September 9, 2007

Violence and Lies

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:34 pm by nevavegan

Several discussions lately have pressured me to make some kind of statement on violence. The trend lately is to decry all violence as wrong and emphasize the benefits of pacifism.

I believe in non-violence, absolutely. I believe non-violence works until it just doesn’t.

I don’t believe that it’s ok to use violence for revenge, I don’t believe that our government should be torturing people, I don’t believe in the death penalty, I don’t believe in hurting people because they hold values different from mine.

However, I’m also approaching this from the standpoint of someone who knows just too well that so long as we live in a world where others are violent, non-violence can’t always fix everything.

I stated before on this blog that I feel my life was saved by violence when it was violently threatened. Not out of control violence, not unnecessary violence. But also not talking, not reasoning, not just running away. Because there was a point in time where it was just so beyond that.

In one discussion the person advocating pacifism kept coming back to the idea that when physically threatened we should just run away, but not resort to violence. In my case I could not run; I had been knocked out cold, and even as I came to I was too badly hurt to run, so if another person had not intervened on my behalf you can imagine how that would end.

But I don’t think we should lie to ourselves either. When we run away from a violent dangerous person, there’s a chance we’re just postponing violence, that someone else later, someone less able to run away will be hurt. We know that serial killers have changed their tactics to become better at taking their victims by surprise and lessening the chances someone can escape.

Calling the police isn’t necessarily a non-violent solution; it is passing on the decision to be violent or not to someone else. Not that I’m saying people shouldn’t call the police, often that’s the safest solution actually.

In the discussion a pacifist also said that if we’re attacked and can’t run away we should just hand over our purse or wallet and not fight back. Um, in my case the person who attacked me didn’t want my wallet. But even if that were the case, we’re still passing the violence on to the next person. We’ve just rewarded the criminal for attacking us, increasing the chances he/she will do it again and again.

But of course we’re not really talking about how to handle it when we’re attacked. When people talk about pacifism and non-violence often at the core of the discussion is the idea we need to soothe those that oppose us. We need to reassure them that we will never do anything to hurt them.

As a political tactic I oppose the use of violence because I feel it is ineffective. Here is a study that shows that most people misunderstand the motives behind acts of violence. In this way they feel that the 9/11 terrorists wanted to knock down the World Trade Center and kill a lot of people and that they succeeded in doing so; they don’t grasp that there were other demands, motives, etc. Likewise, when they witness someone violently attacking another person they assume the motive is to hurt the other person, rather than understanding there might be other circumstances involved. So for this reason I feel that violent tactics fail to convey the message, erode public support, and may backfire in terms of promoting larger goals.

That said I worry about making sweeping statements like “I would never be violent under any circumstances.” Because when we think in this way we’ve automatically signed on with the view that supports the current paradigm: chiefly that violence is always wrong, even in response to violence. It’s easy to say that when we see violence as someone punching an elderly woman in the face or shooting an innocent bystander. Of course we would never do such things! But once we’ve said that all violence is always wrong we allow those who oppose us to keep nudging the definition of violence.

In this way we sometimes find ourselves in weird discussions where sending faxes is suddenly defined as violent. Is it obnoxious? Sure. Violent? C’mon. But we start to blur definitions and this stuff starts to make sense to others. If sending obnoxious faxes is wrong, then by all means, make a law against it. Or consider it an element of stalking and push for stronger anti-stalking laws. But don’t blur the definition of violence until doing something that inconveniences, and maybe even angers someone else is somehow violent, and now terrorism.

So, I don’t think we can enter a discussion on violence that comes from an unrealistic place. I don’t think we can have a discussion where we let others define our terms, so that we’re boxed into semantic traps that don’t apply to real world situations. I know what it’s like to deal with someone who is clearly doing abusive things and when I’ve confronted them, they’ve insisted that I’m the violent, abusive one. Why? Because to some people just disagreeing with someone in a position of authority is wrong. So to them, my saying something strong like “stop, you’re killing this cat” is abusive—after all I just said they were doing something wrong. Saying they’re wrong makes them feel bad, it hurts so it must be abusive.

I’m not saying that we should be unnecessarily hurtful either, but sometimes we have to say the truth even if it hurts. Sometimes we need to oppose those things that are wrong, even though there are many people who benefit from unethical systems and don’t want us to oppose them.

It’s not an easy thing to navigate or understand. We’d like to live in a world where it’s never ok to punch someone in the face. But we live in a world where sometimes all the yelling and shoving in the world doesn’t stop this person from attacking the woman lying unconscious on the ground, so punching him in the face is the only way to get him away from her for a second or two so you can try to help her up. We’d like to live in a world where every person doing something wrong can listen to a rational argument or an appeal to their humanity. We just don’t.

