Why nonviolence?

Aug 16 JDN 2459078

You are no doubt aware that there are widespread protests going on right now. You may even have marched in some of them. Nearly 30 million Americans have participated in the Black Lives Matter protests, located in cities all around the country; this makes them quite likely the largest protests in American history.

The right wing is of course making much of the isolated incidents of violence that have occurred, often but not always actually provoked by the police or federal agents assigned to quell the protests. They have also made much of the property destruction caused by riots that have emerged from the protests, typically eliding the distinction between property destruction and violence. Since there has been far more property destruction than actual violence, this allows them to effectively inflate the level of violence.

In reality, the total deaths caused by these protests over two months and counting is clearly less than the number of Americans who are shot by police in an average week. And the total amount of property destruction is clearly less than the tens of billions of dollars per year that are stolen in wage theft, let alone the hundreds of billions of dollars per year that are stolen by white-collar crime. If violence and loss of property are really what you care about, these protests should not be your main concern.

Yet, I am concerned that too many on the left are too willing to accept violence. I have seen far too many people sharing and endorsing this quote:

“Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”

~ Stokely Carmichael

Nonviolence does work. Nonviolence did work for the civil rights movement. No, it doesn’t depend upon your opponent having a conscience—it only depends upon bystanders having a conscience. (Also, “the United States has no conscience” is only true insofar as socially constructed institutions don’t have feelings. Clearly most of the people in the United States—probably even most of the people in the US government—have a conscience!)

In fact, nonviolent protest is typically more effective than violent protest. When protesters turn to violence, they alienate the public whose support they need, and they allow the government to feel justified in responding with even more force. Campaigns of nonviolent civil resistance have been historically more effective than violent revolutions, even against authoritarian governments. On average, nonviolent protests are twice as likely to achieve their goals than violent protests.

Even worse than the Carmichael quote are the memes that have been shared saying things like this: “You want to fix the system, but not use violence; so, by magic?”

Nonviolence doesn’t mean politely asking for rights. It doesn’t mean being calm and non-confrontational. It doesn’t mean waiting patiently.

Nonviolence doesn’t even mean following the law or never damaging property. Some of the most important and effective acts of nonviolent protest involved breaking laws and damaging things—Rosa Parks was breaking the law, and does the Boston Tea Party ring a bell?

Nonviolence doesn’t even mean that nobody gets hurt; it often means strategically placing your own people in harm’s way knowing that the government’s violent overreaction will stir support for your cause. It’s a kind of ethical and political judo: Instead of directly resisting your stronger opponent, you maneuver so that their own power ends up damaging them. You use the government’s repression as a weapon for your own cause.

What does nonviolence mean?

Nonviolence means you don’t hurt people.

It sounds so simple and obvious, but a lot of people still don’t seem to get it. They seem to think that our only choices are “ask nicely” or “start a civil war”. Asking nicely obviously would not be effective; only someone deeply naive could imagine otherwise. Working legally within the system can sometimes be effective, but when really deep reforms are needed urgently it is often not enough. Starting a civil war might work—it has sometimes worked in the past—but it would come at a horrendous cost, probably thousands if not millions of lives.

Fortunately, these are not our only options. We don’t have to ask nicely; we don’t even have to obey the law. We can even break things. We just need to not hurt people. That still allows for a variety of forms of protest, confrontation, civil disobedience, and direct action. Jacobin, oddly enough, gets this right.

In reality, any movement is going to have extremists who act violently. A protest movement can still be considered nonviolent as long as such incidents of violence can be kept to a minimum, and never condoned by the leaders of the movement. Thus far, Black Lives Matter has absolutely fit that description—indeed, impressively so, given the sheer scale of the protests.

Some degree of self-defense can even be consistent with nonviolence, though it must be of a very minimal sort. Wearing armor and carrying a shield is entirely consistent with nonviolence. Hitting back after you are hit is a finer line. This is morally still nonviolence as long as you use only the minimal necessary force—but politically it will only work if the public clearly knows that you are not the ones who hit first.

The ethical case for nonviolence is simple, but worth repeating: Human lives have intrinsic value. Yes, even if those human beings work willingly for a corrupt and evil system. Yes, even the average Nazi was a sentient being of intrinsic moral worth.

The only people who really deserve to die are the psychopaths at the top pulling the strings—and they are almost never the ones on the front lines getting shot or bombed. If you had a plan to kill Donald Trump, I would have no particular moral objection. I think such a plan would be very unlikely to succeed, and I would never attempt such a thing myself; but does Donald Trump deserve to die for his brazen authoritarianism, overwhelming corruption, and depraved indifference for over 160,000 dead Americans? Yes. But how does that justify killing random police officers?

