“Peaceful Protesters” but no “Peaceful Police”

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?

Linguistics does not support this conclusion. In her 1949 book The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir gave us the basis for understanding how maleness is the norm in society and language. 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.

Amirite? Let’s check to see approximately how many Google search results there are for “violent protesters.” In my filter bubble, and admitting that these searches cover all English-language discussion of all protesters globally and historically, it’s 445,000 results, a tiny sliver compared to the “peaceful” ones.

I admit that there are other reasons people would use an adjective such as “peaceful.” It can be used for emphasis rather than to indicate the marked case. But if that’s what’s going on, that’s a huge amount of emphasis. And, I would expect such emphasis to often be accompanied by some sort of marker, an adverb such as “just” or “only” or something along those lines, which I seldom see in recent news.

Now, if you don’t buy my argument about markedness and that think “peaceful” and “violent” just represent how many protesters we think are peaceful and how many we think are violent, this still makes no sense at all. Watch the videos. Watch the livestreams. If you can, go out on the streets. One in ten protesters are not violent in any objective sense.

If you do agree that “peaceful protesters” is being used as the marked case, as if these protesters were in a slim minority, that is an extraordinary and bizarre confusion, truly unhinged from reality.

Why not just call the great mass of so-called peaceful protesters “protesters,” explaining—if for some reason it needs to be explained—that we are lawfully exercising our rights to speak and assemble?

3 Replies to ““Peaceful Protesters” but no “Peaceful Police””

  1. On Language Log, Mark Liberman makes a good point: The modifier “peaceful” could be employed not (only) because of markedness, or even emphasis, but because

    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.

  2. “One in ten protesters are not violent in any objective sense.” typo? It’s more like 99 out of 100.

  3. I was referring to the approximately 10x as many Google search results for “peaceful protesters” as opposed to “violent protesters.” I agree that (at least) 99 of 100 of peaceful. I’dd be glad to know how I can write more clearly here.

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