Violence vs. Pacifism

by Ran Prieur

March 7, 2002

Creative Commons License
[Edited November 28, 2012]

The question of whether and when to use "violence" is extremely complex. Ward Churchill's 75 page essay Pacifism as Pathology is a powerful pro-violence manifesto, but it does not address the strongest anti-violence arguments. Nor do books advocating strict non-violence (I looked at Michael Nagler's Is There No Other Way) answer the strongest pro-violence arguments. Having journeyed mentally to both perspectives, I am not interested in finding the truth but in getting people loose from the truth.

A strong pro-violence argument might begin by cracking the nut of absolute pacifism. If somebody tries to rape you, obviously you should fight back. If a guy has a gun and is shooting a bunch of people, somebody needs to stop him right away by any means, not wave signs protesting the violence. With these kinds of arguments you can build a slippery slope all the way to the Unabomber, if you're a radical, or if you're conservative all the way to the bombing of defenseless people by your country's military.

The solution to this problem is not to keep the cat from getting out of the bag, but to learn to live with the cat, not to avoid the slippery slope but to learn to navigate it. This is not a radical or controversial idea. Our whole society tells us that it's okay to have police with guns, and armies with bombs, and prison guards and hospital orderlies and dance club bouncers using force for the common good, and we think nothing of it; but when someone suggests it might be okay to shove a cop, to sabotage a missile silo, to spike a tree, then suddenly it's a betrayal of principles, a dance with the devil, a moral crisis.

This double standard is pure authoritarianism. If a central authority holds a monopoly on violence, the world is more predictable, less chaotic, but also less alive, and there is a constant danger that the authority or any of its members will exploit their advantage. For a culture to be stable, the rules must be the same for everyone.

Another point for violence is that the famous successful non-violent movements of Gandhi and Martin Luther King were both backed up by the threat of violence by allied movements. Their peaceful revolutions worked not through non-violence alone, but through a good-revolutionary bad-revolutionary dynamic where the violent people made the pacifists seem like an acceptable lesser evil.

But if pacifism acting alone has a questionable record, violence acting alone is much worse, and pro-violence people carefully avoid noticing the historical record of "successful" violent revolutions. Look at the decades of horror that followed the Russian Revolution, or the many revolutions in Africa, or the slave revolt that formed Haiti, now the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.

Violence breeds violence. Belligerent people from violent anarchists to fascists snobbishly dismiss this idea as a cliche, but it's true and it's a good metaphor. Violence really does breed violence, maybe not necessarily, maybe not all the time, but reliably enough.

Also, pro-violence arguments ignore the subtle power of really skilled other-than-violent action, the way it can and does shame people into backing down when they don't have to. Pro-violence thinkers like to lump together every strategy other than simple force, as if Jews who fearfully went along with the Holocaust were doing the same thing as the followers of Gandhi who went out of their way to break the law and risk their lives, as if being nice to your oppressors in the hope that they will like you is the same as dangerously confronting them but just not attacking, as if masochistically sacrificing your life is the same as fearlessly gambling it. These strategies are psychologically completely different. Powerful non-violence is not about hoarding moral purity by not doing anything "bad" -- it's about gaining moral authority by showing really impressive courage.

At the same time, pacifist absolutists use phrases like "just the same as" or "no better than" to lump together kinds of "violence" that are psychologically completely different: Using force mindfully in exceptional cases is a different thing than using it mindlessly and habitually; attacking buildings and machines is different than attacking people; spontaneous bottom-up violence is different than managed authoritarian violence; and simply destroying something, whether or not it's a good idea, is different than using the threat of destruction to influence people's choices.

I could have been putting "violence" in quotes the whole time, since its meaning is so sloppy. If I crash a car into a pole by accident, is that a violent death? How about if somebody feeds carbon monoxide into my bedroom and I die peacefully in my sleep? Some of you said yes and no and some of you said no and yes, and yet we all use the word "violence" as if we all agree what it means.

Was it non-violent when WTO protesters blocked delegates with their bodies? What about when they physically struggled with delegates trying to force their way through? If it's non-violent to stand in the path of a tank convoy, or chain the door of a building during a protest, then isn't it also non-violent to disable an oil pipeline? If it's non-violent to pour fake blood on something during a protest, then how is it violent to paint graffiti? Sometimes radical actions get classified as "violent" or "non-violent" not on the basis of the force or destructiveness involved, but on the basis of whether they have been sanctioned by the radical elite. Sometimes "pacifism" is not about peace but about deadness, about maintaining predictability, about fear of free human life.

And often forceful or destructive action is not about freedom or aliveness or true change, but about egocentric revenge, about maintaining the habit of violence, about keeping the fighting going because you wouldn't know what to do if it stopped.

I'm not just offering no answer -- I'm offering explicitly no answer. I'm not "neutral" but biased against all authority, including the authority of radical intellectuals; I've seen enough infighting to be disgusted with anyone who says their way is the only way and everyone else is wasting time or making things worse. I think there are potentially as many ways as there are people, and only a few non-ways: to cynically give up trying, or to make your success depend on changing other people, or to do what you're supposed to do and deny your soul. It's not what you do but why you do it; it's not where you are but whether you're moving; and if you keep expanding your attention and doing what makes you feel alive, those are the means that justify all ends.

Also see the sequel to this essay, Violence Unraveled.