Dangeresque Thoughts

February 2009

Non-violent resistance is a specific tactic for a specific situation. It's not a universal approach to conflict. Jesus' ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ does not specify how peace should be made.


KT commented:

Hm, preliminary thoughts: I think it's worth noting that 'non-violent' resistance is still violent in a more general sense - i.e. it is still an exertion of power. The civil rights movement etc only worked because the people had other forms of leverage, economically and politically, and were willing to use it. Real people would have suffered real economic and political harm from their actions; it was just a bit more subtle than physical assault, and a lot smarter. The protesters also had power through the looming threat that they might turn violent, because of their large numbers and the difficulty their own leaders had in restraining them from violence.

So yes, I'd say the non-violent approach is a tactic that is employed when it seems the best way to exert power, and it will not be the best way if a group does not have some other kind of leverage. e.g. if they're in a culture that doesn't share our culture's particular emotional response to victimisation and martyrdom.

Matt commented:


era commented:


era commented:

“NO.” might not have conveyed the subtle reasoning I intended to respond with, so just in case you missed the subtle parts I’ve decided to expand them a little. Non-violent resistance, properly understood, is not violent in a more general sense.

(a) If non-violent resistance was violent in any sense, then it would not be non-violent resistance by definition, but perhaps instead just less-violent resistance. Now it is possible that the acts we label as non-violent resistance ought to be called less-violent resistance, but my understanding of Gandhi's discussion of non-violent resistance leads me to believe otherwise. One of the philosophical underpinnings for non-violent resistance that Gandhi discusses at length is the idea that the means determine the ends. Thus, if what you seek is a non-violent outcome, then you can only achieve this by non-violent means. But, if what you are employing are really less-violent means, then all you will achieve is a less-violent outcome.

(b) Your definition of violence, “i.e. an exertion of power” is way too broad. Such a definition includes almost every act imaginable. For instance, is my current act of reasoning with you violent? A logical argument in some way certainly has the power to change someones beliefs, but it is a pretty clear case of a something being completely un-violent.


KT commented:

Hm, maybe I meant it in a more metaphorical sense. Well, no, not necessarily. 'Violent' is technically a present participle, = 'violating', = forcing one's will on another without their consent. So your reasoning with me is not violating me because I entered into the discussion willingly. But if I go eat in cafes where you've forbidden me to eat (however unjustly) then that's violation of your will. Hm, not sure if it works in every case though. Not sure if I can construe boycotting this way...

[Note: I agree this isn't the usual sense of the word; it is something Matt and I have been discussing recently though, so there was sort of a shared vocabulary I was drawing on there.]

era commented:

Would you agree that such a definition makes the distinction between violence and non-violence morally irrelevant?

KT commented:

No - presumably there can still be degress of seriousnessness within the term. If violence were only ever physical, then the phrase 'physical violence' would not exist. Physical violence remains a particularly brutal form of violence compared with other forms, and avoiding it in favour of less directly harmful forms could still be praiseworthy, especially if it is effective.

era commented:

I think you’ve got your head all wonky by playing word games. As you’ve just implicitly stated, the morally relevant feature of acts of violence is their causing harm. Consider three examples:

Physical violence: Hitting someone is violent, according your definition, because it is violating their will, but it is also harming them.

Non-physical violence: Preventing someone from having children is violent, according your definition, because it is violating their will, but it is also harming them.

Nonsensical violence: Going to the store against someones will is also violent, according your definition, because it is violating their will, but it is not harming them.

Matt commented:

Ok, I think we're playing word games here. Maybe we should take the word ‘violence’ off the table.

I would maintain (as I think KT is) that non-violent resistance is still a ‘conflict tactic’ and a method of coercion. It also depends on a social or legal contract of some sort between the conflicting parties, and a willingness on the part of the ‘non-violent’ to use that as leverage. This can cause real harm, by forcing the other party to make a choice between violating their contract, or conceding values to the aggressor.

However, I like your (and Gandhi's) point, Era, that the means determines the end – the means to a social or political end must be in itself social or political. I just think it's a mistake to see those means as inherently good or ‘non-forceful.’ Sometimes resolving conflict is about negotiation and compromise, but sometimes it's just a matter of overpowering the other – whatever your power is.

era commented:

I would be interested to hear either of you give a slightly expanded account of how you think non-violent resistance works? From what I can tell it seems quite at odds with (what I understand to be) the standard account.

