The Chances of Violence & the U.S. Election: Lessons from Emile Bruneau and Reading Intentions


I learned a few days ago that Emile Bruneau had passed away. I did not know Dr. Bruneau personally, but I knew of his work in conflict resolution. I previously referred to some of his research in a post on dangerous speech and dehumanization. It is also clear from the tributes to him on social media that in addition to his valuable research, the world has lost a really wonderful human being.

Having lost my own brother as a young adult, premature deaths like Dr. Bruneau’s (or Chadwick Boseman’s) resonate with me. They remind me of how fragile our lives are. His wife shared something that Dr. Bruneau wrote that made me a little emotional, both for its bravery and optimism in the face of something as potentially terrifying as one’s impending mortality, and because it reminded me of something that occurred to me too when I contemplated my brother’s death: that a part of us really does live on in the minds of others. He wrote:

“I just had a thought: I learned in physics that our physical mass never actually touches another – the outer electrons of each repel, giving us the illusion of touch. As a neuroscientist, I learned that our brains don’t really see the world, they just interpret it. So losing my body is not really a loss after all! What I am to you is really a reflection of your own mind. I am, and always was, there, in you.”

I’d like to share a few more of his words, to help keep his image reflecting in my mind, and perhaps yours as well. Not just for the sake of sharing, but because he really did have some important things to say.

His passing seems doubly tragic, because it comes at a time when his expertise on conflict resolution is needed. In this brief video below from two years ago, he discussed the ways Americans on the political left and right perceive each other and the importance of how people miscalculating others’ intentions:

“I’ve also become really interested in making conflicts and the ideological conflict that we have right now in our country between Democrats and Republicans, between left and right. I think it shares a lot of the hallmarks that I saw there (in his previous research in various places). So, one of them is there’s the groups are always inferring what’s in the other group’s mind, how they’re thinking about us. And that often drives the animosity towards the other side. And you can see this remarkable disconnect because oftentimes what you think the other group is thinking about you is either completely wrong or at the very least dramatically exaggerated from what you think it is. And there’s a lot of research to show this is the case. We even have a false polarization effect that we think that the other group and our group are far more apart from each other on any given issue that they actually are.”

By coincidence, it occurred to me how important this element of inferring intentions is while reading Mike Giglio’s article on right-leaning militias in The Atlantic today. One part from the lengthy article that speaks to Dr. Bruneau’s comments above were these comments by Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers:

His comments became more inflammatory as he began to warn about antifa and protesters. “They are insurrectionists, and we have to suppress that insurrection,” he said. “Eventually they’re going to be using IEDs.”

“Us old vets and younger ones are going to end up having to kill these young kids,” he concluded. “And they’re going to die believing they were fighting Nazis.”

The parts are all there. Rhodes is predicting the intentions and future behavior of his perceived opponents (his outgroup), and that they will become increasingly violent. He also infers what members of his outgroup think about him and his supporters, adding that they read him incorrectly (false polarization). To summarize, we think we know what is going on in the minds of others, when we often do not. And those predictions can sometimes have tragic outcomes.

I don’t mean to imply that there are no malevolent actors, and that all disagreements or political violence are just simple misunderstandings. Some men just want to watch the world burn. But I believe the vast majority do not. As I wrote before in The Wrong Kind of Violence, most people arrive at the decision to use violence after some mental journey that has concluded that it is a regrettable necessity. Someone else has forced their hand, either out of self-defense, pre-emption (based on the idea that we can correctly infer others’ intentions), or because others’ behavior was too far out of sync with moral standards. Their violence is aggression. Our violence is noble. Somehow, our violence is always morally justifiable. As the biologist Robert Sapolsky wrote: “We don’t hate violence. We hate and fear the wrong kind of violence, violence in the wrong context. Because violence in the right context is different.”

 

As we approach the US presidential election, tensions have mounted over time. There are many signs that the potential for widespread violence exists. They may not be high, but they are not zero either. I’ll be honest: I do worry. And I have tried to dissuade people from going down that path more than once, though who knows if anything I wrote had any effect at all. Do I presume to understand the intentions of everyone involved? Nope, not really. But I think that’s the point. I don’t want to speak for Emile Bruneau, but I think he would say that what we infer is in the other groups’ minds is just as important as what they truly believe. And round and round we go, adjusting our intentions to theirs and then back again. I know that you know that I know that you know that that is a dialogue between Confucius and Chuang Tzu. Or maybe we don’t know. 

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