19 April 2007

Political violence

I think that Hilzoy's long essay Liberating Iraq has made me categorically more pacifist than I was before I read it.

This is another one of those posts where I’m giving you a long quote, but do so in hopes of whetting readers’ appetites to go read the whole thing. The essay is a marvel.

Back in 1983, I sat in on a conference on women and social change. There were fascinating people from all over the world, women who had been doing extraordinary things in their own countries, and who had gathered together to talk it through; and I got to be a fly on the wall.

During this conference, there was a recurring disagreement about the role of violence in fighting deeply unjust regimes. On one side were the women from India, who argued against the use of violence, generally on Gandhian grounds. On the other were many of the women who lived under deeply unjust regimes; I recall, in particular, the South Africans arguing that however laudable nonviolence might be, their situation was sufficiently desperate that they could not afford the luxury of waiting for nonviolence to work.

It seemed to me that at the heart of this disagreement was this one fact: that the women from India were from a country that had already achieved independence, and were living with the problems that came afterwards, whereas the women from South Africa were trying to achieve that self-government in the first place. The South Africans seemed to think that the women from India had forgotten what it was like to be subjugated. We need to win our freedom as quickly as possible, they seemed to say. We realize that it would be preferable to win that freedom in the best possible way. If we could win it just as quickly through non-violent means, we would surely do so. But you would not ask us to wait if you really understood what it is like to live in slavery.

By contrast, many of the arguments made by the Indians turned on the effects that achieving self-government through violence had on one's own people.


So one thing I thought that the Indian women saw was this:

Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.

And another was this: liberation is not just a matter of removing an oppressive government. It can seem that way when you live under tyranny. Nothing is more comprehensible than people living in apartheid South Africa, or under Saddam, thinking: if only that government were removed from power, things would be better. They would have to be. After all, how could they possibly be worse?

Unfortunately, there are almost always ways in which things could be worse.

Hilzoy says this in support of criticizing the naïvité of disillusioned Iraq war hawk Peter Beinart.

I admire Peter Beinart’s willingness to think about what he got wrong, and why. But while I think that he’s right to say that we can't be the country the Iraqis and South Africans wanted us to be — a country wise enough to liberate other countries by force — there’s another mistake lurking in the train of thought he describes. Namely:

It’s not just that we aren’t the country Beinart wanted to think we were; it’s that war is not the instrument he thought it was.

Just so. There are cases where war really is the best option available. But those cases are precious few, and when they come, you are already in deep deep trouble.


Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex makes a similar point in In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization, on the way to countering a progressive who doubts that we need to speak in good faith in response to conservatives. I have a huge caveat about the author but I still believe in the heart of this piece.

A liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel. And yet when liberals enter quarrels, they always win. Isn’t that interesting?


Arthur thinks that liberals who voluntarily relinquish any form of fighting back are just ignoring perfectly effective weapons. I’ll provide the quote:

In a war, a real war, a war for survival, you use all the weapons in your arsenal because you assume the enemy will use all the weapons in theirs. Because you understand that it IS a war… Any energy spent mentally debating how, in a perfect world run by a Lawful Neutral Cosmic Arbiter that will never exist, we could settle wars without bullets is energy you could better spend down at the range improving your marksmanship … I am amazed that the “rationalist community” finds it to still be so opaque.

Let me name some other people who mysteriously managed to miss this perfectly obvious point.

“” The early Christian Church had the slogan “resist not evil” (Matthew 5:39), and indeed, their idea of Burning The Fucking System To The Ground was to go unprotestingly to martyrdom while publicly forgiving their executioners. They were up against the Roman Empire, possibly the most effective military machine in history, ruled by some of the cruelest men who have ever lived. By Arthur’s reckoning, this should have been the biggest smackdown in the entire history of smackdowns.

And it kind of was. Just not the way most people expected.

Mahatma Gandhi said “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” Another guy who fought one of the largest empires ever to exist and won resoundingly. And he was pretty insistent on truth too: “Non-violence and truth are inseparable and presuppose one another.”

Also skilled at missing the obvious: Martin Luther King. Desmond Tutu. Aung San Suu Kyi. Nelson Mandela was smart and effective at the beginning of his career, but fell into a pattern of missing the obvious when he was older. Maybe it was Alzheimers.

Of course, there are counterexamples. Jews who nonviolently resisted the Nazis didn’t have a very good track record. You need a certain pre-existing level of civilization for liberalism to be a good idea, and a certain pre-existing level of liberalism for supercharged liberalism where you don’t spread malicious lies and harass other people to be a good idea. You need to have pre-existing community norms in place before trying to summon mysterious beneficial equilibria.

