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.



79 thoughts on “MLK and non-violent protest

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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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