Matt commented:

Okay, an example would be a hunger-strike in a prison.

  • A prisoner wants something
  • The prison has some legal/ethical/social responsibility for the prisoner's remaining alive
  • The prisoner sets up a conflict between those two things – ‘I will threaten your ability to fulfil your contract unless I get what I want.’

The US civil rights movement is another example. African-Americans wanted something (rights), so they gave demonstrations which forced the police to choose between letting the world hear what the demonstrators had to say, or using force to shut the demonstration down. Either way, the establishment would end up morally tainted; MLK jr's rhetoric was pretty powerful stuff, and the image of cops beating and arresting non-resistant, non-aggressive citizens is a pretty strong moral high-ground.

Non-violent resistance generally leaves the opposing force with two choices:

  1. To capitulate to the demands given or
  2. To overreach their authority, or to breach certain (usually social) expectations of behaviour.

era commented:

My understanding of a hunger strike in prison, by which coercion is not a factor.

  • A prisoner wants something - say some basic civil liberties.
  • The prisoner stops eating, an act intended to communicate the situation to the greater public in an appeal to their sense of justice.
  • The greater public, the source of all authority, witnessing such an appeal will either choose to sympathize with the appeal and put pressure on the prison to give the prisoner his/her basic civil liberties, or they will disagree with the appeal (maybe they instead wanted a foot massage), and the prisoner will starve to death.

Matt commented:

Surely there would be other ways to communicate a situation, if communication was the important thing? Even simply as an appeal to justice, a hunger-strike places a significant amount of extra pressure (not unrelated to force) on those involved.

In addition, you've completely removed the immediate authorities from the picture; while, yes, in many ways the public is the ultimate authority, there is usually a direct authority first (e.g. prison management) – as such, even as an appeal to justice, non-violent resistance seems to intentionally ‘go over the heads’ of those in direct authority – a pretty combative measure in itself.

era commented:

There are certainly other ways to communicate a situation, however not many which are as effective at bringing about change. When someone in jail says, “I want my civil liberties... please... sir,” it is unfortunately going to be ignored by a lot of people. When they instead say, “I want my civil liberties, and I would rather starve than live without them,” then a lot more people are going to pay attention. I agree that it adds extra pressure, but the extra pressure is the result of more people hearing the message and being outraged. I should probably also note that the outrage is caused not by someone starving themselves, but by someone being put in a such a position that starving themselves is all they can do to try to improve it.

[Side note on non-violence in relation to people taking you seriously:] By resisting non-violently you communicate to the public that you are not trying to harm the public good, or any private good, but that you want an injustice to be reformed. This becomes vitally important when you are being civilly disobedient (breaking laws), because otherwise people will think you are a terrorist.

I’m also inclined to disagree with your remark about ‘going over the heads’. When you are protesting it is not the people you are directly confronted with who you are really addressing, or trying to resolve a conflict with, but instead the higher authorities who have arranged society in some way you consider unjust. Because we live in a society where our government gets its power from the mandate of the people, or something like that, then it makes sense that these are the people you have the problem with and need to convince.

Matt commented:

This becomes vitally important when you are being civilly disobedient (breaking laws), because otherwise people will think you are a terrorist.

I'm right with you on this. On the rest, though, I'm not convinced that you're describing reality; it's a beautiful ideal, but, well, an ideal. I'm prepared to concede, though, that it's an important ideal, and maybe it does have some effect on reality, but I'd argue that the reality of how these things play out is far closer to what I'm describing.

(For example, I suspect civil rights in the US would not have advanced as far at crucial points had the police not overstepped themselves and been caught beating non-resisting demonstrators. You would argue (I think) that it's the willingness of the demonstrators to be beaten that makes people take notice; I think you're wrong to leave out the moral-high-ground and sympathy cards. No-one wants to support a bully.)

era commented:

I'm just trying to explain how proponents of non-violent resistance understand what they are doing, and how what they are doing works; no doubt they are to some degree idealists, but they also seem to be pragmatic to some degree as well. I don’t think the account leaves out the moral-high-ground and sympathy cards, but instead suggests that they be understood in terms of an appeal, rather than a demand.

The flip side of the US civil rights comment you made is that those advances would not have happened if the protesters had not knowingly put themselves in those situations. My point is that those protesters were not in conflict with the policemen beating them, but with the US population who still condoned apartheid.