MLK and non-violent protest

Yesterday in DC, the Martin Luther King memorial was officially inaugurated. I was lucky enough to be invited to a lunch celebrating the event afterwards, where the speakers were veterans of the civil rights movement Andrew Young, John Dingell, and Harris Wofford. Video here

There were some interesting recollections of Dr King and his struggles, but not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on the events of today, particularly the Occupy Wall Street movement. One of the speakers made the point that the Tahrir Square occupiers had been inspired by the example and ideas of Martin Luther King.

Now, of course, the circle has been closed with the example of Tahrir inspiring #OWS. There has been more direct inspiration too. When I visited the Washington occupation in McPherson Square to drop off some magazines for their library, I picked up a reproduction of a comic-book format publication of the civil rights movement (cover price, 10 cents!), describing the struggle and particular the careful preparation given to ensure a non-violent response, even in the face of violent provocation.

And that brings me to the question I want to discuss, one that is as relevant today as in the civil rights era.  When is violence justified as a response to manifest and apparently immovable injustice? My answer, with Martin Luther King is: Never, or almost never.[1]

In large measure, my reasoning is consequentialist. Violence directed against established authority rarely works, and hardly ever produces enduring gains. Most revolutions fail, and most successful revolutions produce a new tyranny, often worse than the old, followed eventually by a return to the status quo ante.

Symbolic violence is almost invariably ineffectual or counterproductive, precisely because it derives whatever force it has from the implicit or explicit threat of revolution, which most people rightly view with fear and horror. Since symbolic violence the only kind of violence that is likely to arise in the context of the current #OWS protests, it’s important that it should be avoided as far as possible, and condemned, without qualification or excuse by reference to police violence, when it does occur.

 But those aren’t the only arguments. Symbolic violence involves essentially random harm to people or destruction of goods or productive capacity. Even where a case can be made that the targets are in some sense deserving, random and capricious punishment is always unjust. And the obvious enjoyment that so many of those who engage in symbolic violence take in the activity is morally indefensible.

Violence on a scale sufficient to effect political change is bound to lead to the deaths of innocent people, both directly and indirectly.

Directly, the immediate victims of political violence are likely to be working people – police or soldiers (often conscripts). Once deadly violence has been adopted as an instrument, whether by a state, a nationalist movement or political organization, the class of ‘legitimate’ targets expands steadily, to include alleged propagandists, collaborators and so on, and then to would-be neutrals. Moreover the tolerance for “collateral damage” invariably increases over time.

Typically, these direct deaths are only the beginning – retaliation from the other side, especially from a state against a revolutionary movement, is usually far more deadly. Attempts to disclaim moral responsibility for the predictable outcomes of a resort to war or violence (see, for example, Norman Geras on the Iraq war), are dishonest and dishonorable.

A further important point is that the belief that injustice is immovable is often wrong. The advocates of the Iraq War argued that Saddam’s regime was immovable, and that the inevitable death and suffering associated with an invasion would be less than that from leaving the regime in power for decades to come. The Arab Spring has shown that claim to be, at best, highly questionable.

How far does this argument go? Not to the point of denying a right of self-defence against an attacker who is trying to kill or maim you, or (with more qualifications) to defend others against such attacks. Or to the point of disallowing resistance to slavery by whatever means necessary.

I don’t have a final position on this, beyond saying that the presumption against violence ought to be much stronger than it has generally been. Following on from the marathon Pinker thread, I hope and believe that understanding of the futility of violence has increased over time, if only because the lessons of the first half of last century were so hard to ignore.

fn1. I hope it goes without saying that war in pursuit of “legitimate national interests”, as opposed to self defence is almost always foolish and never justified. Even in the US, this lesson seems to be coming home.



Posted via email from John’s posterous

79 thoughts on “MLK and non-violent protest

  1. POP you wrote “They don’t have iPhones and they tinker with their cars year in year out to keep them running for 30 or 40 years or more and only use them to fetch things from local markets.” That sounds just like me and I can only do that because I have a government who looks after me. My aim is to do without corporations, not government.

