I disagree, therefore I destroy: what Psychiatry says

Culture and society

I disagree, therefore I destroy: what Psychiatry says

7 Jan, 2021

In recent months, numerous news cases have reported demonstrations of dissent culminating in violent and destructive episodes, when not real acts of vandalism.

From protests against the second lockdown in Italy [1, 2, 3] to US post-election reactions, it is not uncommon for disagreement to take on a threatening and aggressive aspect.

What are the reasons for this blind and uncontrolled anger? How and where to intervene, on a personal and social level, to tackle the problem?

We investigated the phenomenon from a psychiatric and philosophical point of view, publishing two news on the UniScienza&Ricerca blog to give space to the reflections of the professors and researchers of the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University.


In this first episode, which explores the psychiatric perspective, we are answered by Dr. Guido Travaini, Researcher and Professor of Forensic Medicine and Criminology at UniSR, Coordinator of the Criminology Area - II level Master in Forensic Psychopathology and Clinical Criminology, and Prof. Cristina Colombo, Full Professor of Psychiatry at UniSR and Director of the School of Specialization in Psychiatry and of the Master in Forensic Psychopathology and Clinical Criminology, as well as head of the Mood Disorders Unit of the IRCCS San Raffaele Hospital.


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The lockdown example and the difference between the first and second wave

Motions of intolerance and rebellion occurred on the occasion of the renewal of the lockdown last autumn [1, 2, 3]; we believe it is necessary to make a distinction between what happened in March and what we are experiencing today.

Last spring the concept of emergency – as a sudden and unpredictable circumstance – was perfectly adequate. We have experienced a widespread fear that has made it easier to strictly follow the indications of the government, perhaps in the hope of seeing “solved” something that was significantly changing everyone’s life.

Recently a great psychiatrist such as Eugenio Borgna refers to a collective emotional shock that helped us to overcome the first wave, a sort of widespread fear that had an anesthetizing effect even on a possible violent reactivity.

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We were dealing with an unknown but present everywhere enemy with paralyzing effects.

Today the situation has certainly changed: more scientific information is available but at the same time there is less certainty about how and when everything can return to the way it was before. And this generates anxiety and our resilience is further challenged.

The most stressful aspects can be summarized as follows:

  • the duration of the emergency and the sense of helplessness that derives from an ease of contagion that does not exclude any category of people;
  • the succession of rules sometimes not easy to understand which have as their common denominator the limitation of our individual freedom;

  • information that is not reassuring but rather aimed at emphasizing the different positions of the experts;

  • the real economic struggles that affect a very large number of people.

We can all recognize ourselves in such sources of unease. Everyone, then, will find an aspect, more annoying or worrying than another, for personality and family and life conditions. In such a complex context, the events and protests that have characterized not only Italy but almost all European and Western countries must be read.

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The need to find a common “enemy”

Generally speaking, beyond the lockdown example, a distinction must be made between the many manifestations in which people, in a correct and compliant way with the law, manifest their opposition or their doubts with respect to provisions and norms, from other in which the aspect of violence and the desire for destruction has become prevalent over the reason for the protest itself.

In some situations we have witnessed the presence in the squares of people with distant social and ideological origins who found themselves in the common project of destroying, damaging and fighting against the police.

In situations of greater social complexity there is a sort of need to create a common “enemy” on which to pour anger and frustration: social protest thus becomes a sort of container of frustrations, perhaps with different origins, but which become common when the scapegoat that must be attacked and destroyed is identified.

From a criminological point of view it is important to try to understand the underlying reasons and dynamics.

The violence of group demonstrations

Since these are group manifestations, a sort of “deindividualization” can occur, a great anonymity in which people, perhaps only for a short time, abandon their personal normative beliefs and passively adapt to the actions of the group, which thus becomes a kind of autonomous and non-responsible subject.

All this is well highlighted in many studies on the psychology of the masses which highlight how individuals act in a similar way without having significant relationships between them [4]. How can we forget the Manzoni’s assault on the ovens!

The crowd becomes a sort of herd in which ideas, emotions, beliefs quickly infect those who are part of it. The emotional component of belonging to the group becomes preponderant and leads to follow the conduct of the group, although very far from the usual actions of the individual.

Often when violent actions are committed in groups, neutralization techniques also operate which are nothing more than justificatory methods.

Many declare that they live as “dragged by events” with a limited capacity for choice, others justify their violence for the high ideals that underlie their actions. This last aspect can be present when the values ​​underlying the protest can be of great importance as the freedom to move, to work etc.

In summary, the group can become a formidable activator of positive but also negative feelings and even extremely violent behaviors. It must never be forgotten that a group is an entity other than the mere sum of the individual entities that compose it.

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Addressing the problem: a contribution from the university world

We believe it is important to learn to manage better and better these possible emergencies in terms of organization, management and communication. Aware that this is by no means easy, they must, in fact, operate at the same time different skills and knowledge.

A contribution can also come from the university world which – as an attentive observer of reality – can activate training moments or mere reflection on the theme of managing prolonged emergencies.

This is what we have in mind with the next training course already approved by our Faculty, entitled “Management of health and nonconventional emergencies”, whose goal is to provide participants (health workers, safety and communication managers of public and private companies) theoretical, operational and experiential notions as well as the good practices applicable in the case of health care or unconventional management, perhaps over the long term.

The approach is necessarily multidisciplinary, and will involve San Raffaele University’s professors who have experienced and still live the pandemic directly, as well as IT experts, journalists, police officers who will share their experience.

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[4] U. Galimberti, Dizionario di psicologia, UTET:Torino, 1992.

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