“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”

~ Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour

As long as people have used violence against one another, their leaders have tried to portray their cause as legitimate before the court of public opinion. American wars begin with presidential addresses on the righteousness of the cause. Palestinian and Israeli leaders present their dueling narratives before the United Nations. Television crews filmed war criminal Ratko Mladic handing out sweets to children during the Bosnian war as his soldiers bussed their fathers to killing fields.

But what convinces people to side with one group rather than the other?

The two sides of a polemic like the Northern Ireland conflict debate historical claims incessantly. But outsiders more often choose a side based on emotional appeals.

A study by Dr. Elanor Kamans and fellow researchers at the University of Groningen suggests that the success of emotional appeals depends on whether each side’s rhetoric fits their status as either the stronger or weaker party.

Take a fictional example from an episode of the The West Wing. The president expresses to his physician – a military doctor – his discomfort with the use of violence. At the end of the episode, however, his chief of staff informs him that his doctor died en route to a teaching hospital in the Middle East when Syria shot down his military plane. As the show’s inspiring soundtrack begins, the president orders his generals to “blow [the Syrians] off the face of the Earth with the fury of God’s own thunder.”

The authors suggest that this righteous anger is most successful at justifying the violence of the powerful. The stronger party needs to claim the moral high ground, so anger indicates that a wrong has been committed and that its perpetrator should be held responsible.

Past research has shown that outsiders are more forgiving of the use of violence by weaker groups as outsiders sympathize with the “underdog.” So, in contrast, the authors theorize that powerless groups best win over the public by portraying their actions as those of victims done out of fear.

Take the example of Syria. While President Assad’s rhetoric of protecting Syrians is dismissed as manipulative, the rebels’ self-defense claims are viewed as authentic. The researchers point to past work suggesting that people dehumanize or distrust people or groups that fail to conform to expectations. Emotional appeals can be a powerful tool for political leaders to garner support, but if they don’t meet outsiders’ expectations – righteous anger from the powerful; fear and victimhood from the weak – then the public may assume that the rhetoric is insincere.

Take this example of how a New York Times article wrote about a Syrian rebel:

Abu Moayed said the battalion had captured about 35 government soldiers and militiamen and executed 10 after the authorities refused a prisoner exchange. He said he shot three, two Sunnis and an Alawite, who were implicated in killing hundreds. “Don’t ask the reason,” he said. “It’s not vengeance — it’s our right.” But he admitted he acted from anger after the government killed two of his uncles, Khalid and Jamil al-Khatib.

The tone of the writing suggests that Abu Moayed’s actions are legitimate if motivated by fear and a desire to protect, but not if he acts out of anger.

To test their theory that outsiders’ support depends on whether emotional appeals fit with these expectations, the research team recruited university students to read about a longstanding, violent conflict over fertile land and cattle between two tribes in Ethiopia – the Suri and the Nyangatom.

The study participants read a real BBC script about the conflict and an attack by the Nyangatom on the Suri. Although it resulted in no casualties, the Nyangatom stole 60 cattle. The Suri then mounted a counter raid that killed 20 Nyangatom and stole 150 cattle.

However, the researchers tweaked the text. Some participants read that the Suri controlled more land and weapons, while others read that the Suri were weaker than the Nyangatom. To simulate the effects of different rhetoric and motivations, the study also either described the Suri as feeling and expressing fear or anger toward the Nyangatom.

The experimenters encouraged participants to think about the role of a third party like the United Nations and asked to what extent the Suri counter raid was legitimate and justified. The study also measured the participants’ sympathy for the Suri – and the perceived morality of the tribe – before and after the counter raid.

Underdogs and Incumbents

The strongest result was that the students rated the counter raid as much more legitimate when the Suri were the weaker group rather than the powerful. This supports the “underdog hypothesis” – the idea that the public views violence committed by a weaker group as more justifiable.

But motivation mattered too. Participants who read that the Suri was the more powerful group perceived the tribe as more moral and considered the counterattack more legitimate when motivated by anger than by fear. When the Suri was the weaker party, acting out of fear garnered more sympathy and bolstered its legitimacy.

A second study replicated the first, but described the Suri as fighting to defend its cattle rather than launching a counterattack. It also asked participants about their belief in a just world, how moved they were by the story, and whether they viewed the news reports as trustworthy. The results mirrored that of the first study.

This allowed the authors to rule out alternative explanations for their result. It also showed that the type of violence (a counterattack rather than self-defense) was less important than the power dynamic between the two groups and their reasons for fighting. Angry rhetoric from a powerful party tends to bolster its legitimacy by staking out the moral high ground. Fearful rhetoric from the weaker party bolsters outsiders’ natural sympathy for the underdog.

In a conflict with a large power disparity, the weaker group seems to hold an advantage when courting world opinion. But it’s a short lived advantage. Using violence jars with our images of sympathetic victims. By measuring whether participants viewed the Suri as sympathetic and/or moral before and after their counter raid, the authors found that participants’ sympathy for the weak Suri decreased after the raid. But participants who read about the Suri as the stronger group did not change their opinion of its morality based on the use of violence.

Dr. Kamans and her co-authors concluded that the weak’s justification of violence based on their status as victims is more persuasive than a powerful group’s rhetoric, but also more fragile. Over time, powerful groups pay no penalty for the use of violence while weaker groups’ status as victims is steadily undermined by the use of violence. This helps explain why nonviolence is so powerful – if public opinion can be counted on to settle a conflict.

Everyone loves an underdog, but war favors the strong. Even when it comes to the battle for public opinion.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.