CN: police brutality, white supremacists & nazi’s, violence towards marginalized groups, racism, descriptions of theoretical violence, war, image of Charlottesville white supremacy protest.
As a kid, my parents regularly took me to the local quaker church. One of the most notable things about Quaker’s beliefs is their dedication to non-violence. Quakers believe that there is God in each person, therefore there is good in each person. They believe you should do your best to love, accept, and forgive each individual person to honor the God in them. And if you physically harm or kill a person, you are harming or killing God.
I stopped believing in God, when I was eleven, when I heard the news that the US was voluntarily initiating a war, because my belief in non-violence was just that strong. Even as just a little baby quaker, I was deeply upset at the idea of my country choosing to sacrifice the lives of hundreds of men and women in order to accomplish a political goal.
My belief in God gone, I continued to believe that all people had good in them, that you should love and forgive each person as much as you are able to, and that physically harming someone was one of the worst things you could do. I no longer believed those things were true because of God, I just believed they were true because.
As an adult, I’m still deeply committed to non-violence in my own life. But despite being more radically anti-violence than most people I know, I have a full understanding of why violence is sometimes necessary. To make sure that I can count on myself to practice my beliefs, not just tout them, I tend to spend much more time pondering the function and uses of violence, and how to replace it, than your everyday pacifist.
Speaking of which, I’ve encountered an astonishing trend where in the immediate aftermath of a protest related to people of color or other marginalized groups, hundreds of people climb out of the woodwork to claim to believe violence is always wrong and should not be used here, despite seeming to have little to no understanding of how violence or non-violence works as a tactic.
As an intensely non-violent person and non-religious quaker, I’m uniquely qualified to defend the decision of marginalized groups to use violence as a form of resistance against oppression.
Telling marginalized people how to use their bodies
Violence is a tool to accomplish taking or reclaiming power from someone else. We cannot control someone else’s actions with thought or with our words, so violence is used to undermine someone’s autonomy or take back our own autonomy by physically moving them, stopping them from moving, or threatening to do so.
It is not okay to tell a person from a marginalized group that they shouldn’t attempt to reclaim their bodily autonomy, especially when that person faces a different threat level and a different set of variables than you do. Whether you like it or not, if you are not marginalized in the way the person you are talking to is, there is likely an uneven power-dynamic between the two of you, and you need to use your additional power responsibly.
Non-violence requires an alternative
The biggest mistake people make in talking about the practice of non-violence as a tactic is to view it as a lack of action, rather than an alternative action to violence. Non-violence is not just refraining from doing something. Non-violence requires an action to replace it.
In order to use non-violence as a tactic, you must find an alternative action that is not only non-violent but that accomplishes the same goal that violence would in that context.
If someone threatens to beat you to a pulp if you don’t leave the bar your getting drinks in, and you have every right to be there, if you just leave, this action does not accomplish the goal of regaining your autonomy to occupy space in that bar without fearing for your safety. Leaving the area accomplishes the perpetrator’s goal of undermining your bodily autonomy by threat or by physically forcing your body to leave the premises.
With this information, practicing non-violence becomes much more challenging. If your goal is to fight for a cause, “just don’t fight” is not a valid alternative. And depending on how volatile the situation is, in order to still fight for your cause without using violence, “stay alive” may need to get de-prioritized as the less important goal.
Privilege affects which alternatives you have access to
Finding the alternative to violence is the hardest part of practicing non-violence. But it’s important to note that the number of alternatives you have directly correlates with how much privilege you have.
I once discussed how to fight racial inequality without resorting to violence with a white man who was also a quaker. Among his suggestions for alternatives were: Calling the cops on people doing something illegal, having the wrong-doers arrested, and signing a petition to enact a structural change in the system.
But these alternatives rely heavily on the institutional privileges enjoyed by people who are male, white, straight, Christian, able-bodied, and wealthy. The more privilege you have, the more likely it is that you can count on institutions working in your favor.
With privilege, if someone is harming you and it crosses a legal boundary, you can count on calling the police, have them show up, have them listen to you, and have the perpetrator arrested or at least have the crime properly investigated. Petitions you file are more likely to be taken seriously, you are more likely to be able to run for office and more likely to win, if you find a law to be unjust, you are more likely to have the resources to organize, donate, or advocate for a tangible change in the system. Even just debating someone, you’re more likely to be listened to and have your perspective taken seriously.
But your privilege also makes you less likely to be aware of the fact that these avenues are not available to people with less institutional support. Not everyone has the ability to rely on the legal system or going through traditional channels to change the legal system in order to seek justice.
