Peaceful protesters

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Nick Montfort, "'Peaceful Protesters' but no 'Peaceful Police'", 6/7/2020:

About four million Google hits for “peaceful protesters,” only about 55,000 for “peaceful police.” Anyone who has been reading the news will have seen the phrase “peaceful protesters” again and again—and probably will not have seen this other phrase. Does that mean peaceful protesters outnumber peaceful police 80 to 1? Or at least that we think and speak as if this is the case? […]

The phenomenon here is that of markedness, having a default form and a marked form. “Actor” can be a generic term for anyone who acts, but “actress” is used only for the special, marked case—women. As Edwin L. Battistella discusses in The Logic of Markedness, there are exceptions: “male nurse” is the marked case for this profession, because of “the social fact that nurses are most commonly female.”

“Peaceful protesters” is the marked case. It’s understood implicitly that “protesters” are not generally peaceful.

So when the news media speaks or writes about “peaceful protesters,” they are using the marked case. It’s understood implicitly that “protesters” are not generally peaceful. The exceptional ones are the peaceful ones, like the small percentage of male nurses. This is quite evidently false, but doesn’t prevent journalists from using the phrase again and again.

Nick is right about the possible relevance of markedness. But cancelling default assumptions is only one of many reasons for choosing to use a modifier.

In the case of the phrase "peaceful protesters" in recent news reports, my guess would be that the conceptual framework is actually based on the logic of police reaction. If protests are violent, then a proportionate use of force by the police may be seen as justified. If the protests are peaceful, a violent police reaction is seen as wrong. And even in cases where there's no police violence, the context is one where the behavior of the protesters is seen as relevant — not because protestor violence is the default, but because the lack of police action needs an explanation, or because the writer is emphasizing the perceived cause of police restraint.

Let's look at  10 of the stories featuring the phrase "peaceful protestors" in the current Google News index:

[link] “Tear-gassing peaceful protestors without provocation just so that the President could pose for photos outside a church dishonors every value that faith teaches us,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., in a joint statement.

[link] In a massive show of force, federal law enforcement officers fired rubber bullets and chemical gas at peaceful protesters outside the White House on Monday evening as President Trump appeared in the Rose Garden to threaten the mobilization of “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers” to quell “lawlessness” across the country.

[link] Southport Police: Don’t bring your guns to town to confront peaceful protestors

[link] Tear gas used on peaceful protestors in Richmond

[link] Police Open Fire on Peaceful Protestors in Contra County City of Clayton

[link] OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – After a massive peaceful protest at 36th and Kelley last Sunday, smaller groups of peaceful protestors gathered in the area to make their voices heard.

[link] OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – After a massive peaceful protest at 36th and Kelley last Sunday, smaller groups of peaceful protestors gathered in the area to make their voices heard. Austin Mack organized a BBQ in the plaza as a way to get the community together. He says he was at the protests in Minneapolis, and every day, he would see people come together afterward and give out supplies to people who needed them. That’s what inspired him to organize the event. “It’s not really all about violence, [it’s] trying to bring everybody together,” Mack said. “Our people love BBQs. This is our culture. I think culture-wise then you gather around for healing, you gather around for peace, you gather around for love, there’s always food involved,” Deja Amerson, who was at the BBQ, said.

[link] Thousands of peaceful protesters marched Sunday evening through the streets of Boston, rallying against police brutality and calling for sweeping reforms to the law enforcement system following the death of George Floyd. […] Boston and military police followed the large crowd but things never got out of hand. […] Organizers said the event was intended as a peaceful one. Still, a large police presence, including military trucks, was seen along the route, with police from nearby communities on hand to assist the Boston Police Department. Officers were seen on motorcycles following the marchers, and on bicycles.

