Six Questions on Violence

I first entered the political arena by organizing weekly protests against the US Occupation of Iraq, in 2006. While I stopped leading the marches nine years and half a month ago, they still provide a good introduction to my ongoing philosophical relationship to violence and power. I am a proponent of direction action and while I am no longer a pacifist I would consider myself anti-violence. This led to a series of debates and conversations with my friends after the J20 protests, in particular about property damage as a form of protest and the value of punching Nazis in the face.

Comic by Matt Bors, who articulates many of my friends position well.

Comic by Matt Bors, all rights to him. This simplifies but summarizes many of my friends’ arguments.

My position then was an opposition to property damage and violence (including punching), though I did not consider property damage in general to be a form of violence. I realized I was making similar arguments to several different people and decided to write a Facebook note on the topic of violence, especially as a component of protest. In that post I posed and answered a set of questions on the subject. Revisiting last year’s thinking, and the debate the post generated, I have come up with six questions with which to better understand violence. I hope to revisit and refine my answers, as well as hear others’ answers.

So without further ado, the questions!

  1. What is violence?
  2. Can words be violent?
  3. Can property damage be violent?
  4. Is violence ever acceptable?
  5. Is violence acceptable in protests?
  6. How should we deal with neo-Nazis speaking in public?
1. What is violence?

I define violence as any action which harms others intentionally or due to a willful disregard of the other’s inherent worth.

Breaking it down, there are three conditions that must be met in order for something to be violent. First, it must be an action or direct product of an action committed by a human being. Second, the harmful action must be carried out with the intention to cause harm or, at the least, a lack of concern for the action’s consequences on others.  Third, that willful disregard or intentionality revolves around not seeing the worth of the victim. When the victim is a human being that means disregarding our inherent equality and treating them as a lesser (human) being; when the victim is an animal that becomes a disregard to their sentience.

Institutions can also be violent, though I think that this violence should be referred to as “institutional violence” or “structural violence” when it comes from the nature of the system in question. For example, a market that relies on unemployed people starving and living under bridges to maintain low wages and a submissive working class is perpetrating structural violence, even though no individual person is pulling all the strings and deciding who will starve and not. That said, I think it is intellectually useful to distinguish between “structural violence” and “violence” where the latter is perpetrated by people (though a single act can be both forms of violence). In this post I am focusing on violence.

2. Can words be violent?

This is a really contentious, and rarely articulated, issue in the public discourse right now. As words are the product of human action—generally vocal cords or hands— they meet my first criteria for violence. Clearly some words revolve around degrading and disregarding someone’s humanity—without getting into racial slurs, just think about what you say next time your cut off in traffic by some ass who doesn’t know what a blinker is. Given these two answers, the remaining question is the degree to which words can (and do) cause harm.

As anyone who follows bullying should know, sticks and stones can break bones, but words can push someone to suicide. There is even some research that psychological pain can have longer lasting negative effects than physical pain. As much as people on the right like to accuse leftists of being snowflakes, words do have consequences and those consequences can be quite harmful. Thus, words can be a form of violence. I do want to note, however, that I think words are rarely more violent than violent physical actions. Violent words can be worse but I think they are inherently less violent because they involve an inherent humanization of the victim (the victim is taken as capable of understanding the words meaning, which is not the case with, say, a cow).

3. Can property damage be violent?

This was the central question of my first post and my original answer was “property damage is not violence unless it directly affects someone.” My present definition is more permissive of including property damage as violence, though the type of harm it causes is far more likely to be psychological than anything else (obviously destroying an asthmatic’s inhaler is property damage with physically harmful consequences).

While property damage will (almost) always hurt the victim’s pocketbook, I think the threshold for damage to one’s finances being a form of violence should be exceedingly high. Money is not the same as physical and psychological well-being. Similarly, a business or institution cannot be the victim of conventionally defined violence because it is a social fiction, not a sentient being; when we consider the health of a business as akin to the health of a human we are making an egregious and, in my opinion, socially dangerous category error.

4. Is violence ever acceptable?

I take human equality and respect for sentient beings as a core belief, which means that violence is by definition “a bad thing.” That said I am not a pacifist so, in the words of Captain Reynolds, “Someone ever tries to kill you, you try to kill ’em right back.” In this case violence is acceptable, potentially necessary, but still a moral negative.

But those cases are exceedingly rare occurrences and I think it is almost always better to walk away or turn the other cheek. People often fail to realize that turning the other cheek can be a highly aggressive action. Turning the other cheek doesn’t mean accepting an action, it means responding to a slap in the face by turning your head and demanding the aggressor slap you again. Biblical scholar Walter Wink provides a strong case for this being the meaning Jesus intended when he instructed his followers to “turn the other cheek.”