Lack of options for marginalized groups
When people of color call the police, they risk being mistaken for the criminal and shot on the spot for a crime committed against them. Marginalized groups have fewer financial resources, less social sway, and less representation in politics to enact structural change than their privileged counter parts. And you’ll often find that when marginalized groups do pursue alternatives to violence that are effective, they’re told not to do that either.
Civil rights battles for women, people of color, LGB and T people, disabled people, have been going on for decades in which people have been trying to use the system to remedy injustice, and those injustices still exist. If you’re not familiar with the huge body of work done to push civil rights forward over the last 50 years, you need to do more research. People aren’t resorting to violence without attempting other avenues first, they are resorting to violence because they have exhausted all other options.
If you tell a marginalized person that they should avoid violence, always offer them an alternative that accomplishes the same goal in addition. And if a marginalized person tells you that have tried alternatives and nothing has worked, listen to them rather than assume they just haven’t tried hard enough.
We don’t have institutional support but they do
To complicate things, when we’re talking about fighting sources of oppression using non-violence, the people we are most likely to be pushing back on are people with more privilege. Which means not only are the people fighting in the resistance the least likely to be able to rely on institutions to help them change the system, the people who don’t want the system changed do have those institutions’ help.
Take Charlottesville as an example. Police were called multiple times in response to the harassment and violence the white supremacist protestors were initiating. But the police did not act. There were plenty of laws being broken, but very few arrests were made of white supremacists. Because privilege doesn’t just mean the system is more likely to work for you, it also means the system is more likely to work in your favor even if you don’t deserve it.
The fact that the system didn’t work to support the counter-protestors, and enable them to refrain from violent tactics, is not due to any failing on the part of the counter-protestors. It was not a surprise that the system failed to help them, it was a confirmation of a problem they already knew about and part of what they are fighting against.
“Try something else first”
When people are discussing non-violence, anytime I hear, “They really need to try something else first,” I see a lot of unanswered questions:
- How do they know whether or not someone tried other things before violence?
- How many of the people resisting need to try alternatives before violence?
- How many times to they need to try them?
- How will you know from the outside when a high enough percentage of people have tried a high enough number of tactics before it is acceptable for them to try violence as a solution?
The answer is, you can’t know definitively from the outside what someone else has tried, and it would be incredibly inefficient to require every individual member of the resistance to account for every action they’ve attempted before they reach a quota and they are allowed a pass to pursue violence if needed.
This argument is used, not because the person making it actually wants to know what was tried before violence was attempted, but because it’s very difficult to prove conclusively that “enough” was done, if “enough” has never been defined.
The importance of allowing for self-defense
Self defense is generally considered to be a pretty socially acceptable form of violence in our culture, but this acknowledgement is frequently left out when it’s people of color and other marginalized groups defending themselves against white men with institutional power.
Possibly one of the hardest parts of deciding to practice non-violence is if you decide to prioritize avoiding violence over your own survival. This decision requires a great deal of thought and dedication, as well as the will-power to overcome your body’s survival instincts when a threat finds you and you are out of alternatives. Deciding to sacrifice yourself for your beliefs is huge.
You can decide for yourself that you would never enact violence on someone else, even in self defense, and that is an admirable stance. But it is never okay to tell someone else how to make that decision for themselves, particularly if they are marginalized and you are not.
It is not okay to choose for someone else whether or not they should defend themselves from a deadly threat. It is really not okay to tell someone who is at higher risk of being killed or injured than you are that they should accept the danger rather than use violence. It is not okay to tell someone whose safety is compromised just by nature of their existence, that they should choose to sacrifice their bodies for your beliefs. It is not okay to dismiss a marginalized person’s assessment of the risk they are facing when you are not facing the same risk.
Violence against nazis is self-defense
Many of the recent conversations about the importance of sticking to non-violence have been revolved around white supremacists and nazis. Amateur pacifists argue that these groups are trying to provoke violence, and so to respond to their actions with violence would give them the satisfaction of a fight that they are looking for.
Setting aside the many instances of actual violence nazis and white supremacists have initiated with increasing frequency in the last 20 years, this argument overlooks one main point: Nazism is an inherently violent ideology.
It is not possible for a nazi or white supremacist to spread their viewpoint peacefully, because the premise of their beliefs is that all people not like them should be eliminated. The existence of other races, sexual orientations, gender identities, religions, and physical and mental abilities is a threat to their goal, and according to their philosophy, a threat to their existence.
A threat of violence is not a form of non-violence. If someone threatens to kill your wife, after actually killing 10 other women, you’re unlikely to want to discuss it calmly with them. It’s a lot more likely that you’d respond with some version of, “you put a finger on her and I’ll punch your face in.” The fact that someone is using words and not actually in the act of killing you does not make the threat a non-violent tactic. Violence in response to a serious threat is a form of self-defense.