[link] Peaceful protestors fill Fayetteville courthouse square Friday / It was a protest rally for awareness, unity and solidarity. That mission was accomplished on June 5 in downtown Fayetteville. Peaceful throughout by design, the protest began at the county complex and moved to the old courthouse where the horns of endless vehicles honked in support of the group of more than 200.

[link] Police Shut Down City Without Warning, Rough Up Peaceful Protestors



  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 8, 2020 @ 10:18 am

    By the way, "violent protesters" gets 411,000 hits for me (compared to 3.5 million for "peaceful protesters"), so a supposed understanding that protesters aren't peaceful isn't enough to make "violent" unnecessary in all cases.

    Even more by the way, iWeb has 9169 hits for "protester" and 1610 for "protestor". AHD doesn't even list "protestor", but M-W has both spellings under "protest" (not under protest). This has not stopped me from writing "protestor" recently.

  2. Kristian said,

    June 8, 2020 @ 10:56 am

    Nick Montfort's logic baffles me. If there was a war and the media kept discussing "defenseless civilians" would that imply to him that the media think that civilians generally are not defenseless? Maybe he wants to reach a conclusion and developed his logic in order to reach it.

    The idea of police, like soldiers, implies that they are authorized (and expected) to exercise physical force in certain circumstances. It would seem odd to me to call soldiers "peaceful soldiers" when they aren't fighting and for a similar reason "peaceful police" sounds odd. It only makes sense when the police are being compared to someone else, like protestors in this case.

  3. DaveK said,

    June 8, 2020 @ 11:28 am

    I have seen “restrained police” and even “supportive police” in reference to protests, so maybe the equivalence isn’t exact. Maybe part of the issue is journalists’ tendency to use a single adjective to do the work of a descriptive clause.

  4. David L said,

    June 8, 2020 @ 11:40 am

    The question of 'markedness' surely depends on context. If a newspaper reported that "thousands of protesters assembled in Franklin Square and sang Amazing Grace," you would assume they were peaceful. But if you read that "police used tear gas and riot shields to push back against a throng of protesters" you would most likely assume the protesters were not peaceful, because, golly, we all know that the police would never use unnecessary force.

    So as Kristian and Dave K suggest, referring to 'peaceful protesters' is the journalists way of implying, without being excessively editorial, that force used against them was unnecessary.

    Now to the more important question: protesters or protestors? I prefer the former and the latter gets a red underscore but it seems to be favored by many writers.

  5. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 8, 2020 @ 3:41 pm

    "Actress" is a weird example to bring up. There might be more male actors than actresses out there, I don't know, but there's certainly no unbalance similar to that among nurses, still less a social expectation that thespians are male.

  6. Nick Montfort said,

    June 8, 2020 @ 4:39 pm

    I appreciate the response, Mark, of course more informed than when I wrote and focused more or less exclusively on markedness. I agree that my analysis was incomplete.

    Although my linguistic background is not the strongest, as I understand it the other important idea here is that "peaceful" is often simply being used because of its *salience,* its being relevant to the current discussion. That seems to be your point, Mark, as well as yours, David L? That may not be the same as emphasis, which I mentioned; Rather, it's what needs to be stated in context to make a distinction.

    Well, yes, I agree.

    To stray from linguistics a bit and into that context, I live two blocks away from Union Square in NYC and, in addition to watching livestreams of protests in Minneapolis, Washington D.C., and other places, I have been on the streets and in crowds of protesters here throughout the past several days.

    I have indeed seen damaged property in the area, obviously the result of some people — protesters, looters simply bent on criminal enrichment, possibly agitators of very different ideologies who seek to cause mayhem, etc. — who very intentionally sought to do damage.

    However, all of the actual protesting that I've personally observed has been peaceful. So while I now have a better understanding of why the news media use the term, from my standpoint, I still wouldn't usually need to a special adjective to indicate the sort of protest I have seen and participated in.

