Campus discourse surrounding the justifiability of violent resistance has burgeoned in tandem with the occasionally-violent protests against police brutality following the killings of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray. A student named Manny Thompson has placed himself at the center of this discourse in the last few weeks after getting into a quarrel with Provost John Etchemendy in an email thread that has been shared around campus.
The quarrel began when Etchemendy called for more “civility” in “discourse on campus” surrounding issues such as “Israel and Palestine, sexual assault and due process, investment in fossil fuels, marriage and gay rights, black lives, or increasing disparities in wealth.” He then claimed that the Stanford community seems “to have lost the ability to engage in dialogue” in light of these political issues, and that Stanford University’s “mission” is to “open minds through dialogue, not to close them by muffling opposition.”
Thompson responded to these comments by accusing Etchemendy of being disingenuous in his call for dialogue, which Thompson interpreted to be little more than “diversionary tactic” and not a “means to solve injustice [but a means]of normalizing it.” Thompson justified his claim that Etchemendy and the administration don’t actually care about dialogue by arguing that “Sexual assault, police brutality against black and brown bodies, Israeli apartheid, and unfounded attacks against SOCC perpetrated by the Review have been going on for years and Etchemendy and the university have remained silent.” He then made the controversial assertion: “I’d boycott dialogue and commit to violent resistance before I engage with such evil.” Consistent with his position, Thompson refused to meet with Etchemendy in his office to clarify what Etchemendy believed were misunderstandings between them.
Afterwards, Thompson published a defense of his support for violent resistance in lieu of dialogue in the Stanford Daily. A look into the history of thought on the relationship between violence, power, and politics grants us some conceptual tools with which we might highlight some valid arguments, but simultaneously dismantle certain false dichotomies and theoretical assumptions throughout Thompson’s article.
In an email correspondence between Thompson and me, he summed up his argument as such: “I am just saying that limiting the oppressed to only nonviolent means is unfair and foolish.” I will try to show that violent resistance in fact limits prospects for meaningful political change by critiquing three arguments Thompson raised in his Stanford Daily op-ed.
1. “In an interpersonal context, violent resistance is not considered a matter of moral scrutiny — we call it self-defense. If someone is gunning down your entire family, few would condemn you for fighting back in order to protect your remaining loved ones. So if the state is killing your community — your extended family, everyone who looks like you — why should anyone condemn you for trying to protect them? Why should an institutional context require you to stand back and watch them die? Why does structural violence not merit the same urgency?”
Here, the assumption operating in the background is that freedom from immediate harm and freedom to harm in retaliation are interchangeable; negative freedom, freedom from externalities that keep you from desired states and actions (e.g. being safe), is confused with positive freedom, freedom to control and direct one’s actions (e.g. fighting back). The obvious moral legitimacy of the former is used in a rhetorical sleight-of-hand to legitimize the latter. It is often the case in these “interpersonal” contexts of self-defense that the positive is used to achieve the negative: inflicting bodily harm to disable an assailant can enable one to preserve one’s own safety. However, it remains clear that, although positive freedom to harm an assailant can fulfill the need for negative freedom, it is far from the only possibility, and as such can be justified only under certain conditions. As Hannah Arendt put it: violence’s “justification loses in plausibility the farther away its intended end recedes into the future. No one will question the use of violence in self-defense because the danger is not only clear but present, and the end to justify the means is immediate.” Thus, because the intended end in our case is the long-term defeat of structural violence, violence as a means to combat structural violence becomes difficult to justify.
This added variable of time is forgotten regularly in times of hardship; the overriding impulse for immediate action is spurred by our compassion, but even in cases of compassion, it wise to distrust one’s impulses. The need for action is obvious, but which action is the real question at stake, and to know which actions to carry out and which words to string together at the right times is a privilege accorded to those who are patient enough to “learn, learn, learn.” There is a reason why Lenin spent his time during WWI reading Hegel’s Logic and why we don’t hear anything about the 500 protests that happen each and every day across China. To act, as a human being with limited knowledge of the future, is to set in motion a means-end-structure with wholly unpredictable ends. To engage in a violent act is to further complicate this structure and make the means and ends both more unpredictable and dangerous to the point of creating, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, a “descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.”
