I have a question about my History Stack Exchange post: What notable examples in recent history where citizens burning things down during protest likely was the cause of achieving the goals of the protest?

Why is this post being downvoted? I understand that it may imply a "list" type answer which may be difficult to determine an authoritative "best" answer.

However I feel that authoritative answers are possible: for example maybe someone or some group has put together an authoritative textbook on the topic or a widely recognised review article. Should I rephrase the question to ask "what are authoritative sources on this topic?" But then will someone argue that this simply leads to listing as well?

Further, posts such as

What are the earliest examples in history where one state/people stepped in to rescue another?

Where can I find more information about this use of Yakuza against a demonstration in 1960?

Were any of the major battle plans in WWII changed last minute by officers on the ground?

All give rise to possible "list" answers, but are upvoted extensively and I think we all agree add important content to the site, while not deviating too far from what's expected.

There is also precedent on other sites for questions that don't necessarily have authoritative answers upon asking, but are extremely valuable and still result in answers that are clearly "the best". See for example on physics stackexchange:

Can I compute the mass of a coin based on the sound of its fall?

Classic home experiments for an 8-year-old child

My feeling is that it's important to exclude "trivial" list answers to avoid cluttering up the site. However, I do think some list answers can be extremely valuable and add a lot of content to what this site aims to do (which I do understand opens up ambiguity on who decides what is and isn't trivial - but usually it's pretty clear).

But most importantly, I think there is a lot of grey area on what questions can or can't facilitate authoritative responses, especially when real understanding of history is best communicated through debate and many (at times contradictory) sources.

Edit The question has now been put on hold as " off-topic." Welcoming some comment on that, because I also don't understand this stance.

2 Answers 2


I didn't downvote that question but I can imagine that there were a number of potential problems with it:

  1. As I noted in my comment; it's going to be difficult, in any non-trivial example, to isolate "burning things down" as a key cause of success. That's because "burning things down" isn't usually the only step up from a peaceful protest, it usually goes hand-in-hand with greater violence towards other people (police, other security services, etc) and looting, etc.

  2. To prove that "burning things down" was a factor, you have to indulge in a counter-factual (which are frowned upon here). That is, you have to prove that remaining peaceful (or simply not "burning things down") wouldn't have ultimately provided the same result.

  3. Lack of prior research. The downvote button lists "This question does not show any research effort" as a reason to down vote. As written, this question doesn't demonstrate any prior research (i.e. what do you know already, what have you discounted, etc.)

  4. Too broad. A "protest" can be anything from a local dispute to a country-wide revolution. Successful revolutions can be peaceful but there's usually some fighting involved (and that usually includes some "burning things down"). So any successful violent revolution would count. At the other end of the scale, a protest over the siting of, say, an abortion clinic could turn nasty. If it results in the building being burned down then it could also be claimed as a successful example.

  5. As you've identified yourself, this is a list question. These are generally looked down on in this stack (although there are exceptions).

Interestingly, the reason for closure was being "off-topic". The voters felt that the question was a better fit on one of the other stacks.

Finally, people are under no obligation to explain or justify their downvotes anymore than they are required to explain or justify their upvotes. They might not have picked any of the potential reasons that I've given, they simply might have just downvoted because they don't like politics. For good or bad, that's the way the site works.

  • I'll repost my response to 1. for others to view and comment: "that we may not know immediately how to isolate cause and effect is not an argument against trying to isolate cause and effect. A question implies that a "good" answer would provide some justification for why the answer is likely to be true. To answer your question to show that possibilities exist, one possible piece of evidence could be the existence of a "turning point" where say an ongoing campaign of similar nonviolent protests are held, but a large legislative inquiry is accelerated after an unexpected damaging riot." Nov 13, 2016 at 14:27
  • I disagree with point 2. According to your point 2, one would be unable to ask "Did the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand cause WWI" because it would require someone to prove that WWI couldn't have been caused by other things. But this is exactly what the question is asking! Of course someone must justify one way or another if there were alternate possibilities, that makes a good answer. Nov 13, 2016 at 14:35
  • I agree with your point 3. maybe I could update the question more, but I think it's grey area. A topic like this one contains an immense amount of popular opinion, rarely backed by historical fact, which is why I hoped to seek out those more knowledgeable than myself online. But I admit I could have written more in this category. Nov 13, 2016 at 14:39
  • On point 4. I think you may be right here although it's hard for me to say. Again, I could imagine someone writing a very good answer that potentially covers these bases. In some posts important discussion between the distinction of concepts is critical to the answer, see for example: history.stackexchange.com/questions/2766/… . So I can see there being an "understood" definition of protest that someone can further qualify depending how they answer as whether revolution or just civil disobediance are included. Nov 13, 2016 at 14:48
  • On point 5. you point out that I've said what you're pointing out, but you haven't responded to my comments surrounding this observation. On your closing comment, I'm not posting here because I literally want the individuals who downvoted to account to me (although that could be a useful discussion). I'm asking for opinions on why it is likely that there are problems with the question and also looking to spark discussion around "list" questions, and the concept of what constitutes a question that "can" or "can't" have an authoritative answer, as per the body of my question here on meta. Nov 13, 2016 at 14:51

I'm reluctant to get involved in this discussion, because it is developing judgement of votes, which is always a danger sign. I drafted a comment on the main site and decided not to post it because I felt I was contributing to argument rather than to answers.

When I read the question, two examples of protests that successfully influenced public policy sprang to mind. But if I were to name the examples, I believe it would generate a pointless discussion about the politics of the issues involved. Discussion of whether the protests were legitimate, were they effective, was the policy changed in response to the protests or not, was the policy prudent or foolish, etc. In short, if I name the example, I expect to generate discussion about the examples, not about the principle in the question (I please guilty to cynicism, but it is informed cynicism). I chose not to post. I chose to vote to close on that basis. I think the question (and any answer to the question) relies on terms and concepts and opinions that are not suited to the kind of historical analysis performed on this site.

Ironically enough, my professional historian girlfriend and I were discussing this question in the car on the way home from lunch, trying to figure out how to revise the question to isolate the effect of protest on public policy while avoiding the discussion of the individual policies.

Fundamentally, there is no commonly agreed upon mechanism to link protest movements to changes in public policy. There is no clear criteria that enables us to say - "Protest movement X resulted in change Y", without someone saying, "Protest movement X was really about Z", or "Change Y was driven by faction W, not protest X" or "Protest Movement P was similar to protest movement X in all ways, but did not result in change, so your thesis is invalid". I would submit that only book length answers are going to indisputably establish the criteria, and book length answers are out of scope for H:SE.

  1. List questions make it very difficult to choose an unambiguous authoritative answer. Revisions to the question should enable the selection of an unambiguous authoritative answer.

  2. Revisions to the question should make it easier to answer the question than to debate the assumptions.

  3. Requests for sources are explicitly out of scope and the question should not be revised to a source request.

I wonder whether:

  • What is the role of public protest in altering public policy? (probably belongs in politics, not history)

  • When have protests affected public policy (list question - not good)

  • What is the most recent example when a protest successfully influenced public policy?

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