    Governments in the rice growing areas that I think you are referring to do not provide health care and the peasants never did save up for it. Good grief, I have heard that young people know nothing about history but I am still surprised at your apparent ignorance.

    It is the desire for stuff, that comes with the corporations and their advertising, that disrupts the family and induces the young and foolish to venture into the cities in search of material goods that promise so much and deliver so little.

    It is not silly to present a logical argument with valid premises against things like Sharia law and libertarianism. That is what needs to be done to encourage people like you to discriminate between the ideologue and those rational men who do look at both or all sides of the issue.

    I’m not sure about your free kool-aid thingy – how would that work? Say something sensible next time.

  2. @Julie Thomas

    Apparent ignorance? you dropped a bit of a brick there i think – we live in precisely the area i’m talking about except when we are in Australia – which is a bit of a juggle at times

    And the government does provide full health care – free for nationals and dirt cheap for foreigners (i cut my hand with a sickle, had to have stitches, from the time we arrived at the hospital until we walked out was about 30 minutes – they charged me $13 and the job was so well done i have no visible scar – that was a few years ago)

    and the fact is that before the new health care system they did in fact save for it – they saved for everything but health was very high on their agenda – and they still save – it’s makes our behaviour look pitiful because they save the equivalent of our cents judiciously.

    and the pay cash for everything – the idea of a debt is foreign, anathema

    i find it interesting that you seem to think so highly of your education sufficient to assert that i am ignorant of something i know a LOT about – i married into the culture, raised kids, taught and spent a long time living like a peasant – working, eating offal, drinking home made and interacting with everyone from the poorest to the most well off in the region – none of whom i’d imagine fit people’s idea of a capitalist running dog

    as for the stuff thing – on that you are right – the regions i refer to were fine until they got TV – and until the kids of locals who had gone to live in the capital started coming home with all the wiz bangs – it did not effect the older people much but kids just went for it like they do to ice cream

    i brought two of those kids (and i’m bringing more soon) to do 5 years school here – from rice farmer girls to computer experts in 3 years – now when i first met them they were lovely quiet polite hard working little angels and now they are getting to be like you



    are you the same person by name employed by the state government? If so I wonder that you get to spend so much of the tax payers money doing this sort of thing. It’s a bit of a time waster and i barely get time to scan posts let alone comment on everything i read


  3. Here we go!

    “Dan’s course reading reviews: the chapter on prices from Milton and Rose Friedman’s *Free to Choose* – an embarrassingly naive economic analysis (conveniently, completely ignoring social and environmental externalities) is made additionally dubious and feeble by ugly and transparent attempts to smuggle in regressive prescriptions (against, for example, inheritance tax) that have no relevance to the stated topic. The result is as stupid and venal as its intended readership. Zero out of five.”

    To which my friend Henry said: “I’m so glad you’re reading this rubbish so that we don’t have to :)”

    To which I said: “Yeah, well, that makes one of us.”

  4. @Dan

    my ma would cringe at me speaking ill of the dead so i wont

    what i will say about Friedman is something i don’t have a ref for so it might not be true in which case consider the comment terminated here >.

    but just on the off chance it is true

    apparently shortly before he died he said something along the lines of (my wording)

    “there can never be true democracy in the systems i have spent my life promoting – for the simple reason that if the masses had a fair vote they would promptly vote themselves sufficient of the wealth of the rich to make everyone equal”

    when i read it i interpreted it as being an apology – for him supporting some of the most heinous regimes of all time

    not that it has done any good for those who suffered as a consequence of him and his more famous students


    (ps, maybe it was a Naomi Klein ref, i simply can’t recall)

  5. POP: …and that’s *exactly* what Krugman means when he says stuff like – I’m paraphrasing – at a deep level, the 1% know that their position is morally untenable.

