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To Be Violent Or Not To Be Violent, That Is Not The Only Question

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A heated debate is breaking out amongst occupiers on the left regarding violence. The question is whether the violence practiced by groups like Black Bloc helps or not. This issue came to a head just recently as journalist Chris Hedges wrote an article describing Black Bloc and their tactics as being a cancer in the Occupy Movement. A member of Black Bloc responded with an open letter challenging Hedges' assertions.

Two things could be said about Hedges' comments on Black Bloc. First, he had a very legitimate concern about the effects that some of Black Bloc's tactics, in particular, their destruction of property and their willingness to physically confront the police, could have on the success of the Occupy Movement--we should note that the Occupy Movement's success is tied to its relationship with the mainstream. We are not saying that the Occupy Movement must become more like the mainstream; rather, we should want the mainstream to become more like Occupy Movement. Currently, many in the mainstream share many of its concerns. However, not enough people from the mainstream are sold on the Occupy Movement's solution. That solution consists of practicing a more direct and participatory democracy,

Second, Hedges' assessment of Black Bloc was stated in all or nothing terms. He listed no common beliefs or concerns that Black Bloc has with those from the "organized" Left. For Hedges, Black Bloc is all bad news. This is unfortunate in two ways. First, his black-white assessment of Black Bloc vs those on "organized left" contained too many inaccuracies. Second, at least in my neck of the internet woods and probably elsewhere, his all or nothing description of Black Bloc triggered all or nothing retaliations. This hurts not just because of how Hedges' vast contributions could be so easily spurned but, more importantly, it could triggers and maintains a kind of thinking that would spell certain doom for many of our causes. Fortunately, the above cited open letter to Hedges from a member of Black Bloc did not respond in kind. Instead, that writer listed positive contributions to Occupy Wall Street(OWS) made by members of Black Bloc.

The real issue here is not about the dispute between Hedges and Black Bloc, it is about the use of violence in protests. But to be violent or not to be violent is not the only question. We first must ask what is violence. Our definition comes first because some apologists, and possibly participants, in Black Bloc insist that actions such as smashing windows is not violence. For these Black Bloc supporters, violence is not defined by the action but by the recipient. If the recipient is an inanimate object, especially if the object is owned by one's oppressors, then at least some Black Bloc defenders claim the action is not violent. This is like saying that dropping a bomb on a building is violence only if there are people inside or around the building and they are injured or killed. Such a nuanced position shows a sensitivity and conscious awareness of the issue. It is almost an admission that attacking property is committing violence with the defense that such actions are insignificant unless people are hurt. In addition, some apologists for Black Bloc say that their actions, compared to the real violence exercised against protestors by the police, cannot be called violence.

Once we arrive at an acceptable definition of violence, we start another journey. This trip determines whether the current abstaining from violence exercised by most in the Occupy Movement should be for pragmatic or principled reasons. The author of the above cited open letter told of how Black Bloc participants did not see violence as an "appropriate tactic" to use at OWS. Such opposition to violence is situational and is based on the business criteria of efficiency and effectiveness. Hedges, and other Leftists including myself, maintain that the Occupy Movement here should lean more towards being unconditional because it is wrong. We should note here that the difference between the pragmatic and the principled positions here are sometimes fuzzy rather than absolute.

To have principled objections against using violence is to say that I won't engage in violence regardless of the situation and what could be gained from it--something that is easier said than done. The reason for this refusal to employ violence is a recognition that one is obligated to others to refrain from attacking them. The principled perspective moves us to a consistent and reliable way of self-restraint. It is the kind of self-restraint that has practical benefits but is, first and foremost, practiced because of a nearly unconditional obligation or debt.


Some argue against having a principled approach because of what becomes of the people who hold to that kind of thinking. Michael Albert, from ZCommunications, wrote an article on the debate between Hedges and Black Bloc. He holds such a view. In his article, those who oppose violence because of morals are in danger of becoming "fundamentalists," though what Albert really was referring was people who feel they are morally superior to others. We should note here that moralists have no monopoly on self-righteousness.

Protestors who abstain from violence solely for pragmatic reasons should note that they are following Obama's example when he was running for President. During the 2008 campaign, Obama portrayed himself as the antiwar President as he criticized both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But, as Noam Chomsky and others observed, Obama's objections to the wars were based on the business criteria of efficiency and effectiveness rather than on principles, Obama did not think that the wars were being properly prosecuted. Thus, despite his claims, Obama was a conditional war presidential candidate, rather than the antiwar candidate and his record confirms this. In the same way, some of my fellow OWS activists must be considered conditional pro-violence protestors.

At this point, we must note an inconsistency practiced by those who protest a violent status-quo using violence. That is they are not protesting the "violence inherent in the system" as much as who has the right to be destructive. When my fellow protestors use violence to voice their views, they are not objecting to the sport of violence but to who was chosen for the team. This raises the question of whether things would be different if they were running the system.

We might also want examine some of the reasons why those who because of morals opposed violence. People like Gandhi and Martin Luther King continually asked what does one gain if one wins via violence. Regardless of who is involved, using violence to overthrow a system maintains the same animosity that existed before. In addition, Martin Luther King, amongst others, told us that a new paradigm is needed today when he said that our choice is between nonviolence or nonexistence. If we win using violence, we continue to proceed towards the precipice.

Thankfully, violence, for the most part, is not a tactic employed by those in the Occupy Movement. But since we all have dark sides that could move us to hurt others if pushed too far, we need to be grounded in all reasons, both practical and principled, for not employing violence. To maintain our current non-violent approach, we need to think deeply and consider all of the reasons why we must not strike out lest we are overcome by circumstances or frustration.

 

Curt Day is a religious flaming fundamentalist and a political extreme moderate. Curt's blogs are at http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com/ and http://violenceorsurvival.blogspot.com/

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Krishna was in favour of violence in a good cause,... by Bob Stuart on Tuesday, Feb 14, 2012 at 9:55:19 PM
Very well said, Curt. Non-violent protest has alwa... by Howard Schneider on Wednesday, Feb 22, 2012 at 12:15:40 PM