No Such Thing as Non-Violence

Image by Laura Ashfield

It is a truism that violence is pervasive and endemic in our society. But violence is deeper than wars, crime and video games. Violence is at the core of many of our relationships, and it is in the systems of organization in our communities. It defines our economy and our understandings of justice. Violence is the basic organizational structure of our society. Most of the violence in our lives is experienced as invisible. We only recognize certain kinds of violence.

There is a hierarchy of power in our culture. Property-owning white men with capital wealth or particular family backgrounds are at the top. Women and children of colour in marginalized communities around the world are at the bottom. No, they are at the bottom of the human spectrum; animals, plants and the Earth itself are at bottom.

Our culture has yielded exceptional voices against our own violence. Derrick Jensen, author of Endgame and other books, is one of those voices. He tells us that those at the top of the hierarchy are allowed to destroy the lives or property of those below them in order to increase their own wealth or power—“this is called production.” If those at the bottom should attempt the reverse—to increase their own wealth or power by similar means—this is called crime, and those at the top of the hierarchy are allowed to use violence as punishment. “This is called justice.” When violence is passed down the hierarchy there is a pathology of “blaming the victim.” Similarly, when violence travels back up the hierarchy, there is a tendency towards “fetishization of the victim.” Think about the difference in how we portray the victims of our warfare versus the ways we remember the victims of (so-called) terrorism.

Power in our way of living insists that violence that flows down the hierarchy is so normalized that it is not perceived as violence. For example, corporations regularly invade and occupy Indigenous territories for massive industrial resource extraction projects. These projects tend to destroy sacred grounds and harvest areas, poison rivers, deforest animal habitat, etc. But, if Indigenous peoples attempt to occupy and use a corporation’s (so-called) private property, any perceived violence arising is called crime or terrorism.

The above is also true at the micro level of our own families. Violence is used coercively in our homes. Obscenely high percentages of women, in our culture, are abused in their own homes. It never occurs to most people that rape can occur in a marital bed. Rape is one of the most underreported and under prosecuted crimes in our society. However, when women fight back and kill their abuser, they are almost always sent to prison. The only recourse is often a plea of ‘temporary insanity’—but that’s crazy: how can it be considered insane to defend ones self against rape? That is part of the system of power in our culture; it is a system designed to reinforce, strengthen, and legitimize the patriarchal-imperialist status quo.

Also invisible, in many cases, is structural, systemic and indirect violence. “Structural” and “systemic” violence are terms that describe violent impacts upon people’s lives that are not necessarily enacted through physical force. Segregation, apartheid, or marginalization policies like Canada’s Indian Act or the American embargo of Cuba are prime examples, but so are prohibitions against gay marriage and the systemic Islamaphobia of the post-9/11 era. Government policies that systemically disadvantage poor, disabled, or immigrant populations, and policies that privilege certain religious, political or gender identities—these are all forms of violence. The violence that flows down the hierarchy is often structural and systemic. These forms are usually combined with direct violence, such as when soldiers remove populations as part of land clearing operations in preparation for resource extraction.

It is important to remember that conflict on the interpersonal level—emotional or verbal forms of violence, for example—can be just as traumatic as physical violence. Bullying and other forms of abusive social relationships are good examples, as are many relationships between family members. Societal discourses that diminish the moral and social value of certain life choices or expressions of identity are forms of violence that blur the definitions of structural, systemic and indirect violence, but also show how pervasive and destructive they can be.

Those who advocate strongest for the recognition of indirect and structural violence tend to be the same people who advocate ethical positions of nonviolence. What needs to be recognized is that structural violence, like direct violence, is also multidirectional. If we insist that we must not allow structural violence to remain invisible, we must acknowledge that it is also violence when we practise it: nonviolent direct action (such as any form of peaceful civil disobedience), as a tactic, is structural violence flowing up the hierarchy. If it is violence to systematically deny a population access to resources, it is similarly violence when we cause economic disruption to a corporation or the State. When we consider such things as emotional and verbal violence, we then start to see clearly that there is no such thing, in reality, as nonviolence.

Part of the problem might be that we simply don’t have enough words to describe violence. We are in an untenable position when the act of breaking a window is labelled the same as shooting a CEO in the head. Similarly, it is generally considered to be “violent” if I hit someone, no matter what. That we don’t make a formal distinction between circumstances is tragic, because it is important that we recognize the fundamental difference between striking someone in defence and for coercive purposes related to power and control.

Many, to try and explain why we must maintain a stance of pacifism in our struggle for a better world, turn to Gandhi’s work. Perhaps his most famous sound bite is the one that says, “We must be the change we wish to see.” But this idea is just self-righteous bullshit that is taken for granted because it sounds good and comes from the legendary Gandhi. Derrick Jensen has spent many pages of his books debunking the idea that Gandhi’s pacifism is a useful or properly moral model for social change. Jensen is right. Here is what he said about the quote from Gandhi: “This ultimately meaningless statement manifests the magical thinking and narcissism we’ve come to expect from dogmatic pacifists. I can change myself all I want, and if dams still stand, salmon still die. If global warming proceeds apace, birds still starve. If factory trawlers still run, oceans still suffer. If factory farms still pollute, dead zones still grow. If vivisection labs still remain, animals are still tortured.”

In places where peoples’ understanding of their own oppression is less mediated by contemporary Western lenses, people know that violence is pervasive. And they know that sometimes, violent direct action is the best answer to the problem of their own suffering. In Chiapas, in Kayapo, in Algeria, this is known. But in the West, we point to Gandhi and to Martin Luther King Jr., a preacher and a lawyer. Law and religion are two places where the discourse of our culture is rooted—it should not surprise anyone that these two traditions produce thinkers and leaders who abhor the tactical employment of direct violence for the goal of social change. However, there could be no realization of the dream of MLK had there not also been the will of Malcolm X, who directed that we must fight power “by any means necessary.”

The idea that love somehow implies pacifism is another favourite amongst contemporary pacifists. Nature, however, says otherwise. Most animal mothers will fiercely fight to protect their young. That is one of the truest acts of love that I can think of. It turns out that pacifism, in Jensen’s words, is but “a toxic mimicry of love.” It is pacifism that prevents so many from being effective, from turning their love for the Earth or for abused populations into effective strategies for protection and change. As Ward Churchill writes, “pacifism is pathology”—it is a sickness.

Then there is the line about how the master’s tools cannot be used to tear down the master’s house. What the line really means is that he is never going to use them to dismantle his own house. Anyone who believes that there is wisdom in thinking that the tools themselves can’t be used, is living in a propaganda-induced fantasy – though maybe it’s better to call it a nightmare, because it should be painfully obvious that the same tools used to deforest a piece of land can also be used to clear the suburban sprawl that has replaced so many natural ecosystems. A corporate office tower can be removed with sledgehammers, with fire, with explosives, with wrecking balls—all tools used by the so-called masters. It doesn’t matter whose sledgehammer it is, it still knocks down the walls.