  6. @Dan

    no argument from me

    but i’m still anti government 🙂

    simply because the systems people like Friedman and Sachs aided in every way would not exist on such scales if we had no government to empower them

    life would be smaller, simpler and there’d be a whole lot less people in the world

    because we’d never have been able to have the green revolution or any of the other high tech population stimulants we’re so terminally hooked on

    i’m off now – have a good WE


  7. Cheers POP, you too.

    Julie, yes, Rothbard was an economist of the Austrian school (though he was from the Bronx). Popularised anarcho-capitalism. I can’t put this clearly enough – it’s no straw-man argument to say that he thought that if you let the markets rip, they’ll deliver the best possible outcomes for everybody and – this is a thigh-slapper – monopoly will just go away. Obviously this flies in the face of the good society envisioned in the institutional approach advocated by, say, Galbraith.

    The key thing in taking down libertarianism, I think, is to distinguish the political project – greater “freedom” (freedom to) offers the best possible solutions in all instances (horsesh*t) from the economic project – basically, the efficient markets hypothesis amongst other debunked rubbish – which is also horsesh*t and which John Q’s recent book dismantles comprehensively. The two projects mutually reinforce and once one goes away, the other inevitably does too.

    At that point, libertarians revert to a moral vision of non-coercion which is at best purely normative and, if it was at all convincing for most people, self-identified Libertarian parties wouldn’t turn in such pitiful polling results (I wonder if they think all the rest of us are stupid, or, ala Marxism, falsely conscious?)

  8. lol Dan I don’t think libertarianism is for the taking down if the host of current evidence is not sufficiently convincing. It is a very seductive idea and as Pop goes the Weasel demonstrates, logic and rationality are not really the point. For some, I think, the attraction has to do with wanting to be ‘different’, not ‘ordinary’ and definitely not ‘one of the sheep’; the only thing to do is gently and respectfully encourage them to seek ‘therapy’ 🙂 and gain some self-insights.

    I like to keep checking though, just in case they have come up with something useful and I have missed it because of my own biases against their adolescent nonsense.

  9. I didn’t mean out-arguing libertarians individually, I meant out-arguing it in the public sphere so that it stops degrading our civic institutions and our aspirations to the Good Society.

  10. Libertarianism is especially appealing to the ‘Archie Bunker’ ‘Alf Garnett’ type, that is, the type of person who aspires to be a member of the one percent and deludes themselves about the likelihood of that happening. Unfortunately, the numbers of those, so deluded, has exploded massively in recent years as evidenced by the way everyone nowadays seems to consider themselves a celebrity. If you see yourself as the one holding the whip rather than receiving the lashing you have a different perspective on right and wrong.

  11. MLK was a complete failure politically. Not only was he lynched, like so many other black Americans, but his legacy was virtually inconsequential. The emancipation of the African-Americans, after a century of betrayal, was quickly reversed by the simple measure of criminalising black men, and incarcerating millions of them in the ever burgeoning prison-industrial complex. Virtually the only way to avoid being locked up, often for decades, is to join the US military, and do Uncle Sam’s imperial dirty work. African-American wealth, pitiful as it was, has been devastated since 2005 with an around 50% decline, and African-American unemployment, poverty and want are all increasing and stuck at levels far above those of other communities.
    Even worse, MLK’s radical political positions have been buried down Big Brother’s ‘memory hole’ and his legacy appropriated by confidence-men and sell-outs like the odious fraud Obama.

  12. Milton Friedman pushed the ‘free market’ bunkum because he believed that whatever else transpired, it would be ‘good for the Jews’ ie that they would prosper under it. Now there’s a discussion nobody’s allowed to initiate.

  13. So sorry Pop I missed your post yesterday in which you tell me off for making assumptions about you and now you’re gone to have a good weekend. In the spirit of MLK I apologise for my ‘violence’. I am also sorry if it was my ‘education’ that led me to dismiss you as ‘ignorant’; it was based on the vagueness of your ‘argument’.

    I did not mean to patronise you; this is a human characteristic that we all suffer from to some extent and jumping to conclusions is the only exercise a lot of us get in the wonderfully ‘easy’ but fundamentally unsatisfying, life that capitalism has provided for us.

    I am not any of the Julie Thomas’s that you can find if you google my name; I have looked myself and I couldn’t find anything about me. I do have a couple of publications in ‘reputable’ psychology journals but they are incredibly boring and I couldn’t find them online. My PhD project was to model or describe human movement using dynamical systems theory. After that, I dropped out of academia and now, with all the offspring grown and self-supporting, I am indulging my desire to be an ‘artist’ in a rural area of Queensland.