Any successful rebel must be aware of the dangers of counterproductive action. For every successful rebellious movement in history, there have been thousands of failures; this is the problem of organized dissent — the antithesis of immediate, impulsive action. To refrain from acting, especially violently, on a powerful sense of urgency, is not reducible to standing back and watching people die, as Thompson suggests, due to the temporal and physical distance granted by the realities of structural violence. The problems of structural violence highlighted by Thompson, unfortunately, do not have as straightforward of solutions as attacking the assailant killing your family and loved ones, by the very fact that the violence is structural rather than encased solely within the representatives of this structure. To act immediately is a false virtue.
2. “You can disagree with the strategic efficacy of their actions, but when people defy — even violently — this endless structural violence, the only consistent position is to label their defiance self-defense. To condemn their actions implicitly endorses violence against the marginalized by circumscribing the means by which they can defend themselves.”
In this excerpt, a dichotomy in the form of an “either/or” structure is used to further stress the urgency of the situation discussed in the first excerpt: regardless of what you think, you are either endorsing resistance violence or structural oppressive violence, so even to hesitate is to be violent. By establishing the “endlessness” of structural violence and our inescapable endorsement of it, either one way or another, Thompson then argues that any restriction of the violence of the resistance tips the balance in the oppressive structures’ favor. However, borrowing from the first section, it is unpredictable whether limiting the resistance’s means to nonviolence will really lead to more violence against the resistance. Therefore, even if one agrees with the dubious assumption that to condemn one is to endorse another, whether calls for nonviolence actually grant the oppressors an advantage, or calls for violence grant the resistance an advantage has yet to be resolutely proven — for the reason that it is impossible to prove.
It is also far from clear that to condemn violent resistance is to endorse the oppressor. This is the very problem that alienated Albert Camus from both the French and the Algerians during the Algerian War of Independence. Camus, an Algerian native raised in poverty, of course morally favored an Algerian freedom from colonial oppression, but violence complicated everything. He had always condemned the horrifyingly violent occupation of Algeria by the French, but at the same time he could not endorse the violent means used by the Algerian revolutionaries. He attempted to escape what he understood to be a false dichotomy. Camus expressed his problem poignantly: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” Still, the Algerians accused him of supporting the French colonizers, and the Stalinist French intellectuals of his time accused him of being spineless and self-absorbed. But, in the end, like in most wars, there was a truce, a political act pleaded for by Camus since the beginning.
3. “Those who advocate for dialogue and express concern over violent resistance will argue that they do so to preserve life. But this argument obscures the reality: in these conflicts, an enormous power imbalance allows the oppressing force to inflict violence relentlessly, so every second wasted in ‘civil discourse,’ fruitless peace talks or any other type of diversionary dialogue is yet another moment that precious life is lost. Resorting to violence means that the oppressed have come to the difficult conclusion that if they do not engage in self-defense there will only be greater loss of life. People do not violently resist because they enjoy violence or are inherently criminal — they do so because they hold life sacred. It is then those who condemn this form of resistance that hold life in contempt.”
Thompson and others who feel increasingly frustrated with “fruitless peace talks,” seem to have already reached a false conclusion that dialogue, and, by extension politics, is useless. The only way in which Thompson can salvage the notion that he is acting politically is if violence can be “a continuation of politics by other means” or if “power grows out of the barrel of a gun” à la Clausewitz and Mao, respectively. However, borrowing from Hannah Arendt, violence is not a continuation of politics, but rather its very antithesis. Borrowing further, it is political debate between individuals that serves as the means by which power can be transferred; the genuine changing of hearts and minds through discourse leads to the correction of oppressive regimes, not violent resistance. Thus, in our attempt to bring balance to the oppressive, imbalanced power structures, a thorough understanding of what power and violence actually are and how it is transferred is first necessary; with these understandings of the terms, violent resistance will prove to be a counterproductive method, not a solution.
Here, an adoption of Arendt’s theses in On Violence on power, politics, and violence can provide direction. Arendt defines power to be “the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’ we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name. The moment the group, from which the power originated to begin with…disappears, ‘his power’ also vanishes.” Thus, power is here defined as a potential inherent to a political community, as opposed to domination or control.
