Hedges and Fithian on non-violence

2015-08-27

in Books and literature, Law, Politics, The environment

Chris Hedges’ worthwhile new book Wages of Rebellion includes some interesting discussion about the role of nonviolence in activist movements, and the justifications and criticisms deployed about it. He quotes Lisa Fithian’s “Open Letter to the Occupy Movement” to explain why non-violence is a more inclusive approach:

Lack of agreements [to be non-violent] privileges the young over the old, the loud voices over the soft, the fast over the slow, the able-bodied over those with disabilities, the citizen over the immigrant, white folks over people of color, those who can do damage and flee the scene over those who are left to face the consequences.

It’s a good addition to the common justifications for non-violence: that violence is inherently ethically unacceptable, even for a good cause and against the violent; that violence is ineffective at creating political change; and that challenging governments and corporations using violence involves confronting them in the way where they are most powerful.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

. August 27, 2015 at 8:02 pm
Milan August 27, 2015 at 8:10 pm

One of my less urgent Toronto350 tasks is working on developing our draft direct action policy. I have received a number of comments on the draft text below, but not yet had time to incorporate them:

Toronto350.org is motivated by the desire to build an equitable and sustainable world for everyone. We believe in cooperation, heartfelt discussion, and effective communication, and we are determined to help steer the world toward a safer course when it comes to energy policy.

We categorically reject violence as a strategy, in part because it is ineffective for promoting our objectives but principally because it is ethically unacceptable to us. Waking people up to the need to protect future generations and nature is best done by appealing to their noble impulses. Conversely, our entrenched and powerful opponents in the fossil fuel industry are close allies with the most capable violent organizations in the world. Furthermore, public opinion is always disproportionately influenced by even minor acts of property destruction. Instead of a news story about a peaceful demonstration of 1,000 people, you get one about a handful of people who broke windows.

In all of our direct actions, Toronto350.org renounces violence as a strategy and commits to avoiding physical damage to property. Before participating in direct actions, members of the group will be informed about our doctrine on direct action and about any specific guidelines for the action in which they are participating. Individuals who choose to violate this policy or any such action guidelines shall not be considered to be a part of our direct action, and will place themselves at risk of discipline by Toronto350.org, including possible suspension from or expulsion from the group, as well as any potential legal consequences.

Acts of civil disobedience are not automatically barred by this policy. An act of civil disobedience is a deliberate decision to publicly break the law, in order to call attention to the injustice of the law itself. Those who take part in acts of civil disobedience willingly take on the associated risks, including prosecution. All acts of civil disobedience planned and undertaken by Toronto350.org will be non-violent and designed to avoid physical damage to property.

One major point of disagreement is whether Toronto350 should ever be willing to endorse actions by other groups which do not abide by a similar code.

Tristan August 28, 2015 at 1:06 am

I’ve made a couple of comments, some of which are in a slightly humorous tone. I hope you don’t take them the wrong way.

“We categorically reject violence as a strategy, in part because it is ineffective for promoting our objectives but principally because it is ethically unacceptable to us.”

Fair enough. So you’re saying that a side reason for rejecting the strategic use of violence is that it’s ineffective (i.e. not strategic), but the main “principal” reason is that it is “ethically unacceptable”. I’m not sure what ethically unacceptable means. But I’m more concerned at the failure to define what “violence” means. You talk later in the document at various times about damage to property – there is, incidentally, a long-standing debate on the revolutionary left about whether damage to property properly constitutes “violence”, but I think it’s safe to dismiss that as a semantic issue. So long as you have clearly defined what you mean by violence. It’s important to have one’s semantics in order!

You go on by providing what seem to be various supporting reasons for the claim made in the preceding sentence.

“Waking people up to the need to protect future generations and nature is best done by appealing to their noble impulses.”

Noble impulses – wait, so private Ryan wasn’t “noble”? To my ears, “noble” doesn’t have much of a non-violent tinge to it. You know, the ‘nobility’, who were those people again – hmmm, the officer core in every army in the world prior to the professionalization of state armies in the 19th century – right? Anyway, I’m being pedantic. But I’m confused, is this a reason in support of violence being un-strategic, or violence being ethnically unacceptable? You said “best”, a question of degree, so I guess you’re talking strategy here.

“Conversely, our entrenched and powerful opponents in the fossil fuel industry are close allies with the most capable violent organizations in the world.”

Yup. To avoid another war metaphor, if I a chess champion challenged my honour and I had the choice of the contest between us, I sure as hell wouldn’t pick chess! Not strategic. That would make about as much sense as going to war with the state. Oh damn, well I tried anyway.

“Furthermore, public opinion is always disproportionately influenced by even minor acts of property destruction. Instead of a news story about a peaceful demonstration of 1,000 people, you get one about a handful of people who broke windows.”

Yup. First hand experience of this, I have. I saw the police purposefully let cars burn as they waited around the corner with fire trucks, I suspect so they could be filmed and appear on the evening news. In the modern world everything is PR, and when things get violent, the state generally wins the PR war. Not very strategic at all.

But wait – what about the “principal” reason? Arguments for violence’s lack of strategic effect abound, but arguments for its ethical unacceptability, where are you? And what does “ethically unacceptable” mean anyway? Anyone who uses violence in any case or context, ought be subject to moral disapprobation? I suspect that’s not what you’re trying to say. Maybe it’s beyond the scope of the 350 direct action policy to define the scope of the ethical acceptability of violence in the world, but then, maybe the question of violence’s unacceptability isn’t the central ground of the policy. Maybe it’s all just a question of strategy.

Milan August 31, 2015 at 11:01 pm

Others have complained about “noble” and the change is reflected in the current draft.

This is about item 1000 on Toronto350’s list of urgent tasks.

. September 1, 2015 at 12:07 am

This is direct action as it should be. It’s not just a symbolic gesture that tells a story and makes an injustice visible, but an action which targets the very source of the problem and stops it in its tracks. Of course if the day is a success then its stories will work their magic, building confidence in the movements, being told around camp fires and cafés, buzzed through the social media sphere and printed as newspaper headlines. But the actual stopping of CO2 emissions themselves, the fact that the lignite coal, the dirtiest type of coal in the world, will not be dug out and burnt, is what counts. Ende Gelände is not a media stunt, it’s a collective act of resistance that for once feels proportionate to the scale of the emergency, catastrophic climate change, which is the size of the land, sea and sky combined. If all goes to plan, it will be one of the biggest acts of disobedience for climate justice ever. For many of those just waking up in this lush field, it will be the first time they have broken the law for their beliefs. The first time I took direct action was 20 years ago, but the nerves never go away and the butterflies are playing havoc with my intestines.

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