Is it useful to distinguish between ‘violent’ and ‘nonviolent’?

Shon Meckfessel brings up an interesting point in his critique of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. The critique cuts to the heart of the modern debate between violent vs. nonviolent means for achieving social change. In short, how can it be proven that nonviolent tactics are more effective than violent ones when the definition of ‘violent’ is murky and inconsistent? For example, is burning down an unoccupied building for the sake of, say, stopping illegal logging violent? These debates are still ongoing.

In order to (finally) put the matter to rest, Meckfessel could have gone a step further and argued that not only is the violence vs. nonviolence distinction a source of confusion and contention, it is also unnecessary. Why categorize each action toward social change in such a way? If the point is to decrease barriers to participation, as Chenoweth and Stephan put it, the problem is that while an outspokenly ‘nonviolent’ movement will likely get more support from the public, a movement that refuses to label itself in such a way will get more support from Meckfessel and his anarchistic fans, who ultimately have similar goals. Moreover, a movement that defines itself as ‘nonviolent’ is far more vulnerable to attacks from the forces of the status quo who call it out for the so-called violence it inflicts or could inflict. Why not reject the labels?

It could be that referring to oneself or one’s political movement as ‘nonviolent’ is probably more about self-righteousness than making a useful distinction. If we are ‘nonviolent,’ then, therefore, we are correct in our means and ends. This is not always the case, unfortunately, because even the very best of means can be used for pernicious ends. Think of the ultimate act of love — sexual intercourse — being used all-too often as a weapon of war, revenge, or domination. If a nonviolent boycott, for example, were used to discriminate against minority-owned businesses by the KKK, such an action in its totality could not be considered nonviolent. There appears to be a blind spot within the community of nonviolent activists and scholars in this regard: ‘Nonviolent’ is not synonymous with ‘good.’

Perhaps the only real question of significance is not whether a movement or strategy is ‘violent’ or ‘nonviolent,’ or where it falls on some abstract, artificial spectrum, but whether a movement or strategy is effective in achieving its stated goals (and whether its stated goals are worthy of putting forth the effort). If it’s ineffective, it should not matter so much whether it is ‘violent’ or ‘nonviolent.’ Martyrdom or noble defeat may make certain individuals feel holy, but they hold little strategic value. If the value is not in the results, then where does it lie? I hope no one would argue that activists should engage in civil disobedience, etc., because it feels good. Just as it would be immature and foolish to argue after the failure of a violent uprising that ‘at least we killed a lot of their people,’ it would be immature and foolish to argue the benefits of dogmatic devotion to nonviolent tactics that go nowhere.

In the words of Karl Marx: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

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