiled down to the fact that both sides had to decide that a fight was coming up, and this had to be a mutual feeling of emotion and timing. Like a demo only turning into a riot a couple of hours in, no one walks into a party and starts a fight from the very first minute. And if the minutes go by long enough, there is a feeling that this isn’t the time and place, so the action-seekers go somewhere else. *

*Another hypothesis is that fights were also inhibited because typically rival groups fight within the same identity or demographic: as we know from gang murders in Chicago (Andrew Papachristos’ research) and gang fights generally, most such violence is segregated: black gangs fight with black gangs, Hispanic gangs with Hispanic, Irish gangs with Irish, Italian Mafias with each other. Jackson-Jacobs’ white middle-class guys were an anomaly on the tough-guy scene; they didn’t identify as skinheads, so they had no counterpart group to fight with them. J-J’s crew were looking for the prestige of fighting somebody tough; maybe they didn’t perceive that the same goes for the other side, and real fighting gangs didn’t think they were a worthy opponent.

The pattern holds generally across different kinds of small-scale fights: most encounters where people threaten each other with violence do not actually end in violence. Most stay at the level of angry insults—the human bark is worse than our bite. Even if it gets physical, most fights do not go beyond pushing and shoving. Videos of fights (posted from cell phones) generally show that after a few wild swings, fighters tend to spin away from each other, leaving themselves at a distance just out of reach while the fight winds down. Showing your willingness to fight is on the whole more important than what damage you do. Researchers in England, using CCTV from pubs and the streets outside, found that angry disputes were broken up, in the great majority of cases, by friends separating the fighters.

The fact that fights mostly abort is well known to club bouncers and other habitu├ęs of so-called dangerous places. But researchers did not start documenting the pattern until quite recently, helped by the abundance of videos. For a long time, we relied on official statistics. The trouble is that police records report only the most violent cases: almost all murders are reported, but assaults only if someone is badly injured or if a cop happens to be there. This is sampling on the dependent variable, counting only the cases where violence happens. What gets missed are all the cases where a quarrel did not turn into a fight, or at least not one serious enough to do much damage.

This isn’t just a quibble about statistics, because the upshot is entirely different when we start at the other end and ask about quarrels, to see if they end up in a fight. Most crime statistics have a pessimistic tone; we don’t have an accurate idea of what causes violence, but the causes usually cited-- poverty, discrimination, disrespect, gangs, popular entertainment-- are things that we can do very little about.  But the findings of today’s micro-sociologists are a rare piece of social science that shows optimistic results: most threatened fights do not come off. We are beginning to understand the subtle turning points that lead, sometimes to escalation, but most of the time, to the fight petering out.

A key feature that keeps quarrels from escalating is when they are balanced. Two guys quarrel with each other. They push out their chests, get their hands into fighting position. They yell insults at each other, each getting louder, trying to shout the other down. A lot here depends on what the audience will do-- whether other people take sides or encourage them to fight; or do the opposite, ignoring the quarrel, which tends to take the energy out of it. Left to themselves, the belligerents usually find themselves repeating the same insults, over and over; they are both talking at the same time, which means they aren’t listening to each other, and it just becomes a contest of keeping up the noise. (How long do dogs go on barking at each other? Check it out.) After a short period of time-- usually less than 60 seconds-- this gets boring. They get tired of a quarrel that is going nowhere. Typically they will break it off, with a gesture of disgust, or slamming the door on the way out.

This suggests some practical advice. If you get into a threatening face-contest with someone, keep it in equilibrium. Just mimic what the other person does; don’t escalate it. After a while it becomes boring-- and boredom is your friend. (Sir Francis Bacon, 400 years ago, wrote that if you are in an angry dispute, keep it to common terms of abuse; don’t try to score a cutting remark with a personal insult that your opponent will never forgive.)

Different groups of people have their specific ways of carrying out quarrels, their own cultures of quarreling. But cutting across most of them is an unconscious common denominator: most of the time they have ways of keeping their disputes this side of violence. Research on quarrels among roommates or neighbours shows that such disputes often fester, but they almost never go all the way to violence. Gangs have an explicit culture of violence; they brag about it and measure their prestige by it. Nevertheless, close ethnographic observations by trained observers on the spot show that gang fights are much more about showing off their weapons than using them.