  7. Mark S. said,

    June 9, 2020 @ 3:59 am

    "A white horse is not a horse." (Báimǎ fēi mǎ / 白馬非馬)

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 9, 2020 @ 7:59 am

    "Nonviolent resistance" is a stock phrase traditionally associated w/ Gandhi and/or King. I'm doubt it should be taken to imply (by being marked) that "resistance" is violent-unless-otherwise-specified. Perhaps there's an implicature that resistance can come in various flavors and modes and it's often salient to know which one is under discussion. Or perhaps the emphasis is that sometimes under some circumstances resistance can easily and somewhat naturally shift from nonviolent to violent, and specified-as-nonviolent resistance (as a deliberately-chosen strategy) is self-consciously trying to avoid being drawn in by the dynamics that result in that shift?

    I'm not even sure (one would have to do some corpus linguistics work and/or interview native-speaker informants) exactly what "peaceful" means in the "peaceful protesters" context, i.e. what has to happen before it's no longer peaceful. I assume that rock-throwing and setting things on fire are inconsistent with peacefulness, but maybe various sorts of disruptive-to-others behavior (blocking traffic w/o a permit, blocking access to a public building or business that various neutral parties may have a legitimate need to want to access, spraypainting graffiti) are not inconsistent with the "peaceful" frame even if they might be unlawful and in principle justify some sort of enforcement action by police?

  9. D.O. said,

    June 9, 2020 @ 8:23 am

    "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

  10. Rose Eneri said,

    June 9, 2020 @ 8:28 am

    I thought that, aside from the obvious editorializing of some writers/speakers, the use of "peaceful" was intended to make a clear distinction from the many violent protests also happening. Of course, "peaceful" entails obeying laws and police commands. So if protesters are otherwise peaceful, but then refuse to obey a police command to say, clear a path, at that time peaceful protest ends.

    IMHO, it would be better if we all used more precise words to describe the recent unrest, such as:

    rally for, or in support of, or in memory of (rally for Mr. Floyd and his family); and

    protest against (protest against police brutality).

    These are distinct from rioting and vandalizing which are not against anything and are for only the benefit of those doing the rioting/vandalizing.

  11. wanda said,

    June 10, 2020 @ 2:14 am

    I do not think "peaceful" entails "following all commands of the police." For example, there have been situations of "kettling" where police surround a bunch of protesters from all sides, order them to disperse, and then physically prevent them from dispersing. In that case, the protesters are unable to follow the commands of the police, even if they wanted to.
    Aside from that, even, you can peacefully disobey an order. I went to a protest where the police decided, for some reason, that the peaceful march should end at some arbitrary street in the city, and they had gathered a whole block-ful of cops in riot gear there. In that protest, both sides stayed peaceful. But a friend asked a cop, "What will happen if I cross this line?" and he replied immediately, "You will get hurt." I got the impression that even if we had peacefully turned and tried to continue marching up a parallel street (city is a grid), those riot cops would have been set on us. Same goes for curfews. How can a group of people be peacefully protesting one minute and the next minute not, if they are behaving the same? I think peacefully means exactly that- their actions are not harming anyone or destroying any property. And sometimes the cops make such actions unlawful, but that is different from peaceful.

  12. Dave said,

    June 10, 2020 @ 6:16 am

    How about: "peaceful protesters" is already an epithet, and we're just suffering from the recency illusion, because it has hitherto bee n used in wire stories about demonstrations occurring in otherwise non-newsworthy corrupt banana republics.

