• Mark Alfano

Reactionary Attitudes: Discourse Surrounding the Black Lives Matter Movement on Twitter

On 25 May 2020, Officer Derek Chauvin asphyxiated George Floyd in Minneapolis — a murder that was captured in a confronting nine-minute bystander video that set off a firestorm of activity on online social networks, in the streets of the United States, and worldwide. These protests captured the collective rage, dissatisfaction, and resentment personally and vicariously experienced towards the widespread systematic injustice and mistreatment of African Americans by police, vigilantes, and courts. The scale of these protests, both online and in the streets, has been estimated to have exceeded the civil rights marches of the 1960s (Buchanan et al. 2020). In ongoing work, my team has analyzed the intergroup dynamics surrounding these protests on Twitter. We employ natural language processing and semantic network visualization to shed light on the attitudes expressed by different groups, using and expanding the reactive attitudes framework introduced by Peter Strawson (1962), which has been highly influential in moral philosophy and theorizing about responsibility in recent decades.

Strawson details three key reactive attitudes that individuals are prone to: resentment, indignation, and guilt. Resentment is a reactive attitude experienced by the offended party towards the offender in response to injury or indifference. It can signify that moral wrong-doing has occurred and motivates the offending party to recognise the harm they have caused. Next, Strawson proposes the core reactive attitude of indignation, which is a vicarious moral sentiment experienced on behalf of another. In this situation, kindred agents place expectations upon an offending party in the interest of the offended party. Finally, Strawson highlights guilt as the demands that one places upon one’s own self for others. This involves self-directed sentiments such as feelings that include not only guilt but also shame and remorse. The natural expression of this self-obligation includes confession, apology, making amends, and self-directed reproach.

In our work, three main communities have emerged. First, there is a group of activists who express both resentment on their own behalf and indignation on behalf of those like them. These attitudes are easily seen in their most-commonly-used hashtags and emoji (Figure 1). The emoji in particular, such as the raised fists and the praying hands, are clearly indicative of emotions such as resentment and indignation. The hashtags are more mixed. Some, such as #pridemonth express self-celebratory emotions. Others, such as #acab (all cops are bastards), express indignation. Others are more issue-oriented.

Figure 1.

Second, there is a group of progressives who, while not necessarily subject to police violence themselves, nevertheless express indignation on behalf of George Floyd and others like him. Again, these attitudes can easily be read off their most-commonly-used hashtags and emoji (Figure 2). We again see expression of emotions via raised fists, as well as crying and angry faces. And the hashtags again represent both emotions (e.g., #resist) and a range of issues associated with the protests.

Figure 2.

Third, there is a group of reactionaries who oppose both the activists and the progressives. Once again, these attitudes can easily be read off their most-commonly-used hashtags and emoji (Figure 3). We see expressions of contempt and derision (e.g., laughing, rolling-eyes) and calls to counter-protest (e.g., #backtheblue).

Figure 3.

Importantly, we find little evidence of guilt in any of these groups (with a few minor exceptions among the progressives). Moreover, the reactionaries are not, by and large, members of law enforcement, so they are not the ones being called to express attitudes like guilt and shame. Instead, they seem to be self-declared allies of the police officers and vigilantes who are being called to account by the activists and progressives. Their response does not fit neatly into the Strawsonian framework. Instead, they respond to the resentment and indignation directed at those they consider allies with their own counter-indignation. Importantly, counter-indignation is expressed through dismissive attitudes such as contempt and derision, which indicate a refusal to take moral claims seriously. This distinguishes counter-indignation from indignation proper, as Strawson understands it. It is a refusal to engage via the participatory stance that Strawson associates with moral responsibility. And reactionaries’ counter-indignation bleeds over into dangerous conspiracy theories, as indicated by the prevalence of QAnon and related hashtags (e.g., #wwg1wga = “where we go one we go all” and #thegreatawakening). Counter-indignation involves a rejection of and contempt for the demands expressed by resentment and indignation.

Counter-indignation involves a rejection of and contempt for the demands expressed by resentment and indignation.

If this analysis is on the right track, it points to the need to broaden the Strawsonian framework to include reactionary counter-indignation and related attitudes such as contempt and derision. Things may not be as prim and proper as they appeared to Strawson in his Oxford haven. But adding counter-indignation to the framework only improves its explanatory power, and some instances of counter-indignation (e.g., when the accused party is innocent or has a compelling excuse) are commendable. We hope that this research helps to shed light on the important functions played by expressions of moral condemnation and reactions to such expressions in public discourse. We have been dismayed by multiple recent calls – in The New York Times and elsewhere – to banish these expressions in the name of “free speech”. If reactionary attitudes are the only allowed expressions, while straightforward resentment and indignation become anathema, our moral repertoire will suffer grievous harm.


Buchanan, Larry, Quoctrung Bai and Jugal K. Patel. “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History.” New York Times, Last modified July 3, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html.

Strawson, Peter Frederick. Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays. London, United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008.

Mark Alfano is Associate Professor of philosophy at Macquarie University. His work encompasses subfields in philosophy (epistemology, moral psychology, philosophy of science), social science (social psychology, personality psychology), and computer science. He also brings digital humanities methods to bear on both contemporary problems and the history of philosophy (especially Nietzsche). He has experience with R, Gephi, and Tableau.

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