Street gangs have a turf and challenge anyone who enters it who fits the demographic of a rival gang; and often in a show of bravado they will invade someone else’s turf. But what happens then? If the groups are more or less evenly matched, they confine themselves to flashing their gang signs, showing their colors, exchanging trash talk. On a schoolyard in southern California, rival gangs pull up their shirts to show the guns tucked in their waist-bands; but nothing happens, until the school janitor comes out and shoos them away. On the streets of west and north Philadelphia, the local culture of gun gesturing has evolved in the last 20 years-- opening your coat to show the butt of a gun; pulling the gun but keeping it pointed at the ground while continuing the duet of insults; pointing the gun in the air. This requires a good understanding of what’s going on, and accomplished tough guys need to be able to read the signs of where this ballet of danger displays is leading. Shootings do occur in these neighbourhoods, but most of the time these incidents are survivable.

In Chicago, ethnographer Joe Krupnick accompanied seasoned gang members-- men in their 20s who had gone through years of living dangerously, and who always went armed. But although they often met members of rival gangs on the street (this was after the big hierarchic gangs had broken up and no one controlled the old turf in the city projects), they had an etiquette of how to pass one another, with just enough recognition, and without showing too much suspicion that the other would turn on them. When things got escalated, these armed men might even fire a bullet in the air-- a way to alert the police, and giving everyone an excuse to leave the scene.

These gangs displayed what Elijah Anderson called “the code of the street”:  show you are capable of violence, don’t back down from a threat, but recognize that if we both play by the street code, we can save face and at the same time avoid violence. You gain prestige by playing the street code, and the highest prestige comes not from killing other people but by showing you are in the fraternity of those who know how to handle such situations.

What relevance do small scale fights have for nuclear war?

There is a huge difference between two states armed with nuclear weapons and the military apparatus to deliver them to targets across the globe, and a few guys outside a bar, or a protest march in the streets. The military is much better organized and this gives them much more staying power in a battle, once it gets going. But at the core, there are two sides confronting each other; two leaders of nuclear-armed states who are getting in each other’s face, surrounded by coteries and audiences who amplify or dampen their emotions. The process of escalation, on an abstract level, is similar on each scale; and so is the process of de-escalation. What we have learned about small-scale fights applies also to the risk of nuclear war.

Threats, insults, and displays of weapons-- even firing them off in the wrong direction-- happen at the small-scale level, without them necessarily leading to all-out violence. They can fall into an equilibrium that keeps violence from happening-- in fact this is the most frequent outcome of such incidents.

The most important lesson from the micro level, that we can apply to the geopolitical level of nuclear war, is this: conflicts can stop escalating even without deliberate agreement, without negotiating, apologizing, or offering concessions. 

In the world of international politics, the issue is generally posed as either taking a tough stance, or else turning to negotiations. But what do you do when the other side refuses to negotiate? Or when they make it clear that one thing that is not negotiable is building nuclear weapons that can wipe you out? This is a terrible dilemma. It makes advocates of negotiation look like they are shying away from a frightening reality through acts of blind faith.  But micro-level conflicts show that there is another way out: threats of violence, even with the strongest expressions of hostility between the sides, nevertheless can arrive at an equilibrium that stops short of the brink. And this happens without negotiating, without making an explicit agreement.

When and how does this happen? Micro conflict shows it is a matter of shared emotional moods shifting over time. It is a minute-by-minute process, or day-by-day, even month-by-month. De facto de-escalation occurs with the sheer passage of time, avoiding irretrievable steps along the way, and keeping the sides in emotional equilibrium.

When is the point of no return?

Look at the timing of how shooting wars break out-- the timing of daily events that preceded the actual fighting.

A war clearly begins with a incursion into enemy territory. World War I went through a period of  intense public emotions for five weeks before this happened. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated on June 28. At first, the European heads of state all sent condolences and showed no inclination to go to war. But crowds assembled in the streets of every major city in Europe-- from Vienna to Berlin, St. Petersburg to Paris to London-- enthusiastically pressing their leaders to go to war. Diplomatic messages became more and more testy. On July 29-- after a month of emotional build-up-- Austria invaded Serbia (source of the assassination). The next day, the Russian army mobilized, and two more days later Germany mobilized and declared war on Russia, while France and England also mobilized. August 2 Germany attacked through Luxenburg; August 3 Germany declared war on France; August 4 Germany attacked through Belgium, and Britain declared war on Germany. Threats (i.e. mobilizing your army or putting your fleet on war stations) led to declarations of war; but the real shooting war started with territorial invasions.

Threats and even official declarations do not necessarily mean war. In 1939 Germany and Russia invaded Poland, triggering declarations of war by France and England, but it remained a so-called “phony war” until May 1940, when Germany attacked France and began aerial bombing of Britain. And so on. The Korean War was never officially called a war (it was a “police action”), and the Vietnam War was never officially declared by an act of Congress. The 4-day Gulf War in February 1991 happened in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, after six months of waiting time while the US gathered allies and prepared its attack. Again in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the build-up took 18 months, instigated by the 9/11/2001 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington D.C.