    We all have a tendency to negatively characterise those who do not agree with our own worldview and I will continue to be negative about both sharia law and libertarianism. They are both ideologies that have been shown to be harmful to human progress.

  14. Dan How does one discredit libertarianism, when the media owners are of that inclination? It seems to me also that probably a great many journalists, despite being characterised as ‘left wing’, do have a vague idea that there is some essential truth in the ideology.

  15. Anybody who characterises the product of the Western MSM, and its producers, as Leftwing’ is a cynical liar, or deranged.

  16. Julie Thomas :
    Terje, it is this belief that government necessarily equals coercion and violence that I would like explained. What is the basis for this belief? Who are the philosophers you read who have considered the nature of government and the relationship between government and the people? Hayek’s arguments just do not cut the mustard in this area. His ‘consequentist’ arguments are not at all convincing. Fundamnetally, his undertanding of ‘human nature’ or psychology was flawed. His assumptions about these things are contradicted by the latest scientific knowledge and therefore his arguments are not valid. Can you not see that if the foundation of his argument – his premises – are faulty then his conclusions are suspect?
    Have you ever read any of the ‘real’ enlightenment philosophers or any Chinese philosophy? Can you point to any historical evidence that shows that governments will always tend toward totalitarianism? Surely in these days of such plenty in terms of the availability of knowledge, one has an obligation to consider a wide range of ideas, and consider alternative possibilities, rather than being so certain that one has found the truth. I am not saying that you haven’t read widely and cross culturally but I see no evidence of any ‘philosophy’ the underpins your assumptions, other than that of Hayek and Rand and these people are just not up to it.
    For example, Rand defines the concepts of violence and coercion in a particular way and she was ostensibly very much against them, and yet, in her personal life she was violent and coercive. She also manipulated people and used them for her own ends, The psychological effects of this type of ‘underhanded’ exploitation can be as harmful as actual violence. Emotional abuse of children can be just as damaging as physical abuse. It can ‘cause’ death via suicide, just as physical violence can ‘cause’ death.
    It is simplistic and possibly arrogant – or just silly? – to believe that you can assess ‘undesirable consequences’ and ‘inferior outcomes’. I think it is quite clear that I would have a different idea about these things. Spinoza said, to see the truth, one needs to have no opinion either for or against anything. This and other ideas he had about human nature, are consistent with current knowledge of the way the human brain works and that is one of the reasons that I value Spinoza’s ideas more than I value Hayek’s.
    I do not think that you hate or self-hate. I do think it would be a good thing for the world and yourself, if you could free yourself from the bonds of your existing brain chemistry. Do some brain exercises that will develop your ability to appreciate complexity and uncertainty.

    Terje, you have not responded to this – no arguments??

  17. Julie@14: I think that is overstating the case somewhat. Even a lot of people who *buy* Murdoch papers are quite aware it is partisan horsesh*t. And there are so many alternative news sources – the Grauniad for news and Counterpunch for analysis are my favourites, and both offer enormous amounts of free content online.

  18. @Mulga Mumblebrain
    Indeed no one is going to discuss that here. Please take a week off to think about it. Anything more like that will result in a permanent ban as will any dispute or premature return to posting

  19. Dan yeah overstating the case, I do that; just a brief mental despair moment.

    I do enjoy the alternative news sources and one can even get academic content without uni access. Some great blogs out there also and recently we got upgraded so much faster searching and downloading.

    Not many of my conservative voting neighbours, do much searching for alternative news sources though.

  20. When is violence justified as a response to manifest and apparently immovable injustice? My answer, with Martin Luther King is: Never, or almost never

    It’s gthe equivocation that destroys your answer.

    I have no problem ageeing that violence is always costly, including of course for those pursuing legitimate grievances. Sometimes, however, there’s really no good alternative, because all non-violent methods of redressing a compelling grievance have been ruled out, and one must therefore choose not between violence and non-violence, but between violence in pursuit of justice and suffering in the name of non-violence.