Weirdly enough, I feel like when it comes down to it, I’m pretty good at finding non-violent solutions. I’ve had friends who talked a lot about pacifism, but when faced with difficult situations they started the physical response a little quickly. I’m not saying I’m a violent person. I’m not saying I’d use violence without considerable thought and exhausting other possibilities. I’m not even saying that if I were in a corner and felt compelled to violence that it would work for me. I’m just saying that I’m not taking it off the table just yet.



  1. beforewisdom said,

    I agree with you nonviolence works until it doesn’t.

    My problem, at lest in internet land , is that there are a lot arm chair warriors who talk tough, never having perpetrated violence or been victims

    I see intimidation and threats ( with or without intent to carry them out ) as also being violence.

    These people have no understanding of what they are advocating.

    As you mentioned, the consequences need to be considered and too many bradoccios who talk tough never consider what the blow back might be or if the consequences will move them towards their goals.

  2. Neva Vegan said,

    Thanks for your comment.

    It is true that many people advocate violence without a true understanding of what it means or how it affects our larger goals. It is a problem, however it is also fairly common. Many people spout off ridiculous stuff on the internet, whether about politics, video games, fashion or whatever. As much as we’d like to control them, we simply can’t.

    When it comes to threats, yes, I think people should not as rule threaten violence. However, I also see some grey area where someone could feel threatened by something that was honestly not a threat. That gets harder to sort out.

    In any case I wonder if some who advocate complete pacifism don’t have much real world experience to back that up either.

  3. sean said,

    Yes, there are arm chair warriors. There are also people who claim to be non-violent, but in fact only advocate non-violence when it’s someone else (human or nonhuman) being harmed. Nearly every one of these people, if they were in a laboratory being tortured, would accept a violent response on their behalf. Or if they were being mugged or raped, would fight back. These people are hypocrites.

    There are, I think, two reasons for opposing violence as a means of saving others from harm: (1) You are the rare person who is a true pacifist or (2) You believe it would be counter-productive.

    For the first group, as Neva pointed out, pacifism may be an ethically wrong decision. If someone attacks you and you let them, the perpetrator will not be deterred (much less caught), and will likely continue to harm others. So you don’t care about protecting yourself, do you also have no duty to those future victims?

    Regarding the second group, I wonder what would happen if all the people who say violence is ineffective because of how *other people* would react, went ahead and advocated or committed violent acts to liberate others from unjust exploitation, whether it would still be such an ineffective tactic.

  4. jen said,

    i don’t think that all use of physical force is “violence.” using the minimum force necessary to stop immediate physical harm to oneself or another living creature is not violence.

    but i don’t think that force should be used as a deterrent for preventing future, non-imminent harm. in such a case there is time for other options to have effect before resorting to force.

    with regard to the public debate over the use of “violence” as a tactic, a huge issue of mine is that “violence” requires physical injury to a sentient victim. there is no such thing as violence against property. whether destruction of property is an advisable tactic is another issue, but it’s not violence.

    then there’s the whole issue of “abuse” seperate from violence — that is, acts causing psychological and/or emotional harm — and whether physical force is ever warranted to stop immiment psychological or emotional harm. that’s a tough issue.

  5. Sean said,

    For a pacifist, any physical force is “violence.”

    In the case of nonhumans animals, given that every second hundreds of animals are being killed, violence against them is *always* imminent.

  6. Neva Vegan said,

    Thanks everyone for the comments. I’ve been a little tied up for the last couple days, so I’m only getting back to this now.

    When I’ve had discussions with a number of pacifists several have claimed that they oppose the use of physical force for self defense.

    Sean just looked it up in the dictionary and it seems to support that too, it said that pacifists oppose violence and believe every dispute can be settled by peaceful means.

    I think I know one pacifist who seriously would not defend himself at all if attacked and unable to escape. I believe the others over-estimate their ability to talk themselves out of any situation. I also think that if someone has never encountered another person who clearly did not view them as a human being, didn’t care what they said or did, and was intent on doing them physical harm purely for the enjoyment of hurting someone, well… I guess if you have not experienced it, then it’s easy to believe that it does not happen.

    Jen, I agree, and in fact I was hinting at it, that there is creep in the definition of violence, with people using the word to describe harm to property or just annoying behavior, and that’s not accurate or fair. There can be arguments made against those activities but they shouldn’t be called something they’re not.

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