The Man Behind the Riots

by Arthur L. Herman

British prime minister David Cameron has said he wants to get advice from authorities in the United States on how to deal with runaway mob violence. He’d better be careful what he wishes. It was an American — a Yale social psychologist — who triggered a major and disastrous shift in the way we look at crime and urban violence, which we’ve been living with ever since, and which has left us, like the British today, largely disarmed in dealing with our own worst enemies.

His name was John Dollard. Although largely forgotten now, Professor Dollard was one of the most influential social thinkers of the past century and the first to introduce the theories of Sigmund Freud to American social science. Together with psychologist Edward Miller, Dollard published in 1939 a book called Frustration and Aggression, which argued that frustration is “the state that emerges when circumstances interfere” with getting what people believe is rightfully theirs, and that this frustration often turns to aggression and violence. They further argued that the bigger a person’s expectations of achieving his goals, the more aggressive he becomes when he doesn’t achieve them. Psychologists Barker, Dembo, and Lewin claimed to find support for the Dollard thesis with experiments they did with children in 1941 by placing toys behind a wire screen tantalizingly out of reach. When the kids were finally allowed to play them, Barker, Dembo, and Lewin found the children’s play turned violent. Frustration had spawned aggression, just as Dollard and Miller had argued.

Now, applied to children and toys, the frustration/aggression theory seems plausible. But applied to adults, criminals, and entire social groups, Dollard and his colleagues in effect infantilized human motives — and threw out the notion of individual moral responsibility. If people turn violent and smash windows or someone’s face, Dollard was saying, it’s not really their fault. They can’t help it; they’re feeling frustrated. Punishing people for their aggression in hopes they will learn a lesson, is doomed to fail. The best way to prevent violence is to give them what they want from the start.

This was a formula for social disaster, but in the Fifties and Sixties, activists eagerly seized on Dollard’s thesis. Everywhere there were Americans whose desires and goals were being denied by society (e.g., the poor, minorities). Unless they got justice, their frustration was bound to turn to violence — “the fire next time,” as black novelist James Baldwin put it. And when violence did erupt, first in Watts in 1965 and later in American cities like Detroit and the nation’s capital, it seemed to show that Baldwin and Dollard were right.

Americans who hadn’t gone to Yale — including those serving in police departments around the country — saw things differently. The rioters were criminals pure and simple, and deserved any punishment they got. But when the official Kerner Commission in 1968 in effect bowed to Dollard’s thesis by excusing black violence and blaming the riots on the frustrations and “unresolved grievances” left by racism and poverty, a turning point was reached in liberal social policy. From then on, outbreaks of mass violence were signs that something was seriously wrong — not with those burning cars and shooting policemen and firemen, but with the society that had somehow triggered such frustration and violence. And if the larger society struck back, it would only lead to more frustration and more violence. Demands for “law and order” was not only racist, but self-defeating. Social programs aimed at heading off the grievances at the pass, were the only answer.

So the formula was simple. If you were black and rioted, then it was the white man’s fault. If you were poor and smashed windows to steal TVs, then the “haves” were to blame for not giving you the TV in the first place. If you were young and tore your college campus apart, it was your elders’ fault — just as the flash mob is Facebook and Twitter’s fault. The moral responsibility for crime and violence now shifted from the rioter to his or her victims, who stood for those who blocked gratification of their goals — worthy or unworthy, it didn’t matter.

That was a major problem with the Dollard thesis. As long as one felt aggrieved, then the violence became psychologically understandable. “What about the violence of the Ku Klux Klan,” a skeptical Daniel Patrick Moynihan later asked. “They had been frustrated, too.” Or the Nazis when they overran Freud’s Vienna in 1938 and rounded up the city’s Jews. They believed the Jews had blocked their happiness and the destiny of the Aryan race. From the Dollard perspective, they weren’t really responsible for their actions any more than the Palestinian who sets off a bomb in a Tel Aviv café or the Brixton hooligan who beats his victim senseless.

So now we come to the riots in London. Although John Dollard died in 1980, he is already there. On one hand, we have a government deeply cautious about “overreacting,” and carefully weighing “drastic” steps like baton rounds and water cannon to try to restore order. On the other, we have liberals almost united in explaining away the bloodshed by saying that people are angry. One 53-year-old woman defended the rioters to someone at the Daily Telegraph by saying, “They’re making their presence known because people are unhappy.”

So they should be. Liberal social policy has stripped away their moral autonomy and identity, in addition to leaving the rest of us helpless to forthrightly protect ourselves.

And they didn’t even get to go to Yale.