  21. Fran “… one must therefore choose not between violence and non-violence, but between violence in pursuit of justice and suffering in the name of non-violence.”

    That’s where I always finish up when I think what I might have done had I been a black South Africa during apartheid or in half a dozen other situations.

    But I rather think violent action as a first resort, or a preference, is almost always wrong. It has the seductive appeal of immediate, vigorous, exciting action with a specific, limited focus …. but it has the very high danger of losing its proper focus towards the initially desired long-term change. Community development, legal processes, civil rights actions may seem tedious, thankless, grindingly slow or just hard slog. But those processes don’t have the lasting negative effects that violence, and its usual tit-for-tat element within and between groups, has on the larger society once hostilities have technically ended.

    There’s always someone with a (completely understandable) grudge about death or violence suffered months or years ago by an uncle, sister, village. The fact that this was a response to violence by one’s own relatives or neighbours days or weeks before the horrible event seems to vanish in the passions aroused. If we can avoid the whole violent transaction in the first place, we’d usually be much better off.

  22. @adelady

    Whether one uses violence or non-violence is not a matter of general principle, but a matter of utiility. Some resorts to violence do serious and lasting damage to the possibility of human community, and therefore should be contemplated when refraing from such violence would prejudice this even more. That is of course, always a guess, because we are dealing with uncertainty, but there are clearly times when violence, of some kind or another, is likely to represent the least of all harms.

    One should not fetishise non-violence or make light of suffering imposed upon ordinary people by it. While it may well be true that justice may follow in the long run if one simply endures, justice delayed is also justice denied. The Gaddhafi regime endured for 42 years — a lifetime for everyone born in the year I was — 1958. The best years of all the lives of people born in the 1950s have been consumed under the rule of a tyrant. That they may now live long enough to see a just Libya (and that is still less rather than more probable in my opinion) is cold comfort for the 42 years they have lost.

    Part of the problem is that violence covers a multitude of things — some of which would be criminal in any jursidiction, and some of which are defencible under certain circumstances. When a tyrant declares by deed that you can choose between suffering under the metaphoric lash and pressing your just claims, he declares, that one may fairly press one’s claims with violence, self-respecting persons will infer that they are entitled to make use of violence and coercion wherever it is used against the tyrant. They may choose not to do so, but if they do, the tyrant and his defenders dare not complain for the rules were of their choosing.

    So while one should think very carefully before resort to violence, and err, if one must, on the side of caution, one should always be willing, where justice demands it, to use only so much as is sufficient to attain just ends and no more.

  23. I’m thinking that ‘natural inequality’ – conceived of as the different distribution of human capacities – has some influence on the decision that we make about the use of violence. I’m thinking that our individual psychology/character will be a significant factor in the way we conceptualise both the problem and the solution that we prefer.

    Those with a ‘personality’ biased toward producing more of the brain chemicals that contribute toward that ‘strength of character’ and ‘determination to succeed’ that Hayek so admired, would more easily conclude that violence was the best solution. Whereas someone who has the type of personality that is uncomfortable with conflict will be biased toward choosing to suffer.

    Both strategies must have been successful for the survival of the group or one would assume that the non-violence ‘genes’ would have died out? I’m not sure how this suggestion helps anyone make the decision about what the best choice is and Fran’s final sentence works for me. But perhaps seeing things in terms of innate individual differences being ‘adaptive’, is useful as a way of refraining from making automatic ‘pejorative value judgements’, about the choice that individuals do make.