Nonviolence also has another great advantage, which is that it works better when you are on the right side. The effectiveness of violence is proportional to your firepower; the effectiveness of nonviolence is proportional to your righteousness. Why in the world would you, who are righteous but have little firepower, want to use violence against an enemy that is unrighteous and has more firepower?

Nonviolent protest actually works best when your enemy is violent and repressive; it is precisely that contrast between your nonviolence and their violence that wins people to your cause. Probably the smartest thing a government could do to respond to nonviolent protests would be to sit back and calmly watch them, then make whatever was the minimal level of concessions in order to make the protests lose momentum. When you bring out the tear gas, you have basically already admitted that you are on the wrong side of history. But repressive governments don’t think that way; if they did, they would have given those same concessions before the protests even gathered steam. They imagine that by simply cracking down harder they will be able to win—but they are usually wrong.

And even if the ethical case for nonviolence means literally nothing to you, please consider the strategic case: The empirical data says quite clearly that nonviolent protest works better. In many ways, violence is the default; it’s the conflict revolution mechanism that we evolved to use, largely unmodified from the same instincts that motivate any other primate. Nonviolence is a recent invention, a high-tech solution to this ancient problem. Violence is easy; just about anyone can do it. Nonviolence is hard; it requires strategic cleverness, unwavering vigilance, and deep moral courage.

This is not to say that violence is never necessary: Against a truly totalitarian regime that is willing to murder people simply for speaking out against the government, violence may well be the only option. I certainly do not begrudge the French Resistance for using violence against the Nazis. But violence should be a last resort, not simply for ethical reasons—but also for strategic reasons.

This is a battle for the soul of America

July 9, JDN 2457944

At the time of writing, I just got back from a protest march against President Trump in Santa Ana (the featured photo is one I took at the march). I had intended to go to the much larger sister protest in Los Angeles, but the logistics were too daunting. On the upside, presumably the marginal impact of my attendance was higher at the smaller event.

Protest marches are not a common pastime of mine; I am much more of an ivory-tower policy wonk than a boots-on-the-ground political activist. The way that other people seem to be allergic to statistics, I am allergic to a lack of statistics when broad claims are made with minimal evidence. Even when I basically agree with everything being said, I still feel vaguely uncomfortable marching and chanting in unison (and constantly reminded of that scene from Life of Brian). But I made an exception for this one, because Trump represents a threat to the soul of American democracy.

We have had bad leaders many times before—even awful leaders, even leaders whose bad decisions resulted in the needless deaths of thousands. But not since the end of the Civil War have we had leaders who so directly threatened the core institutions of America itself.

We must keep reminding ourselves: This is not normal. This is not normal! Donald Trump’s casual corruption, overwhelming narcissism, authoritarianism, greed, and utter incompetence (not to mention his taste in decor) make him more like Idi Amin or Hugo Chavez than like George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. (Even the comparison with Vladimir Putin would be too flattering to Trump; Putin at least is competent.) He has personally publicly insulted over 300 people, places, and things—and counting.

Trump lies almost constantly, surrounds himself with family members and sycophants, refuses to listen to intelligence briefings, and personally demeans and even threatens journalists who criticize him. Every day it seems like there is a new scandal, more outrageous than the last; and after so long, this almost seems like a strategy. Every day he finds some new way to offend and undermine the basic norms of our society, and eventually he hopes to wear us down until we give up fighting.

It is certainly an exaggeration, and perhaps a dangerous one, to say that Donald Trump is the next Adolf Hitler. But there are important historical parallels between the rise of Trump and the rise of many other populist authoritarian demagogues. He casually violates democratic norms of civility, honesty, and transparency, and incentivizes the rest of us to do the same—a temptation we must resist. Political scientists and economists are now issuing public warnings that our democratic institutions are not as strong as we may think (though, to be fair, others argue that they are indeed strong enough).

It was an agonizingly close Presidential election. Even the tiniest differences could have flipped enough states to change the outcome. If we’d had a better voting system, it would not have happened; a simple plurality vote would have elected Hillary Clinton, and as I argued in a previous post, range voting would probably have chosen Bernie Sanders. Therefore, we must not take this result as a complete indictment of American society or a complete failure of American democracy. But let it shake us out of our complacency; democracy is only as strong as the will of its citizens to defend it.