Feb 16, 2009

vigilantism as "establishment violence"

Vigilante Politics by H. Jon Rosenbaum and Peter C. Sederberg, is the first chapter in , a landmark 1976 study of the nature, causes, and consequences of vigilantism. It is a valuable resource for LDers considering the March/April resolution.

The first chapter, "Vigilantism: An Analysis of Establishment Violence," is by the editors, and lays out the grounds for the analysis of vigilantism, or, in their terms, "establishment violence." Here are some of the high points.

Unlike revolutionary violence or criminal deviance, vigilantism is fundamentally about preserving the status quo.
The potential for establishment violence is directly related to the degree to which those who have a vested interest in the status quo feel that the formal institutions of boundary maintenance are ineffective in protecting their interests. Essentially, it is a conservative phenomenon.
What does this mean for evaluating vigilantism? Two things.
Ultimately, therefore, an evaluation of vigilantism must be grounded in judgments as to the value of the social order being conserved."
This is an interesting approach for the Negative to take: an argument that vigilantism is worthless in the absence of a legitimate government. If the affirmative merely presumes that the law is just and good and that government is legitimate, we are not yet at the point where we can affirm.

If the affirmative doesn't bite, though, and has set up a social contract framework that withstands this line of attack, the negative can go for an empirical or risk-based approach.
Secondarily, however, one might ask if vigilantism is an efficacious strategy for stabilizing a sociopolitical order and, if so, under what conditions.
Regarding the second point, there are two critical features of vigilantism: it is "negative," in the sense that its goal is to suppress threats to the status quo, and it is ad hoc, arising in response to need on a case-by-case basis.

The authors note, "In general, vigilantism may be initially eufunctional for the stabilization process; but it tends to be dysfunctional over the long run." Why? "[I]t cannot replace formal political institutions and, indeed, it is probably antithetical to their growth."

The costs, long-term, outweigh the benefits.
The potential costs of crime-control vigilantism are obvious: establishment violence can rapidly become worse than the crime itself. Punishments tend to be disproportionate; the innocent have little protection; and quasi-criminal elements are attracted to the movement as a semilegitimate avenue for the expression of their antisocial tendencies. In addition, when law enforcement officials participate in the acts of violence, whatever moral validity the formal system of laws retained may be undermined.
Last, a point that squares with the way the resolution is written:
As an analytical concept, [establishment violence] assumes that there is a recognized sociopolitical order with formalized rules and methods of maintaining its boundaries over time. According to this model one cannot speak of vigilantism where there is no recognized 'establishment,' where conditions of internal war exist, or where there are no rules governing the application of coercion.
This may be important in cases where the affirmative is trying to justify vigilantism in times of anarchy--that the phrase "has failed to enforce the law" represents a massive failure rather than local or situational failure.

Added: I forgot to mention that, quite importantly, the authors distinguish three types of vigilantism: crime-control, social-group-control, and regime-control. Groups such as the KKK would fit into the second category, and, as such, are arguably nonresolutional, although the negative might try to lump them in as a potential risk of legitimizing vigilantism in a society.

The entire article is worth reading, if you can find a copy. If you have any questions or thoughts, share them in the comments.


Jeff Trapp said...

You state that an affirmative could use Social Contract theory to defend against this line of attack, could you explain, please?

Jim Anderson said...

I don't think it's easily done, but it would go something like this: the resolution refers to a potential breakdown in the rule of law, a gross violation of the social contract, not just one minor incident. Thus, if the government is not fulfilling its obligation to provide security, it doesn't matter whether "the law" is just; criminals run amok, rights are endangered, and thus individuals have a right to protect themselves. (The key is to define the phrase "the law" as broadly as possible.)

Claire said...


Really? I thought that was the strongest point for the aff: there is basically a state of nature in which your rights are inherently in danger. Criminals are running amok, there is no law enforcement, etc. And I interpreted the words "the law" as basically 'the law of the land, which would imply that no laws are being enforced as opposed to just one of the laws.

Soda said...

I'm little confused about this line of neg argumentation. Basically what you're saying is that vigilantism supports the status quo, and prevents it from changing and developing?

erickishott said...

Yeah, I'm a little confused too.

"If the affirmative merely presumes that the law is just and good and that government is legitimate, we are not yet at the point where we can affirm." I don't really get what you mean.

How would you warrant the status quo as "bad" per say? And what Value/Criterion would you use?

erickishott said...

Wait, I think I get it. Since the government is not enforcing the law, it is failing and we need a social movement to change it, but vigilantism prevents that. Is that it?

Jim Anderson said...

That's one way of looking at it, erick.

Soda said...

Wait, but that doesn't seem like it would stand on its own. First you would have to warrant that the government failing to enforce the law means that the laws need reform, and that doesn't seem to connect at all. The only status quo I can see vigilante preserving are the current laws and regulations of the society. I feel like I'm missing some large and very significant chunk of information here...

Jim Anderson said...

soda, I think the argument works much better for the Negative--since we can't be certain that the government in the Affirmative world is actually worth preserving, and since that's the point of vigilantism, then we can't justify it.