a short critique of the use of violence to create changePosted: November 18, 2011
I have recently heard a number of people that I generally consider my allies conclude that violence is, if not exactly desirable, then an expression of freedom and power and an effective way to fight back against oppression in general and the horrors of police abuse in particular. I certainly have some sympathy for this. I am in no way opposed to self-defense and I accept that there are situations where peaceful change has been made impossible. However, I must remain critical of the use of violence in any situation where there is another real choice.
I do not think that violence will best construct the future I want to build, and with increasingly rare exceptions I think it is counterproductive.
Propagating violence does not make real change, it makes more victims. If you make enough victims, you get to run the show for a bit, and maybe if you make the right victims, people will like you. Promising to victimize certain groups of people is often a successful campaign strategy, but that does not make it a strategy that creates a better world. It creates a system where people want the bully they like to be in charge.
Use of violence buys into a mentality where certain levels or types of violence are okay and where the impacts on the victims are dismissed as insignificant. Even beyond my unwillingness to tolerate violence toward people and animals, I will not condone property destruction or statements that “oh what are a few broken windows compared to police abuse” because the issue is not whether the police are brutes. We already know they’re brutes. The issue is not merely scoring lower on the scale of general destructiveness than the police and how we compare to them. The issue is who we want to be and what kind of future we want to create for ourselves.
We live in a world that is all about the soundbite, the short clip, the 140 character tweet. Public image and mediagenics are in many ways everything. Presenting well to the world makes all the difference when you only get that ten second clip, so make it a good one that encapsulates what you are trying to say. The medium is at some level the message. The ends and means are not separable. If you use violence to attain your goal, violence necessarily becomes a part of your goal, an acceptable behavior, part of the greater picture of acceptable tools and methods. No matter what your reason for violence is, what you display to the world is not your ideological message but your violent actions, and what people who see the clip of you will see is not any message you’re trying to convey but the horror of violence and your willingness to engage in violence.
Responding to violence with violence reinforces the mindset of the existing power structure. When we use it we become more like what we are working to change, more subject to the current system’s corruptions and self-justifications and less sympathetic to people who have been oppressed or victimized, who have had their lives changed by violence. Violence does not build, it only tears down. Existing corrupt power structures have been tearing us all down for years. Instead of tearing them down, let’s build something beautiful and make them obsolete. I’m not coming to the violent revolution. I’m coming to the one with the potluck and the all night dance party and the workshops on community gardening. The use of force does not win the hearts and minds of anyone who wants a world built on something other than the use of force. I don’t want to live in a world where people use violence to solve problems, and it’s not effective to fight to end violence by using more violence. It’s like having an all-night beer party to celebrate your sobriety: it undermines the entire point.
For the most part I think that it is easy to advocate violence when you imagine that you will be the perpetrator rather than the victim and that your behavior is somehow justified and ultimately positive. You may feel powerful and effective when you engage in violence. And then some of the rest of us get to spend the remainder of our lives dealing with the aftereffects of violence, the scars and the fear and the other post-traumatic issues, and the difficulty of sitting through it when people discuss violence as a tactic as though it’s some abstract thing.
I think it is better to seek alternatives and move forward without violence, without the use of force whenever possible. Rise above the cops. Rise above police violence and systemic abuse and implement creative solutions. To build something better we must use better tools. When we have the choice, we must choose non-violent means.