So perhaps I am being too harsh on Arthur, to contrast him with Aung San Suu Kyi and her ilk. After all, all Aung San Suu Kyi had to do was fight the Burmese junta, a cabal of incredibly brutal military dictators who killed several thousand people, tortured anyone who protested against them, and sent eight hundred thousand people they just didn’t like to forced labor camps. Arthur has to deal with people who aren’t as feminist as he is. Clearly this requires much stronger measures!

Alexander quotes Gandhi, but omits the part of that quotation which echoes Hilzoy:

I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.

In his excellent “Bubbles” series of essays on cultural politics, politics politics, and moral philosophy, A. R. Moxon’s The Knife And The Train examines the temptation to believe in righteous violence.

The hero ends the violence that was already there, with redeeming violence of his own, which escalates until at last it has cleansed the narrative of all sources of bad violence. Violence can’t only be the solution; it also has to be the problem. Violence isn’t just very very good, it is also very very bad.

This is where two buckets comes in very handy. You need only look at who is doing the violence to know if it is good violence or bad violence. If you haven't earned life, how can your violence possibly be good? And, if you have earned life, how can your violence possibly be bad?

“They” do bad violence to us. “We” do good violence to end it.

If they keep doing bad violence after our good violence, it is because we didn’t do enough good violence previously. The solution becomes obvious: we must do more good violence at them. Harder violence, or more widely applied, or more brutal, or all three. The violence isn’t just good. It redeems. It is the perfected instrument for restoring bad things to goodness.

Emmett Rensin has Some Brief Thoughts On Political Violence which I find frightening and clarifying.

It has always seemed to me that collective theories of politics would therefore resist political violence. It is easy enough to justify the occasional murder of an actor if you believe his crimes begin and end with his own choices. But if entire classes are the engine of any political crime, then a politics that justifies the killing of those responsible does not end with an execution. It ends with a holocaust. I have always hoped that this inevitability would make collectivists wary of political violence, the ends of its logic too horrifying and too clear. But history contradicts my hope. When the left has seized power, it has always found kulaks to liquidate, great leaps to take forward. It has taken precisely the nightmare that arises from Robespierre’s excuse and applied it on a grand scale. Of course no individual is wholly responsible for its crimes, it says. That’s why we have to liquidate all the kulaks.


The question may seem silly right now. The Left has barely any power! We’re nowhere near a place where this matter must be resolved. But that is precisely why the Left must reckon with the question of violence now, while it still feels faintly ridiculous.

An additional comment from me, which I find myself saying more and more.

For all the reasons above, I am deeply committed to nonviolence, especially nonviolent politics. I believe that it is both morally right and strategically wise.

There are a few major criticisms of this stance.

But is not violence justified in response to violence? I grant that it is. I will go one further, in fact. Violence is justified in response to threats of violence. It is justified to punch a Nazi; by proclaiming their affiliation, the Nazi makes a threat. But even Frantz Fanon by way of Malcolm X opens the option of violence by calling for liberation “by any means necessary” — not any means possible, but any means necessary — which implies that we should use the least necessary violence.

The question is not simply whether violence is justified. Is it wise?

Many people who say that non-violent political movements are naïve because while mass nonviolent political action sufficient to be effective is a lovely dream, history teaches us that non-violence has only succeeded where it offers the powerful an alternative to violent movements they fear more. Indeed that is the history. But that does not mean that violent movements need my help, or yours. There will always be violent resistence to injustice. Non-violent movements need your help more. And if someday for the first time everyone does choose non-violent action, maybe that will also prove that non-violent action can create change alone.

So that is where I will place my voice and hand.


Anonymous said...

War is double plus not good. But you already read my post about it today.


Jonathan Korman said...

Aye. As I quoted Hilzoy saying earlier, war ain't the worst thing in the world, but it's pretty damned close.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested lately in all the ways we can fold non-violence into whatever actions we take, and how it becomes akin to harm reduction in a sense. My favorite current example of this is Tom Gambell sensei of East Bay Aikido, who talks about finding "the grassy spot." I may have to do something in self defense to stop a person who is trying to hurt me. I may have to throw him down somewhere. When that moment arrives, and if there's a choice between throwing him on some broken glass or a grassy spot, I choose the grassy spot.

It's that sense of control that is the first thing to go out the window when we choose to react in violence. This is what I hear you saying as well. I'll admit it: that pile of broken glass looks like a good target if I'm sufficiently pissed off. Training ourselves to step back from that edge and only do what is necessary takes a lot of practice.