In all these wars, the escalation of force-- and the difficulty of de-escalating or extricating oneself-- became locked in through a territorial incursion, when boots hit the ground.

In the case of a North Korea vs. United States nuclear war, there is no obvious territorial incursion, short of all-out nuclear attack at long distance. Hypothetically, North Korea could invade South Korea, or the U.S. could invade North Korea; but both seem unlikely. N. Korea would not be hitting its main enemy and would leave itself open to a nuclear strike before it launched its own; in the second scenario, the U.S. would have to move many troops and ships into place, thus giving away its intention and prompting N. Korea to begin a nuclear attack.

Is this a conundrum, or an opportunity for violence to abort?

If neither side attempts a territorial incursion, we are in the same situation as a demonstration that doesn’t turn into a riot while the emotional danger-zone ticks by; in the same situation as gang members showing off their guns while trash-talking but only pointing them in the air. It looks dangerous, but it is survivable.

The scenario that worries everybody is that N. Korea will continue developing its long-distance nuclear weapons. If it does this publically-- firing rockets near U.S. allies, or testing an H-bomb in the atmosphere--  that still remains at the level of bluster and threat. And as we know from smaller-scale examples, this could go on for a long time without breaking the emotional equilibrium, without reaching the moment when one side or both feels they must start nuclear war.

Who wants to be responsible for nuclear war?

Leaders in such circumstances have a heavy burden of decision-making. This is a moral concern, over and above the pressures and emotions driven by insults, anger, public posturing, and realistic assessments of the danger of not pre-empting the other’s nuclear attack.

Both leaders have to consider:

Do they want to be responsible for enormous damage to one’s own country? This could run to millions of casualties at home, and possibly far worse.

Do they want to be responsible to their own conscience? Some might question whether the 45th President of the United States or the dictator of North Korea have a conscience. Sociologically, everyone is affected by the opinion that other people have of them, because they have internalized an image of how they want other people to see them. Starting a nuclear war would bring an enormous reaction from one’s fellow citizens, as well as from the rest of the world. If you start a nuclear war, your name will go down in history for this alone, whatever else you do in your life. Call it “conscience,”  or call it concern for one’s historical reputation, it comes to the same thing. 

And the conscience/reputation problem remains, even if you are the “victor” in a nuclear war. This applies mainly to a U.S. pre-emptive strike, which conceivably might be successful in the sense of destroying North Korea militarily, with little damage to the mainland U.S.  It is hard to conceive of this kind of “success” without killing millions of people in Japan and South Korea as North Korea strikes back, as well as near-total annihilation of North Koreans.  In whatever fashion it plays out, the leader who gives the order for nuclear attack would be saddled with the moral onus of killing millions.

I am not saying that these leaders (or conceivably others) will decide not to strike, out of consideration for casualties of this scale. But they are feeling the emotional pressure. This adds one more force for delaying the moment, in the usual fashion of violence that does not come about because the “emotional moment that is ripe for violence” has not yet arrived.

Leaders will tend to prolong the decision. And waiting is itself a possible path to emotional de-escalation, perhaps the only path we have.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Civil War Two, Part 1 by Randall Collins

Civil War Two, Part 1

by Randall Collins

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Nassauer, Anne. 2013.  Violence in demonstrations. A comparative analysis of situational interaction dynamics at social movement protests. PhD dissertation, Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences.

Bramsen, Isobel. 2017. Route Causes of Conflict: Trajectories of violent and non-violent conflict intensification.  PhD Dissertation,  University of Copenhagen.

Jackson-Jacobs, Curtis. 2013. "Constructing Physical Fights: An Interactionist Analysis of Violence Among Affluent  Suburban Youth." Qualitative Sociology 36: 23-52.

Levine, M., P. Taylor, and R. Best. 2011. "Third parties, violence, and conflict resolution." Psychological Science  22: 406-412.

Copes, Heith, Andy Hochstetler, and Craig J. Forsyth. 2013. "Peaceful Warriors: Codes for Violence among Adult Male Bar Fighters." Criminology 51: 761-794.

Papachristos, Andrew. 2009. “Murder by Structure: Dominance Relations and The Social Structure of Gang Homicide,” American Journal of Sociology 115: 74-128.

Emerson, Robert M. 2015. Everyday Troubles: The Micro-politics of Interpersonal Conflict. University of Chicago Press.