On the other hand, violence is something we are familiar with, but it is important to keep in mind that it is an instrument used to achieve certain ends, such as control. As a result, “The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. And this latter is never possible without instruments.” For this reason, MLK held considerable power despite his non-violence, and the terrorists of 9/11 held little to no power in spite of, or rather because of, their violence. Arendt’s distinction becomes especially relevant to our case when looking at revolutions, her favorite case being the Regime of Terror under Robespierre that realistically held no power and fell apart when the violence holding things together killed itself. More recently, in Egypt, the power of Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring lost control when the military government overthrew Morsi; it would be sloppy thinking, from Arendt’s perspective, to say in this case that the military government had more power than the organized people of Egypt, rather than more means of control, i.e. violence.
Therefore, when one finds power or violence absolute, its opposite is nonexistent, though in our political reality it is most often a mix of the two, which is partly responsible for the conceptual confusion and lack of distinctions. MLK’s insight that “a riot is the language of the unheard” reinforces this conceptual framework, for the violence of the disjointed and disorganized rioters becomes a reality only once avenues for political expression have been made nearly impossible. For this reason, our campus activists have no need to resort to violence, because they have a sufficient, well-organized power base for campus politics.
Even though violence can indeed destroy the power of a group via large-scale assault, “[in]a contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always been absolute.” Thus, instead of engaging in violent resistance against a militarily superior state, it has been historically prudent to undermine the power of the state, thereby disabling its capacity to wield a loyal military force, achievable only by means of a political movement and engaging in dialogue. Therefore, only politics, not violent resistance, can help weaken the current power structure Thompson, and many others including myself, find intolerable.
However, how does one return to politics without running up against the same walls, that is, the “fruitless peace talks” Thompson and others are justifiably frustrated with? As I wrote in an earlier article for the Stanford Political Journal, the solution is to be found in improved organization. The large amount of peaceful protests and solidarity between movements (e.g., Black Lives Matter and Palestinian Liberation) that have taken place just in this past year demonstrate an impressive power base: a passionate people with a shared set of ideals. However, referring back to Arendt’s definition of power, there is the component of “acting in concert.” This implies that organizational principles alter the way in which power can manifest itself and effect change. Thus, the question becomes: how can a movement most effectively organize and direct its power to reshape reality to fit its ideals? A look towards political history hints that centralization, plurality, and hierarchy are fundamental organizational techniques that aid movements in forming an accountable, public leadership that can dominate the dialogue. Thompson’s immediate consideration of violent resistance in response to his frustration with how dialogue is currently being conducted incorrectly assumes that the resistance has nothing more to improve in its approach to dialogue by means of internal, organizational politics.
I agree with Thompson that it is deeply unsettling that the violence of the rioters has garnered more criticism than the constant structural violence inflicted upon the people of the world. For example, there is something fundamentally wrong when more public ire can be raised over the looting of a CVS than the lives of Chinese factory workers who create the products CVS sells. It is indeed a misconception that violence such as rioting disrupts a neutral, non-violent state of normalcy, when it is rather the case that violence in the form of sexual, economic, gender, and racial oppression are the norm for many who are only retaliating in a spectacle of violence that alarms the more privileged of a different world.
Thompson is correct that there are those who act violently because they “hold life sacred,” but he has forgotten that there are also those who hold the lives of others too sacred to act violently. In The Rebel, Camus wrote that the act of rebellion is a simultaneous denial and affirmation: a “no” against the condition the rebel finds himself in, and a “yes” for the human dignity he and all human beings deserve. A limit is drawn to protect that which is worthwhile in all humans. The rebel knows what is and what ought to be but is careful in his actions to prevent his “no” from violating the “yes” of others through violence. If he were to act violently against another, his own “yes” predicated upon a universal human dignity would be logically undermined, and if “men cannot refer to a common value, recognized by all as existing in each one, then man is incomprehensible to man.” This comprehensibility is essential for the thinking of political discourse, the only means we have to correct the oppressive power structures. To preserve this avenue for change, it is imperative we renounce violence in all forms, even in the form of resistance.
Truman Chen, a sophomore studying philosophy, is the technology editor of Stanford Political Journal.