This week’s topic particularly resonates with me, as I have long wrestled with the question of violent vs. nonviolent protest (even as I understand that this is, as Lane notes in his prompt for this week, a somewhat false binary). While I have dealt with anger issues for most of my adult life, I am generally a nonviolent person, even though I consume a great deal of violent media (a dichotomy that led me to develop a class on Masculinity and Communication as a way of interrogating my own relationship to violence and aggressive masculinity). Furthermore, like many other white, ostensibly middle-class liberals, I used to buy into the prevailing narrative surrounding the ethical high road of so-called “peaceful” protest, which lionizes the supposedly nonviolent tactics employed by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
At the same time, however, I have learned over the last few years about how such narratives regarding nonviolence can sometimes perpetuate oppressive ideologies that contribute to the continued brutalization of disenfranchised groups and individuals. People sometimes criticize protests and protestors for engaging in violent actions and lament that they should protest peacefully instead, but this often dismisses the plight of the protestors and the reason that they engaged in violence. Indeed, as noted in a recent op-ed appearing in the New York Times, the act of decrying the violence of anti-racist and/or anti-fascist demonstrators can sometimes promote “a false equivalency between groups that advocate white supremacy and those that seek to eliminate it.” Moreover, as Judith Butler noted in her recent article written for the website Public Books, the terms “violence” and “nonviolence” can easily become twisted by the forces tasked with maintaining state power and capitalist philosophies. Butler writes:
…violence and nonviolence are terms that are already twisted by the frameworks in which they appear: the state can decide to call certain actions “violent” because they are perceived as a threat to its monopoly on violence, even when those actions are nonviolent forms of expression, such as assembly, dissent, boycott, and strike. On the left, social structures and systems are regularly called violent even when the structure itself does not physically act, but gives rise to forms of subjugation and disenfranchisement that undermine the lives they affect.
Having grown up in a somewhat conservative working-class household located in the small, overwhelmingly conservative town of Menominee, Michigan, I learned early on that trying to talk to people with different viewpoints is often a difficult prospect. At the risk of stereotyping, people in such settings often develop deeply entrenched beliefs and cling to them tightly. In addition, a lack of exposure to other ways of life can lead to decreased empathy for anyone who appears “different” from the “norm.” This phenomenon seems to have increased in the age of the Internet, when people can easily log on to different websites that reinforce their existing views and sometimes spur them to violent actions. Social media only increase this type of radicalization; according to Alex Koppelman of CNN:
social media, often in combination with other factors, has proven itself an efficient radicalizer, in part because it allows for the easy formation of communities and in part because of its algorithms, used to convince people to stay just a little longer, watch one more video, click one more thing, generate a little more advertising revenue.
Given all this, I continue to struggle with the violence vs nonviolence question. I believe in nonviolence and peace, and work toward that goal in everything I do (my academic work and my teaching is often focused on helping people understand one another so they may work toward peaceful coexistence). At the same time, however, I understand that there fascists do exist and that they seek to maintain their power and their perceived ideological superiority through any means necessary, and that it is sometimes necessary to use violence to fight back against such oppression, suppression, and repression. Hence why I fully support punching Nazis, neo-Nazis, alt-right thugs, or whatever you want to call them, even as I long for a world when such actions prove unnecessary.
Given that people like Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, and their followers seek to silence, harm, and even murder anyone who disagrees with their beliefs, it is sometimes vital to fight violence with violence. Of course, this opens up the question of how they can then spin the use of this violence to their advantage, painting groups like antifa as the violent ones seeking to undermine things like free speech and democracy. They decry the violence and say that liberals or progressives should debate them in the marketplace of ideas. Of course, this is just another way to obfuscate the alt-right’s own use of violence and intimidation, as well as an insincere attempt to appear rational, thereby normalizing their fascistic tendencies. Ultimately, and Lane may again accuse of wanting it both ways, I find that there is no easy answer to the question about the ethics and efficacy of violence and nonviolence. I think one is preferable in the long run but that the other is sometimes necessary when facing down disingenuous bullies who seek to cause others pain. The truth might lie somewhere in between, which then speaks to the false binary mentioned above
Butler, Judith. “The Big Picture: Protest, Violent and Nonviolent.” PublicBooks.org, October 13, 2017. Web. March 30, 2019.
Koppelman, Alex. “The internet is radicalizing white men. Big tech could be doing more.” CNN, March 17, 2019. Web. March 30, 2019.
Mcbride, Michael, Traci Blackmon, Frank Reid and Barbara Williams Skinner. “Waiting for a Perfect Protest?” The New York Times, September 1, 2017. Web. March 30, 2019.