The majority of responses one would use against such a threat to avoid using violence involve institutional support, ie: calling the police and reporting the threat, which is a privilege many of the people that nazi’s want dead don’t have to the point that calling the police could even increase the level of danger that they are in.
There’s also some hypocrisy here. The free-speech advocates are defending nazi’s right to express their (inherently violent and threatening) opinions, and this is not labeled as a form of violence. However, when members of the resistance advocate punching a nazi– even if they haven’t actually done it– just talking about the act of punching them is considered a violent approach.
Whether or not we consider talking about enacting violence to be a form of violence seems to depend on how seriously we take the threat. The problem is, how dangerous we view someone to be, and how we view their intentions is very influenced by how much privilege they have.
The white, cis, able-bodied, well off men that make up the majority of current white supremacist groups are members of so many privileged demographics, that people are likely to see them as trust worthy and not actually that dangerous– even if they have just killed someone, are currently carrying heavy weaponry, and are openly making plans to enact more violence.
Whereas people of color and members of other marginalized groups are societally distrusted, or even assumed to be violent and hostile by nature. A threat from a white supremacist is seen to be letting off hot air, whereas a threat from a person of color is seen as genuinely dangerous and a sign of immorality.
I get incredibly annoyed when the people who jump up to call for no violence clearly have never considered the ethics of violence outside of this specific context, in which marginalized people are the only ones being instructed to stop.
“Violence doesn’t accomplish anything,” says the U.S. citizen, a few weeks after celebrating 4th of July, the day we honor our country’s independence, that we won after fighting a war in which 8,000 revolutionary soldiers died in battle.
These inspirational-quotes-that-look-good-embroidered-on-a-pillow-pacifists never acknowledge the impact of the civil war to abolish slavery, or world war 2 to stop hitler. They don’t acknowledge the riots that were instrumental in moving forward civil rights for gay people or people of color. They gloss over every revolution in history in which an oppressed country took back their independences from imperialists through violence.
And of course, these well meaning but annoying faux-pacifists who pop up only when people of color protest the racial injustices they face, can’t ever seem to summon up the energy to say the same thing in response to a string of police brutality incidents, in which police officers engaged in illegal, cruel, or deadly tactics to contain non-violent, unarmed people of color, or during discussions of gun regulation after a particularly bad mass shooting, which happen at significantly higher rates in our country than any others on the planet.
The problem with the argument that it is never ethical to inflict violence on another person, is that the majority of people who casually spout this opinion are not aware of their own biases, and not aware of the marginalized groups that they don’t actually consider to be people. It’s easy to say you should never enact violence on another person when the only people you find easy to humanize happen to be white, able-bodied, etc.
The reason for the violence matters
Not all violence is equal. The intentions behind the decision to control someone else’s bodily autonomy matter in determining how ethical it is.
One can argue the complexities of ethical quandaries infinitely, but regardless of the degree of difference, it’s naive to say that it is equally wrong to kill a mass murderer than it is to kill an innocent child. Even if both actions are wrong, it is not equally wrong to use violence to rescue an innocent person who has been kidnapped than it is to use violence to kidnap them, even if people are harmed in both situations. Enacting violence against someone for their ideology is incredibly different from enacting violence against someone for an inherent trait that they cannot control.
Similarly, violence against a person is not the same as violence against an object. When it comes to destruction of property, how serious the level of violence is, depends a lot on the intent, particularly because, you aren’t necessarily undermining someone’s bodily autonomy if you damage their property.
Property destruction can be used as a direct or implied threat, or even a future potential source of physical danger, which is when it can be categorized as serious violence. But it can also do nothing but cause a nuisance or cost money in repairing the damage, which makes comparing it to physically harming other people a laughable comparison. You can replace a statue. You cannot replace a human. Protecting property from destruction should never be considered more important than protecting people, even if capitalism thinks it should be.
When you critique someone’s decision to enact violence, you are also critiquing the reason they chose violence. If you critique all violence as equally bad, than the distinction that one person was killed for no other reason than that they were transgender or disabled or Jewish or black, and one person was killed to stop them from killing someone else, is meaningless. To say that the two situations are the same does a grave disservice to innocent victims of violence, and to self-less fighters who protect those that cannot protect themselves. We call those people heroes.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. In addition to creating a collection of educational resources for social justice, she works as a freelance writer specializing in content about her experience with disability, chronic illness, mental health, and trauma. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, Betty’s Battleground, and Splain You a Thing. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram.