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The moral authority of non-violence

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A response to the debate on this site over the question of non-violent protest, following from the Gaza flotilla raid.

For Gandhi and for King non-violence was a principle. Tactics such as the refusal to budge from a position where one has a right to be, may grow out of the principle but are not to be confused with it. The principle starts from a discovery of a violence one recognizes as evil in oneself, and a rejection of that evil. What follows is the writing-large of the rejection as resistance to the evil that comes from oppression by others. One resists the violence within from the same discovery of justice that impels the resistance to the violence without. Both Gandhi and King emphasized the difficulty of the discovery. Both took care that their protest movements should on occasion go back to perform again acts of protest that had been corrupted by bursts of violence within the movement. Both made clear their disapproval of parallel movements that opposed the same evils they opposed (segregation, imperial subordination) but did so by violent means. There was no reason for them to do these things except the firm belief in non-violent resistance as a moral principle.

Non-violent action is meant to be visible and exemplary, in contrast with the violent action of the oppressor, which is shameful and always partly hidden. One shows one’s commitment by a practice that requires enormous strength of self-discipline, a practice that may in consequence elicit wonder and provoke thought. Mass acts of non-violent resistance may cause a state power to remit its use of violence. At the far reach of persuasion, they may cause the state power to surrender control. But there will always be reasons for this besides awakened conscience. The power, for example, may desire the approval of other powers which have their own motives for siding with the protest. Or, the state may in some way need the cooperation of those whom it rules by coercion; when, therefore, its method of governing proves bankrupt, it gives up domination in exchange for the lifting of the protest.

Every regime of domination carries with it an agreeable story to cover the brutality of the facts. In British India the story was that the British only governed by the voluntary acceptance of the people of India, and they would leave on the day the people of India made it clear that they did not consent to imperial rule. Mass non-violent resistance did make the rejection of imperial rule transparently clear, without any possibility of confusion. Again, in the American South, the story was that segregation was a "way of life" that blacks and whites alike were happy with, and the trouble only came from "agitators." Mass non-violent resistance proved the explanation to be a fable. In Israel today, the story is that the blockade and the occupation are necessary because without them the Palestinians would subject Israel to an ungoverned series of terrorist attacks. Does terrorism or non-violent resistance seem a likelier method for disproving that assumption?

Both Gandhi and King searched these questions very deeply. Their writings are widely available. There is no excuse for attributing to them views which they argued against explicitly and with great cogency. As for the relativist idea that all who recognize an evil may freely choose their favorite tactic without judging among the tactics by any standard but success, such a resolution begs two questions at once. For to use non-violence opportunistically nullifies the distinction of the protester; the state power itself does not use violence day and night but only opportunistically. And the moral authority of non-violence was always based on a definition of success that differed from that of sheer power. The end you seek, the state you intend to build, is already indicated and has begun to be constituted by the means you employ to get there. A state arrived at by means of terror has already set up a definition of success that will affect its future conduct and character.

Postscript: Three passages from Gandhi

1. Let us first take the argument that we are justified in gaining our end by
using brute-force because the English gained theirs by using similar means. It
is perfectly true that they used brute-force and that it is possible for us to
do likewise, but by using similar means we can get only the same thing that
they got. You will admit that we do not want that.
                                                    –Hind Swaraj, 1909

2. Such being the hold that the doctrine of the sword has on the majority of
mankind, and as success of non-co-operation depends principally on absence of
violence during its pendency and as my views in this matter affect the conduct
of a large number of people, I am anxious to state them as clearly as possible.
I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I
would advise violence. Thus when my eldest son asked me what he should have
done, had he been present when I was almost fatally assaulted in 1908, whether
he should have run away and seen me killed or whether he should have used his
physical force which he could and wanted to use, and defended me, I told him
that it was his duty to defend me even by using violence. Hence it was that I
took part in the Boer War, the so-called Zulu rebellion and the late War. Hence
also do I advocate training in arms for those who believe in the method of
violence. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her
honour than that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless
witness to her own dishonour.

  But I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence,
forgiveness is more manly than punishment. Forgiveness adorns a soldier. But
abstinence is forgiveness only when there is the power to punish; it is
meaningless when it pretends to proceed from a helpless creature. A mouse
hardly forgives a cat when it allows itself to be torn to pieces by her. I,
therefore, appreciate the sentiment of those who cry out for the condign
punishment of General Dyer and his ilk. They would tear him to pieces if they
could. But I do not believe India to be helpless. I do not believe myself to be
a helpless creature. Only I want to use India’s and my strength for a better
purpose. Let me not be misunderstood. Strength does not come from physical
capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.
                                  –The Doctrine of the Sword, 11 August 1920

3.  The German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history. The
tyrants of old never went so mad as Hitler seems to have gone. And he is doing
it with religious zeal. For he is propounding a new religion of exclusive and
militant nationalism in the name of which mass inhumanity becomes an act of
humanity to be rewarded here and hereafter. The crime of an obviously mad but
intrepid youth is being visited upon his whole race with unbelievable ferocity.
If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war
against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be
completely justified. But I do not believe in any war. . . .

  Germany is showing to the world how efficiently violence can be worked when
it is not hampered by any hypocrisy or weakness masquerading as
humanitarianism. It is also showing how hideous, terrible and terrifying it
looks in its nakedness.

  Can the Jews resist this organized and shameless persecution? Is there a way
to preserve their self-respect, and not to feel helpless, neglected and
forlorn? I submit there is. . . .If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and
earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the
tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the
dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating
treatment. And for doing this, I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me
in civil resistance but would have confidence that in the end the rest are bound
to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription
here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now.
                                –Zionism and Anti-Semitism, 26 November 1938

David Bromwich

David Bromwich's latest book is "American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us." He teaches literature at Yale and is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post and has written on politics and culture for The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines. He is editor of Edmund Burke's selected writings On Empire, Liberty, and Reform and co-editor of the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty.

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