    (one might attempt to compare body to headline usage of "peaceful protester" to evalutate this hypothesis)

  13. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    June 11, 2020 @ 6:40 pm

    “Actor” is also a poor example of markedness, because it is used in police reports to refer to suspects, I.e. “bad actors.” The language seeps into news reports, too, unfortunately. For the record, females who are suspected of criminal behavior are not called actresses.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    June 12, 2020 @ 5:26 am

    I think that your "persons who perform bad [criminal] acts are sometimes called bad actors" must be restricted to <Am.E>, Barbara — I have never encountered that usage in <Br.E>. But the Guardian's insistence on referring to actresses as "actors" continues to drive me insane …

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 12, 2020 @ 4:05 pm

    Perhaps that sense of "bad actor" (i.e. not referencing someone who performs on stage but isn't very good at it) is restricted to AmEng but it's not very new. I was curious so I dipped into the google books corpus and found an instance from 1932 U.S. Congressional hearings investigating sharp practices among traders on the New York Stock Exchange and found an instance there. (Not saying that's the earliest, just that that was early enough to satisfy me that it was not a particularly recently-arisen idiom.) Perhaps the more interesting question is how the potentially very broad-scope noun "actor" ("person who performs an action") developed such that its primary sense was "male person who performs in stage or film theatrics pretending to be someone else."

  16. Gregory P Kusnick said,

    June 12, 2020 @ 5:47 pm

    "Actor" still means "one who acts"; it's just that "act" itself has both a broad meaning (to perform an action) and a narrow one (to perform in stage or film theatrics). Nor is pretending to be someone else a necessary part of the latter meaning; many actors have played themselves in films or on stage, but that doesn't mean they weren't acting (in the narrow sense) when they did so.

  17. Andrew Usher said,

    June 12, 2020 @ 7:23 pm

    And as only the narrow sense has the feminine form 'actress', the broad sense is irrelevant. (Agent nouns are _normally_ non-gendered in English, and that need no explanation.)

    I would still say playing oneself as an actor can be considered 'pretending to be someone else', with the 'someone else' being oneself in another place or time.

    Question: Do 'pretend' and its derivatives have a default implication of deception? I think they do, outside the context of play.

    On the topic, I'd note that both peaceful and protester can be politically loaded terms, in the "one man's terrorist is another's freedom-fighter" sense. But as a journalist's term of art, which I think it is here, it just means someone participating is a non-violent protest.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  18. Shannon said,

    June 13, 2020 @ 8:53 pm

    Count me in as another person who doesn't intuitively feel that particular to the term protestors, "peaceful" is marked and the default assumption is violence. I see more of a symmetry between "peaceful" and "violent" in that I don't have a prior assumption about what a protest is like if you only said "protest" without modifier, forming an image in my head only after either of the two adjectives are applied. But that's maybe just me.

    Like Kristian said for "defenseless civilian" , there are many cases where the supposedly "default" or unmarked form is described with an adjective for emphasis, like devoted or caring parents (most parents are not assumed to be undevoted or uncaring), or "large crowd" (small crowd would be in fact the marked form, to emphasize that you expected the crowd to be bigger)".

    How would you use frequency of seeing a modifier in popular usage to gauge markedness in these cases? If you found "large crowd" used much more often than "small crowd", how can you tell if that's because most crowds are deemed crowds only if large, and thus the term "large crowd" will be used for emphasis and show up more often numerically even if many people use the word "crowd" unmodified, and then "small crowd" if unmarked will be rarely used, even if highly marked as unusual or not-the-norm. In some cases, the modifier is used more commonly because of how expected it is, in other cases, because of how unexpected it is. How do you then disentangle that?

    Also, like David L says I do think markedness is highly contextual and highly dependent on people's life experiences. Just like unmarked nurse might be perceived as more female by those of an older generation versus younger, or by those with more life experience with male nurse colleagues. Or like how an unmarked "American" may be a white male American heartlander for some, but have no such implication for say someone born and bred in an ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood in LA.

    Likewise, I'm wondering if seeing peaceful protesters as marked reveals an expectation of, and thus experience with plenty of non-peaceful protests (perhaps in say older people who've experienced the more violent riots of the 60s and others in the 20th century in the US, or journalists with long experience covering dangerous and violent protests abroad). Someone who's been through life only experiencing and seeing peaceful protests (e.g. March for Science, Women's March) their whole life may feel differently.

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