Joseph Krupnick and Christopher Winship.  2015. "Keeping Up the Front: How Young Black Men Avoid Street Violence in the Inner  City." In Orlando Patterson (Ed.), The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth.  Harvard University Press.

Anderson, Elijah. 1999. The Code of the Street.  Norton.

Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: a Micro-sociological Theory. Princeton Univ. Press.

Friday, July 7, 2017


North Korea continues its march towards a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of hitting anywhere in the U.S. Military experts agree they will eventually have this ultimate weapon, although maybe not until the end of Trump’s 4-year term.

What can be done to stop it? All the proposals have terrible drawbacks. A pre-emptive strike to knock out North Korea’s missile launchers, storehouses and military facilities would certainly fall short of 100%, leaving North Korea able to retaliate by killing tens of millions of people in South Korea and Japan and conceivably a few American targets. And if we didn’t also obliterate their ground forces, artillery, and submarines, their conventional weapons could devastate Seoul and elsewhere. A covert plan to assassinate the dictator Kim Jong Un would be extremely difficult to arrange, given his paranoia and lack of insider information about his precise whereabouts; and there is no guarantee his successor would be any different.

The remaining alternative-- tightening economic sanctions-- does not look promising. It has been attempted against North Korea unsuccessfully for decades. And in general, economic sanctions have a very poor track record in dissuading rogue regimes anywhere.

Nevertheless, there are some grounds for optimism. We are back in a Cold War situation with North Korea. But our 45-year Cold War with the Soviet Union and China has some favorable lessons. Nuclear war did not happen, above all because of mutual deterrence by nuclear weapons. And both the Soviet bloc and Communist China succumbed, unexpectedly, to what might be called the blue jeans offensive: the lure of Western consumerism.

There are also good sociological grounds for reversing North Korea’s hostility. Here we need to remind ourselves of the social psychology of collective hostility, as well as of de-escalation. Isolating an enemy is just the wrong way to change their behavior. Our historical experience with Russia and China shows how to do it right.

The Cold War Nuclear Standoff

The U.S. exploded its first atom bomb in 1945; the Soviets four years later in 1949. The pace picked up: the first U.S. hydrogen bomb was 1952; the first Soviet H-bomb 1953. By 1957 the Soviets jumped ahead with their Sputnik rocket. This was not just the prestige of the space race, but an ICBM-- an intercontinental ballistics missile capable of hitting targets across the globe. The US soon had their own ICBMs (not to mention long-distance bomber fleets with aerial refueling, and submarine-launched missiles). By the late 50s magazine articles were  explaining how to build backyard bomb shelters. When I was a kid, being woken up by a lightning storm made me think nuclear war had started. In 1964 Dr. Strangelove showed us on screen how the end of the world could happen.

By the 1970s, Soviet and US nuclear arsenals were so large that they could annihilate all animal life on the planet, through poisonous radiation drifting around the globe and the likelihood of a nuclear winter when the sun didn’t shine for years.

But it didn’t happen. Nuclear weapons were never used in war (except against Japan, when only one nation had them), even with proliferation to the UK, France, China, Pakistan, India, and probably Israel. Why not? In retrospect, we can see that mutually assured destruction (MAD) made everyone realize that escalation on that scale was too risky. Even conventional war between the great powers (i.e. nuclear-armed powers) ceased as well. Despite threats, the last direct great power war was the Korean War during 1950-3, when Chinese and US troops fought. Since then, wars have been proxy wars with conventional weapons supplied from outside. At the time, we thought MAD was madness-- an unconscious joke in the acronym. But in fact it worked. Governments were not crazy enough to start a war that is certain to annihilate their country.

This is the first piece of good news from the Cold War: a nuclear arms race is survivable. And it leads to a second piece of good news: devastating threats on both sides eventually foster negotiation.

The Slow Process of De-escalation

As awareness grows about the consequences of nuclear war for both sides, another process sets in. The steps at first are small, putting in place safeguards against accidental escalation. Some steps came from the scare of looking over the brink. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis started with intelligence that the Soviets were shipping medium-range missiles to Cuba. Their motive was adding another arm to Russia-based ICBMs, and bolstering a new ally, while the Soviets basked in a wave of global decolonization and left-wing revolutions. But after John F. Kennedy, Robert McNamara, and their secret emergency committee found a way to combine their own nuclear threat with some small concessions, Khrushchev backed down and withdrew the missiles. Next year, they established a telephone “hot line” between Washington and Moscow to be used in case of nuclear threats.