“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Why the right cheek? A blow by the right fist in that right handed world would on the left cheek of the opponent. An open handed slap would also strike the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks…the only way one could naturally strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand. We are dealing here with insult, not a fistfight. The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. One normally did not strike a peer thus, and if one did the fine was exorbitant…A backhanded slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors…

Part of the confusion surrounding these sayings arises from the f failure to ask who Jesus’ audience was. In all three of the examples in Matt. 5:39b-41, Jesus’ listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor, but their victims…There are among his hearers people who were subjected to these very indignities, forced to stifle outrage at their dehumanizing treatment by the hierarchical system of class, race, gender, age, and status, and as a result of imperial occupation.

Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.”

 Engaging the Powers: 25th Anniversary Edition; Page 186


Regardless of your opinion on Jesus (I think he’s an interesting  heretical rabbi with some great teachings), the principles of this passage should be embraced for more actions today than just being slapped in a caste society. The idea of turning the other cheek, of refusing to provide the aggressor their desired response, is an assertion of one’s morality and principles in the face of the opposite. Even responding to physical violence with verbal violence can be a commanding, and potentially close to morally neutral, course of action. My favorite example of this comes from a peace protest in Eugene, OR, in the midst of the Vietnam War. At the protest an older man began physically assaulting one of the protesters (turns out she was his daughter) and the crowd responded by surrounding them and—instead of beating him within an inch of his life—began chanting “Leave the pig alone! Leave the pig alone!”  Apparently over one hundred people chanting at him in unison caused the man to freeze up and eventually try to drag himself out of the area in shame. I am sure that this was an absolutely humiliating (and deserved) event that followed the man for years to come—see the research under question 2 comparing physical and psychological pain.

There are cases where violence is acceptable or necessary to defend oneself, but they are rare and the majority of the time there is a less obvious and non-violent method that works as well, if not better, than a flurry of fists.

5. Is violence ever acceptable in protests?

The clearest cases where violence is acceptable involve self defense, but what about being the aggressor or using violence as a method of protest against structures or particular actors?

To summarize m position, I think property damage and violence for political purposes can be legitimate if they are tactically sound. For example when there is no alternative or it achieves a particular end far better than any other option would. In all other cases it is illegitimate.

Stable institutions have methods of comfortably responding to violence, especially physical violence, and this almost always involves further physical violence. Given modern technology, engaging in a physically violent confrontation with the state is a likely futile action; the instruments of violence accessible to the state’s military and police departments are so much more extreme than those available to the general population that when it becomes a competition of physical violence the state will always win. Protests which engage in property damage and/or physical violence are liable to face violent repression (which isn’t to say that other protests won’t attract the same). To quote John Lennon:


When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you—pull your beard, flick your face—to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.


The system knows how to deal with someone who punches a cop, the system doesn’t know how to deal with someone who gives the cop flowers. The system hates dealing with people who chain themselves to trees and construction equipment. Twenty people in kayaks can turn entire tanker ships away from port. It’s harder to deal with kayaks with flags than kayaks with guns, because if you’re shooting at a cop they can turn around and shoot you and expect mass public support for their actions. Direct action doesn’t have to be violent. It just has to be direct, clear, and challenge the power of its target. Following Arendt’s view of power (from On Violence), violence is the absence of power. Power is you doing what I want because I want it and told you to. If I told you “do this or I shoot you” I don’t have power, I just have a gun and a capacity for violence. You are doing my bidding because of the gun, not because I told you to. Power is about accepting justified legitimate outcomes, internalizing those systems of thinking and systems of acting in the world. When protesting for institutional change the objective must contain breaking the institution or actor’s hold on power and that is far easier if they have no justification for their violence.

6. How should we deal with neo-Nazis speaking in public?

This question is a holdover from the original post, but I like it for its grounding effect on the discussion. Consider the case of Richard Spencer, a neo-Nazi who was being interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation during Trump’s inauguration when a black bloc protester ran by and punched him in the face. Did he deserve it? Yes, I would say so, and it is hard for me to not support punching Nazis. But given how, over a year later, Richard Spencer’s profile has risen in part because of this event I don’t think I can condone that use of violence because it clearly wasn’t effective. Furthermore, there were non-violent alternatives available. For example, what if the black bloc had surrounded Spencer, cutting him off from the cameraman, without touching him and then had one of their members talk to the reporter about why they were there and their vision for a multicultural, equitable, world? I would not be surprised if Spencer had responded by physically attacking one of the protesters, and then the black bloc can use the state’s apparatuses for dealing with violence to deal with Dick Spencer.

This is all to say that I think the creative, non-violent, responses to neo-Nazis are liable to be far more effective, and at the very least they should be more amusing than simple violence. While shouting a Nazi down by calling them racist is better than hitting them, it also fuels the narrative of the intolerant left that the alt-right has been mainstreaming. It is time to develop and test new non-violent direct action ways of dealing with the increasingly loud and public racists in the United States. Peaceful does not mean passive. Non-violent does not mean non-aggressive.

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