In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, people gathered in cities across the United States, demanding justice. Most were law-abiding, peaceful protesters, who marched, sang, joined hands, knelt or held signs—but others blocked traffic, broke windows, set fires, took merchandise from stores or attacked police officers. Were we seeing riots? Given how politically polarized the country is, it’s unsurprising that people disagreed on how to respond to what was happening—but what is remarkable is that they couldn’t even agree on what to call it.
Political polarization leads people to confuse description and explanation with evaluation and activism. Moral and political commitments can lead to inconsistent terminology—perhaps especially when we talk about violence. Those who want to side with the people engaging in violence often emphasize their cause and downplay the violence. When they approve of a cause, they may be reluctant to see the actions of those pursuing it as violent, or they may see them as less extreme forms of violence than they are. Those focused on condemning the actions may do the opposite. Either way, people might label two very similar behaviors differently, depending on who is engaging in them and why.
As the saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. For many people terms like terrorism have moral significance. This is true even when everyone involved is willing to acknowledge that violence occurred and that it was criminal and immoral. In recent years, shooting rampages have resulted in calls to label the acts terrorism and to condemn those who refuse to do so. Thus, after a white nationalist shot dozens of African American worshippers at a South Carolina church, a headline in the New York Times declared “Many Ask, Why Not Call Church Shooting Terrorism?” Following a mass shooting by Islamic radicals in California, a Time article noted that President Obama was initially cautious about labeling the event terrorism, while his Republican opponents were quick to do so and to criticize the president’s hesitation. Whether people want an act of violence to be called terrorism seems to be as dependent on how much they’re concerned about white racism or radical Islam as on the characteristics of the act itself. The same goes for violence inflicted by the left-wing radical group Antifa, by the police against black citizens and so forth. Often, calling for something to be classified as terrorism is a way of demonstrating the depth of one’s concern, fear or condemnation.
This is true of other forms of violence, too. Because the word genocide has political and legal significance, people’s arguments over what counts as genocide are sometimes more evaluative than descriptive. There are arguments like this even over one of the major cases of genocide—the killing of Armenians in 1915—which the Turkish government, anxious to avoid denouncing the Turks who orchestrated it, denies is a genocide. Others apply the label broadly, as a way of denouncing behavior they see as immoral. For example, we were once on a conference panel where an audience member argued that the killing of nonhuman animals for food should be called genocide.
It’s therefore no surprise that we’re currently seeing disagreement over what to call rioting. Some in the media seem hesitant to describe property destruction, arson and violence as rioting, or at least hesitant to call attention to it, as when an MSNBC anchor, standing in front of building that had been set on fire, reported, “This is mostly a protest. It is not generally speaking unruly.” Others, like Daniel King at Mother Jones, have argued explicitly against using terms like rioters and rioting. In an article accompanied by a picture of a burning Arby’s building, Jones complains about newspapers using these terms, which he says are “coded language” and “tropes historically used to single out and vilify communities of color protesting police brutality.” Sociologist Frank Furedi points out that others have even argued against calling the behaviors violence, and he sees this as part of a “vocabulary of evasion” used “to try to sanitise the current upheaval and deny that it is violent.”
On the other side are those who use the terms riots and rioters, but who seem to be doing so primarily as condemnation rather than description. Criminologist Barry Latzer, for example, writing in the Wall Street Journal, is correct that the arsonists, looters and those who attack police officers are engaging in rioting. But, in arguing that they aren’t protesters, he denies that they’re motivated by the same cause as the peaceful protesters. For them, he says, George Floyd’s death is a “pretext for hooliganism.”
Disagreement over how to use terms like genocide, terrorism and rioting is partly due to an absence of shared definitions. In daily life, we rarely define terms. We learn to use them based on how others typically use them, developing implicit definitions that we rarely need to make explicit. Instead, we trust others to have similar understandings. Most of the time, these understandings are indeed similar enough to make ourselves understood. But, sometimes, we differ, and miscommunications occur when our definitions differ more than we realize.
These disagreements are also due to the moralistic use of otherwise descriptive terms. This is also common in everyday language, and becomes a problem not only whenever people differ in their implicit understandings of the words they’re using, but also when they differ in their ideas about right and wrong. Outside of small, homogeneous groups, then, if we’re going to communicate effectively, we need clear definitions, and we need to make it clear when we’re using words to describe something that’s happened and when we’re using them to evaluate it.
That’s why it’s important for social scientists to explicitly define their terms and to avoid using them as terms of approval or disapproval. We’re sociologists, and when we’ve taught research methods to our undergraduate sociology students, we’ve always taught them the importance of having clear definitions for each concept used in a sociological theory or research study.
Whether we’re talking about terrorism, genocide, rioting, some other form of violence or some other kinds of behavior entirely, we need to have clear definitions that allow us to classify similar behaviors consistently, regardless of whether we approve or disapprove of the cause that gave rise to these behaviors, whether we approve or disapprove of those involved, and whether we approve or disapprove of the behaviors themselves. To call something a riot, then, needn’t be a way of taking sides in some larger conflict: it can just be a way of communicating what’s happening. Historian Roberta Senechal de la Roche, for example, defines a riot as a kind of one-sided violence by fairly disorganized groups. Most riots are rooted in social conflict—sparked by some sort of grievance—and she further specifies that riots occur when those disorganized groups inflict violence using collective liability—that is, when the rioters are attacking people or destroying their property without regard to whether they as individuals had anything to do with whatever conduct the rioters are angry about.
Senechal de la Roche defines this behavior objectively. Even though rioters have grievances they’re responding to, whether they’re rioting has nothing to do with whether or not you sympathize with their cause. In the early twentieth century, whites rioted against African Americans in a number of American cities. In Springfield, Illinois in 1908, whites destroyed black-owned businesses and homes, killed two black men and injured many others, after one black man was accused of killing a white man and a second was accused of raping a white woman. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, African Americans rioted in cities throughout the United States. That the earlier riots furthered the oppression of African Americans and the later ones protested it, or that we are more sympathetic to the latter cause than the former, doesn’t mean that they weren’t both riots. It’s also clear that much of what’s happened recently is rioting. As in other cases of rioting, property destruction and arson are more common than more serious acts of violence, and, as in other cases, there are many other behaviors occurring alongside the riots. Most people who’ve gone out to protest police violence haven’t rioted, but it doesn’t help these protesters to deny the rioting.
Using consistent definitions that enable us to see the common features of events we may evaluate differently helps us to compare present and past events, to compare and contrast them with other forms of behavior, and better understand and explain them. It can be difficult for people to put aside the moral connotations they’ve attached to words and stick to clear definitions for the purposes of discussion, but we think it’s worth trying.
We think it’s worth it even for those who aren’t social scientists or journalists—even for those who aren’t focused on description and explanation. Clear communication can aid us in our moral thinking. It can clear up moral confusion. Sociologist Max Weber famously concluded that social science couldn’t answer the most important question of all: how should we live? But that didn’t mean it is worthless to those attempting to answer that question for themselves. Social science, Weber argued, can provide clarity in moral debates. It can help us clear up the facts and better understand the consequences of our actions and policies. Even when we’re pursuing justice, rather than doing social science, we can strive to communicate clearly and use our definitions consistently, rather than as a form of partisanship. This would help us to avoid confusion as we talk to one another about rioting and protests. It would help us distinguish, for example, between agreeing with a cause and agreeing with a particular way of pursuing it. This isn’t going to make us all agree with one another on everything, but it might help depolarize things. It might help us better understand the positions of those we disagree with, and it might help us better understand our own.