Further steps happened in following decades. In 1979, Carter and Brezhnev agreed on a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) which set modest ceilings on particular kinds of nuclear stockpiles. Things went back and forth. Reagan ran for president in 1980 on the issue of the “window of vulnerability”-- that the Soviets had so many extra missiles they could destroy our missile launchers in a sudden first strike, then have enough left to threaten a second strike against our cities unless we surrendered. This was probably not in the cards, since our nuclear tripod (missiles, bombers, submarines) could not be knocked out in that way-- paralleling our problem today with Kim Jong Un’s North Korea. At any rate, Reagan got elected (probably more because of the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran), and proceeded on  a renewed arms buildup.  Nevertheless, when Gorbachev came to power in 1985, Reagan established a personal relationship with him, and opened further SALT negotiations. Part of the widespread enthusiasm for Gorbachev during those years-- not only in the USSR and its satellites, but Western Europe as well-- was the feeling that the threat of nuclear war was finally over. In this atmosphere came the popular movements that broke up the Soviet bloc, and eventually massive reduction of armaments in the 1990s on both sides.

The Blue Jeans Offensive

The slow process of pulling back from the nuclear arms race was accelerated by an unexpected development. Up through the 1980s, citizens of the communist regimes were restricted from traveling to the West, but gradually European and American tourists began to trickle inside the Iron Curtain. There they found it was worthwhile to carry an extra pair of blue jeans, because they could barter it for the cost of their trip. Consumer goods were scarcely available, and communist citizens were eager for anything that looked fashionable and hip. The cult of American jazz had existed in Russia-- usually the records were years out of date, but the Soviets at least approved of Negro musicians as an oppressed group. More up-to-date styles from the 60s and 70s gradually filtered into awareness of communist youth.* The state-run economies had made great strides in recovering from WWII, but concentrated almost entirely in heavy industry and military buildup. As long as the communist regimes controlled culture and propaganda, they promoted an image of the evil capitalists of the West keeping their workers in poverty. Once contacts started to open up, another reality seeped in.

* I remember traveling to Budapest with my daughter in 1986, where a man at the train station, eager for western currency, offered us a bargain rate on a hotel, which turned out to be his apartment in a collective living complex. In the dining hall were a tour group of Russians, dancing to a rock n’roll band from the 50s. They were allowed to go as far as Hungary, on the border of the West, but no further.

Gorbachev’s turn towards reforming the communist system started in the 1970s, when as a reward for political loyalty he was allowed to travel with his wife on a visit to Italy. They had their own car, saw how many other people had cars, TVs, and nice clothes, and returned with a vision of what the real Soviet future should be like.

China, too, after the first steps towards opening to the world were made in the 1970s, discovered Western consumer goods in the 1980s and 90s, and became their mainstay of production for the world market.

America’s greatest asset internationally is its consumer way of life. Not just that we have more stuff; we have more cool stuff. The communists’ most vulnerable point is that they are not cool. We beat them when we’re not fighting them because they want to be us.

Isolation Breeds Group Solidarity

The policy of isolating an enemy until they change their behavior does not work. It has not worked in the past. Basic social psychology of solidarity and conformity shows why.

The ingredients that produce high levels of group solidarity are a combination of:
-- isolation of the group from outsiders
-- mutual focus of attention, all paying attention to the same thing
-- a shared emotion

When the three ingredients get stronger, they feed back on each other. Paying attention to other persons and seeing them express the same emotion makes one’s own emotion stronger; stronger emotion makes one pay more attention to what’s causing it; both processes increase isolation from people not in the loop.

When people experience a rush of these ingredients, they feel a sense of solidarity and group identity; heightened identification with the symbols of the group; stronger attachment to our beliefs, and decreased tolerance of non-conformity. We’re in this; you should be in it too.  At high levels of solidarity, people are ready to fight over perceived insults from outsiders, even when there is no material damage.

Conflict with an outside group has an especially strong effect.  Conflict makes both sides set up barriers; it makes us concentrate on the enemy and on our own leaders. The more violent the conflict, the more we feel fear and anger towards the enemy, while we pump up pride and support for our team. This has been called the “rally-round-the-flag effect.”

The ingredients of solidarity and conformity operate on the level of small groups of individuals; but also on medium size groups like organizations and social movements. They also operate on very large groups like states,  provided they have mass communications so that everyone can focus on the same thing. That is why the era of nationalism began in the era of newspapers in the 1800s, and strengthened when other broadcast media developed like radio in the 1920s and TV in the 1950s.

The strength of the ingredients determines the strength of the outcomes. But most ingredients cannot remain intense for a long time. I measured these processes in the days and months after the attack of 9/11/2001, and found that the maximal amount of displaying national symbols (flags, images of firefighters) was in the first three months, then began to decline. Political discussion and dissent was more or less forbidden during those months; but around Christmas time, articles started appearing about “Is it okay to take our flags down now?”  For those few months, President George W. Bush, whose approval rating before and afterwards was rather low, shot up to 90%, the highest on record. 

