Nonviolence and the Benefits of ‘Cowardice’

When discussing political nonviolence and its various means, one is likely to encounter much sneering and indignation. Advocates of political violence not only appear not to understand our disagreement, they often appear to find it reprehensible and cowardly. The charge of ‘cowardice’ especially fascinates me, and I would like to examine it more closely. For all intents and purposes, political violence and nonviolence involve very similar risks and strength of conviction. Both demand putting human bodies on the line with unclear odds of success. Both demand some rather dire weighing of moral and material interests. Still there’s something to the charge—I believe that what advocates of violence perceive as ‘cowardice’ is the implicit, structural, humility of nonviolence. Political violence requires dogmatic belief that one is right, one’s opponents have almost nothing to offer, and that violence will be effective. It is true that we shy away from the absolute certainty and confidence of those who advocate violence. Advocates of political nonviolence do not attempt to utterly erase their opponents from the world; they allow them to exist. This is the distinguishing characteristic that comes across as ‘cowardly,’ but it is the chief advantage of political nonviolence.

Before we consider the charge of cowardice, we need to survey the terrain. In terms of political goals, violent and nonviolent actions have mostly the same conditions for success or failure. On the margin, extreme violence can eliminate certain perspectives from public view (through confinement or murder)—nonviolent actions cannot. However, violent and nonviolent actions both require accepting serious risks to personal well-being. Whether the response to one’s actions is violent or nonviolent, one could be seriously harmed. Even if one’s opponents forego violence against bodies, they can still inflict devastating psychic and social harm. Surely no one doubts the incredible psychic pain inflicted by anti-abortion protesters on women entering clinics, regardless of their broader political effectiveness. Even so, marginal cases should be kept analytically distinct from larger political goals. Ideas, once present in the public realm, are resistant to simple erasure. The consequences of public actions for the prevailing political culture are hard to predict. Sometimes extreme violence can make the public expression of certain ideas anathema and thus hinder their political success, and other times it can lead to such intense backlash that it can actually alienate the perpetrators and assist the spread of those ideas. What matters is how the people who remain react. Because the relevant audiences of political action are public bodies, success or failure comes down to prevailing interpretations—both for violent and nonviolent actions.

There are plenty of worthy illustrations of this principle at work. The United States employed extreme violence with an incredible military advantage in Vietnam. American military forces massacred the population in unconscionable numbers and demolished the economy of the country. Nonetheless, the meaning of the violence was so intolerable to the Vietnamese people that they continued to throw bodies into the resistance until they repelled the invasion. On the other hand, military advantages often succeed in making resistance seem so costly that the invaded population effectively surrenders. Gandhi’s satyagrahis made British colonial rule so difficult and morally offensive that it could not be continued. Nonviolent resistance failed to prevent nuclear proliferation in the United States. It’s debatable how much success nonviolent resistance had in the American Civil Rights movement. The point here is not to say once and for all what was ultimately politically efficacious in these historical situations, but to propose that the outcomes were not easily predictable and that violent and nonviolent actions alike succeed or fail depending on their public meaning.

Many advocates of violent action acknowledge this, and propose that violent and nonviolent strategies be employed simultaneously. They observe that nonviolent strategies like those of Gandhi or King were employed side by side with violent strategies that made them more appealing to those in power. There are few things worth considering in light of that observation. It doesn’t establish any particular advantage for violent or nonviolent action. It also seems likely that there are relevant differences between strategies aimed at changing established political institutions and those aimed at effecting broader cultural change (the two are, of course, not totally independent). Lastly, it seems to assume that violent and nonviolent actions generally interact harmoniously rather than antagonistically. That assumption is clearly unwarranted. Maybe coordinated violence can make the demands of nonviolent forces more palatable and motivate engagement with them—but maybe it instead detracts from the perceived legitimacy of the nonviolent forces. Maybe violent actions scare people out of breaking with established peace, or maybe they push people toward cataclysmic civil war. The point is that this analysis generally attempts to circumvent considerations of the political conditions for any strategy’s success, and is to that extent wrongheaded.

Precisely because violent and nonviolent strategies are so often antagonistic and incompatible, we should be wary of an unprincipled ‘diversity of tactics’—especially if that means throwing our hands up and totally forswearing all strategy. But that appears to leave us without any solid or systematic means by which to decide between one or the other approach. I would like to propose that it is the perceived ‘cowardice’ of nonviolence that gives it at least one, albeit defeasible, advantage. Though nonviolent tactics can still be massively harmful, they do at least refrain from erasing anyone from the playing field. Nonviolent strategies are more immediately discursive, since the point is to engage others’ minds and activate their consciences rather than circumvent or destroy their minds. Since the point of political action is always on some level capturing public support, this enables more acute focus on framing the debate and using effective rhetoric. Nonviolent strategies engage the political conditions of their success more directly; instead of dedicating one’s resources and energies toward the destruction of the enemy, one can simply dedicate them to whatever it was that one wanted in the first place (to occupy land, live a certain way, engage in certain kinds of relationships, or highlight the violence and irrationality of one’s opponent). Unless one’s goal is violence itself, violent strategy involves a detour from one’s ultimate goal.

To reiterate, while nonviolent strategy does not have an advantage in terms of political efficacy per se, it is advantageous in providing focus on public discourse directly and in displaying humility (and thus openness) about its demands. The humility of nonviolent strategies is what makes them appear ‘cowardly’ to advocates of violence, but it is also what allows for more widespread support. And since violence and nonviolence are often strategically incompatible, it is not sufficient to argue for simultaneously employing both. The disadvantage of nonviolence is that it is not nearly as effective at preserving bodies on the margin—because it is targeted at the political realm more directly, it is also weakest when it is most isolated from the public eye and political discourse. Finally, there are situations where neither violent nor nonviolent strategies will succeed, and it is likely these situations in which marginal cases are most relevant for determining actions—and I believe it is in these situations where violence is at its most advantageous.

In marginal, publicly invisible situations, where one’s aim is the immediate protection of bodies against impending violence rather than the achievement of some large-scale political goal, violence is almost certainly the more strategic choice. Particularly in cases of crime where the public (and, for that matter, the legal system) already recognizes an act of violence as illegitimate, the perpetrator already lacks public approval and is choosing to act in spite of that (and probably under the hope that they will circumvent public involvement). Thus, appealing to social capital and public conscience would be strategically inept. This actually illustrates the strategic position of violence—it works very well when one cannot appeal to the public, and when one isn’t trying to. Political goals, especially concerning the direction of popular culture, requires appealing to the public because it is primarily about what the public does. Because violence works best when it is supported by the public or else unseen by it, it is a poor tool for acquiring the support of a broad public. The indirectly political nature of violence makes it useful for preventing the complete destruction of human bodies, with diminishing returns as politics and social power take center stage. When political success is more or less off the table, the protection of human lives on the margin is the relatively more important consideration. Situations involving institutions with established public support (or acceptance) or ascendant status make any successful resistance unlikely. In the face of mass deportation or imprisonment with broad-based popular authorization, or the revolutionary establishment of an authoritarian regime, marginal protection might be the only feasible goal. Violence has a unique advantage when politics are avoidable, as in marginal cases obscured from public view; nonviolence has a unique advantage when politics are unavoidable, as in campaigns for cultural and institutional change.

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