  24. @Julie Thomas

    i’d have thought that what we learn from things like this Stanford prison experiment and many other studies into the way humans, other primates and mammals interact would suggest that if you have the upper hand you are more likely to be “violent” and if not you will be submissive.

    i doubt there is such a thing as “non-violent genes” – we have genes that are triggered to influence development if the right environmental factors are present at the right time – enabling modules to have access to control and resources in ourselves

    put stress on a population and you see more variation in personality and character as this plays out in the phenotypes

    i see the problem as one that is hard to deal with as an individual because we are within the picture and can’t step back to see what it really is

    we can however look at our cousins and see how they behave

    and what we learned was that violence and war is the norm – bit of a shame really, we were so so sure that chimps and gorillas would teach us that the norm was gentle cooperation

    but it’s not


    let’s hope we can transcend our animal nature and learn to share (ha ha no aint that a joke)



  25. Julie, I’m not so sure about the individual character side of things.

    I’m generally speaking in favour of non-violence …….. but I’m also a mother. The mildest woman can become a fearsome fighter when her children are threatened. I’ve never been in that position, but I’d not give any guarantees that my usual attitude would prevail in the face of deadly threat to little ones. ‘Choosing to suffer’ is probably not my first option.

    It’s circumstance as much as personality that can shape such reactions. Of course, personal inclination isn’t really the topic when we’re thinking about how a community or country would or should respond to perceived threats.

    And I always finish up back where I started. Apartheid South Africa. What would I have done? What would I have encouraged, supported, enabled had I been there? Do I choose to sacrifice my safety or my life by involving myself and others in violence? Or do I choose to nobly suffer in silence and sacrifice hope for myself and for my children? Sacrifice is not an option – but there are different kinds of sacrifice. The mere fact of having to make such choices in those circumstances would change/bias/distort an individual inclination to pro or non-violence I think.

  26. Pop, the Stanford experiment shows that if enabled, and when the social context approves of violence, those with a tendency to be authoritarian will induge this tendency and those with a tendency toward toward submission will submit. But the take home message from this experiment is that it is the social context that changes ‘good’ people into ‘bad’ people. This is similar to the tendency that you recognise further on in your post; that to put stress on people changes their ‘natural’ behaviour.

    I think we look back in history and it seems that war and violence are a constant, but this is not the case. For a start, there is a lot of misunderstanding about about the violence that we find in the Australian Indigenous society. From my reading – I can find references for you but I have used all my quota for this month – there were no wars of conquest, inter-tribal conflict was resolved with a minimum of violence, and feuds were rare because of the way they handled the conflict resolution process. Justice was based on reciprocity not the idea of perpetator and a victim.

    Also, when you refer to primates, the evidence is more complex, context seems to be critical for how primates behave and there are large differences in the social organisation between different types of primates; bonobo’s are different from chimps. Also, it seems that primate behaviour can change significantly when the social conditions are changed. Apparently, in groups of chimps where there is no competition for resources, the group will change from being dominated by one dominant male into one in which a loose coalition of older females dominates the group.

    There is much to be learned about being human and I am not certain that agressive violence is an essential part of the human condition.

  27. Adelady the more one thinks about it, the more complex the question becomes but violence in the protection of our children, in evolutionary terms, has to be not only acceptable but essential.

    As you say, making the decision for a community or national response is a different thing and Gandhi and MLK are the outstanding examples – or are they the only examples? – of a new way of dealing with oppression.

    I do not have any real understanding of the South African situation; but it was a difficult situation. Was there any ‘movement’ or basis that provided arguments for and supported a non-violent response?

  28. dear Julie Thomas
    “are they [gandhi, king] the only examples?”

    no, looking back, there is a clear link with tolstoy’s anarcho-pacifism. while studying law in england, gandhi followed his mother’s parting injunction & upon arrival “over the seas” joined the vegetarian society, a hive of fabians. here he met louise & aylmer maude, tolstoy’s contemporary english translators (oxford) & regular correspondents with tolstoy since around 1889/90. through the auspices of the maudes, gandhi was introduced to tolstoy & they began a correspondence that lasted until tolstoy’s death.

    one of gandhi’s south african ashrams was named “satyagraha”, the other was named “tolstoy”.

    tolstoy’s “letter to a hindu” is addressed to gandhi & is available, with an introduction by gandhi here:-

    the manifestation, in the material world, of the principle of non-violent resistance, depicted through scenes in the careers of rabindranath tagore, leo tolstoy & martin luther king, all overseen by gandhi, is the subject of the 1980 philip glass opera “satyagraha”:-
    yours sincerely
    alfred venison

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