In a complex society like the modern U.S., it takes a tremendous amount of shared emotion to keep people coming to public gatherings like those commemorating firefighters and police in the fall of 2001. After a while, their focus of attention goes back to their local and private concerns, their emotion falls, and their commitment to the cause of defeating the enemy declines. We saw the growing division of pro-war and anti-war factions from 2002 onwards.

All this is understandable through sociological theory of solidarity. The tremendous shock of the 9/11 attacks, stories about the victims’ families, the heroism of the firefighters and cops, were broadcast everywhere and monopolized everyone’s attention for the first few months. But a complex society has many things to pay attention to, and a media-rich democracy cannot force people to keep replaying the high-intensity solidarity ritual when they no longer feel like it. This is different in a dictatorship, which monopolizes the media and enforces attention on a single message from the regime.

Flip this over to the point of view of our enemies. Their media tells them that we are a terrible threat; they  are the heroes resisting the bad guys.  Their media are inescapable: in North Korea, loud-speakers are on every street corner. No doubt there is an artificial strain of keeping up the required emotions-- fear of outsiders; love of our Dear Leader. [See Faces Around A Dictator] But the other ingredients are too strong: no alternatives to the single focus of attention; isolation from any contacts to the outside.

Our policy of trying to change enemy states by isolating them is worse than ironic.  Isolation is exactly the condition that makes them more confirmed in their beliefs.

Why do we keep on doing it?

If isolating the enemy is such a counter-productive strategy, why does it appeal to us so strongly?

For one thing, conflict processes are symmetrical across both sides. Once a conflict gets intense, we both feel angry at the other, paint the other as a fearful demon, adulate our brave fighters and our leaders. We try to isolate ourselves from having any human contact with them, just as they do towards us.

People who like to think of themselves as civilized may consider isolation a humane way to deal with the problem, rather than resorting to violence. The old-fashioned way of disciplining children was “go stand in the corner until you behave.” This was updated by modern child psychology into the “time-out.” But it only works if-- like a parent with small children-- you have total superiority of power (which is not the case between militarized states).

And it only works when isolating an individual.  If the bad-actor is a group, punishing them by isolating them together doesn’t work. This is putting gang members together in prison with members of the same demographic; it recruits new members and strengthens the gang organization and its culture. Isolating a group not only won’t change their behavior; it makes it worse.

How to reduce enemy hostility

The theoretical model of group solidarity shows a solution. To reduce their hostile emotions and the beliefs that support them, break up the single focus of attention. The best way to do this is to reduce isolation, so there are more things outside themselves to pay attention to.

The Cold War gives evidence of how a policy of reducing isolation works to transform international enemies. In summer 1971, Nixon sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on a secret mission to China. Kissinger, a political scientist, was trying to exploit the Sino-Soviet split. He worked out a deal that the U.S. would not oppose the PRC taking Nationalist China’s seat (practically speaking, Taiwan) on the United Nations Security Council. Six months later, Nixon himself traveled to China and met Mao Zedong, where they agreed to establish some form of diplomatic relations. This is remarkable enough, considering it was at the time when China was just emerging from the Red Guards movement that nearly tore the country apart in 1966-68; and the U.S. was still bogged down in the Vietnam War.  But there is an underlying logic: both sides were trying to get out of their own quagmires; de-escalating at least one piece of international hostilities was a victory for both.

Within a few years, Mao was dead, the Gang of Four eliminated, and in 1977 the reformer Deng Xiaoping was reinstated. Soon came full diplomatic relations and Deng’s visit to the U.S. In the 1980s market-oriented reforms were launched, burgeoning in the 1990s. China soon became the chief supplier of the U.S. consumer economy. In recent years, 30 years in, America has become the place where Chinese want to send their kids to college and where they themselves want to live.

China and Russia are the positive cases of how ending isolation led to a whole-sale shift away from communism and hostility to the West. China is the strongest case, because it has become so highly integrated into the market for western consumer goods, both as producer and consumer. Russia somewhat less so, since its export economy remained heavy industries, oil and military equipment.  A glaring negative case is Cuba, where a strict policy of isolation has kept the communist regime stagnant for over 50 years. The presence of a large group of anti-communist refugees in Florida has kept the old polarization alive: the older generation of refugees has been a veto group in U.S. politics, preventing any moves that would actually change Cuba into becoming more like the U.S.  We may soon see the effects of more commercial connections between ordinary Americans and Cuba.

The solution to the North Korean nuclear threat

The solution is right before our faces. Pursue the policies of Nixon and Reagan in opening up and de-escalating conflict with China and Russia. This is not a quick process. With China, it took 20 years to pay off.  With Russia, results were quicker, but the blue-jeans offensive was already doing its work.

The last is what we should be pushing above all.  We do not want North Korea exporting or importing military goods. We have little to gain from letting them open up to the world market in heavy industry. But U.S. policy should be trying to facilitate ways that  American consumer products-- for that matter, Western and Japanese consumer products in general-- can get into North Korea.  Hello Kitty, Japanese toy fads, American smart phones and action-adventure movies: whatever is hip and stylish. This is the soft offensive that can break the psychological isolation of North Koreans and put them on the Russian and Chinese path.

That means we need to get over the self-righteous emotional jolt of demanding that they go stand in the corner. It is far from clear we will get over it soon. Right now its easy political appeal is shared on both  sides of the political spectrum. But sometimes professional diplomats, international entrepreneurs and maverick presidents make a difference.

So there are two hopeful messages, one quite confident: Cold Wars threatening nuclear destruction can and do de-escalate. The second is more chancy, but possible through processes from below: the blue jeans offensive translated into today’s consumer fads. Either way, the world can survive North Korea.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Civil War Two, Part 1 by Randall Collins

Civil War Two, Part 1

by Randall Collins

Giveaway ends May 24, 2018.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway


David R. Gibson. 2012.  Talk at the Brink. Deliberation and Decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

David Skarbeck. 2014.  The Social Order of the Underworld. How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System.

Randall Collins. 2011. “C-Escalation and D-escalation: A Theory of the Time-Dynamics of Violence.” American Sociological Review.

Randall Collins. 2004.  “Rituals of Solidarity and Security in the Wake of Terrorist attack.” Sociological Theory.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


What does a dictator look like in action?  There is a distinctive pattern, but it is visible not so much on the dictator’s own face as in the expressions of the persons surrounding him or her. (Since all the dictators that I know about and have photos of are men, I will use the male pronoun.)

The dictator is the center of rapt attention. It is compulsory to look at him, and dangerous to show any emotional expression other than what the dictator is displaying. Faces surrounding a dictator mirror his expressions, but in a strained and artificial way.

Let us examine a series of photos of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator.

Kim Jong Un smiles a lot for the crowd, but that isn’t the striking thing. His smile is pallid and not very warm, but the people around him are fervently smiling and applauding. They are putting a lot of energy into it, trying to smile as hard as they can.

These are forced smiles. As psychologist Paul Ekman has shown in detailed studies of the facial muscles used in different kinds of emotions, smiles vary a great deal in intensity and spontaneity. (For examples, see my blog: Mona Lisa is No Mystery forMicro-Sociology.)

Fake smiles can be easily detected, as can the other emotions they are blended with. As we shall see, faces around a dictator blend the required expression with give-away signs of tension, anxiety, and fear.

It happens with all ranks. In the following photos, Kim Jong Un’s rather perfunctory smiles are amplified by his intently attentive generals, foot soldiers, and military women alike:

Conversely, when Kim Jong Un isn’t smiling, nobody smiles. When he is serious, everyone looks serious. Surrounding faces mirror his expression as best they can.


And mirror his body postures too:

Occasionally we see nervous eyes, like the man directly behind Kim Jong Un, glancing sideways to monitor what he is supposed to display:

Or the man who bites his lip, peering forward to catch the dictator’s expression as he telephones an order:

The pattern is the same with the previous dictator, Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il:

The most exaggerated expression is the safest: Kim Jong Il’s funeral

Photos of Kim Jong Il’s funeral, after his death in December 2011, show extraordinarily demonstrative expressions of grief, among all social groups:

Well, almost all social groups. In the following photo, the well-dressed women of the North Korean elite show the most intense grief, as they reach the top of the red carpet. Further back in the queue, postures are more restrained, and the guards and attendants along the side are stolid and unexpressive.


A notable exception is Kim Jong Un himself, who shows no grief but looks a little worried.

The over-the-top expressions of grief are confined to the North Koreans. Photos of foreign dignitaries at the funeral show them somber and respectful, bowing politely but showing no strong emotions, let alone such ostensibly heart-rending displays. These are not normal behavior at East Asian funerals.

Compulsory Front-stage performance of loyalty

We have seen the pattern. People around the dictator, and particular those of high rank, mirror his expressions and re-broadcast them at even higher intensity. They put a lot of effort into it, so that their expressions look forced and unnatural. They look over-the-top. The dictator himself doesn’t look strained, but the people around him do.            

Their expressions are not merely for the eyes of the dictator. He doesn’t, on the whole, appear to be giving them too much attention. Their expressions are for each other, broadcasting the message that they are buying into the show as strongly as possible. They are always on-stage for each other, sending the message of loyalty to the dictator. It is a competitive situation, to show who is most loyal of all.  The competition is strongest among the elite—those closest to the dictator—because these are the persons who pose the greatest potential threat. Quite likely there is an atmosphere of suspicion and denunciation, as jockeying for power and favor takes place by detecting signs of disloyalty among his followers—or even just lack of enthusiasm. *

* A former student of mine, who had been a teenage girl at the time of the Red Guards movement in China, told me that the hardest thing about the omnipresent public demonstrations was keeping up the tone of fervent enthusiasm. It was dangerous not to; it could get you pilloried as one of the counter-revolutionaries. When I introduced this sociology student to Goffman’s concepts of frontstage and backstage, she immediately characterized the most onerous part of the Red Guards movement as the compulsion to express extreme emotions that one didn’t really feel--you were always on stage.

This is why we see such extreme expressions of grief at the dictator’s funeral—a time of most intense jockeying for power in the succession.

The succession crisis of dictators

Even when there is a family succession, a de facto hereditary dictatorship, there is tension. The oldest son does not necessarily succeed (Kim Jong Un was the third son of Kim Jong Il), since the father may weigh who is most competent at wielding power. Photos of father and heir show a distinctive pattern:


Here we see Kim Il-sung, founder of the North Korean regime, and his son Kim Jong Il. The son is mirroring the smile and body posture of his father, although older man looks confident and at ease, the son more tense. We see the same again in a photo of Kim Jong Il as dictator, with Kim Jong Un as heir apparent:

The following photo, taken in the last year of Kim Jong Il’s life, is revealing because of the elite audience watching the interaction between father and son.  Kim Jong Un is leaning deferentially towards his father, showing the uncertainty and touch of anxiety he often showed in his father’s presence.  Faces of the onlookers who can see both of them most clearly have a wary look. One man is pursing his lips to one side, giving a distorted look to his face (Ekman notes that an asymmetrical face, showing different expressions on different sides, is a sign of mixed or conflicting emotions.)  The onlookers don’t quite know who they should be mirroring here:

Why close is dangerous

In a dictatorship where loyalty is always suspect and must be constantly demonstrated, those nearest to power are the most dangerous. This was illustrated within two years of Kim Jong Un’s formal succession. His uncle, Jang Song-thaek, 40 years older than the young heir, acted as informal regent. The following picture, taken during that early period, suggests guarded suspicion between the two:

By September 2013, however, Kim Jong Un was leading the public smiles, and his uncle was following along:

By December 2013, the uncle was arrested, tried, and executed. Reportedly, he had plotted a coup. Or perhaps he just aroused suspicion, by not giving off the right emotional displays. Soon after, the rest of the uncle’s family apparently were executed too.

Since then, an older brother was killed.  And the dictator is back to smiling, surrounded by the wary, mirroring faces that characterize the dictatorship:

American tourists, too

The photo of American tourist Otto Warmbier being brought into court for sentencing in March 2016, after two months in captivity, closely resembles the photo above of Kim Jong Un's uncle Jang Song-thaek being led into the same court in 2013, just before he was executed.  In both cases, the arrestee shows the same posture: hopeless downcast eyes, body slumping in extreme depression. Undoubtedly they had been put under relentless psychological pressure to confess, and probably physical torture.

Their offenses, at least initially, were different: Jang Song-thaek was charged with staging a coup d'etat; Otto Warmbier with defacing or attempting to steal a government propaganda poster from his hotel just before he got on the plane. After Warmbier was released in a coma from which he never recovered, a North Korean official said his punishment was for trying to overthrow the regime.

Most likely, Otto Warmbier, acting like an American college student on vacation, was trying to collect a souvenir poster  (the way we used to take bullfight posters or beer coasters).  But youthful pranks are not recognized in the official culture of the North Korean dictatorship. Every expression is deadly serious in its consequence, and every individual is under suspicion.

In such regimes, there is no private life and no backstage fun and games.  Disrespecting a symbol is taken as an attack on the regime it symbolizes.  What can be done? That is a complicated political and military problem. It would be an enormous step for the regime to loosen up, just to allow a space for trivial matters.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Civil War Two, Part 1 by Randall Collins

Civil War Two, Part 1

by Randall Collins

Giveaway ends May 24, 2018.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway