When nonviolence is not an option…

Ghandi, Mandela, Dalai Lama

In between studying for my upcoming economics exam and consuming lamb, I came across this piece from Crux: Is non-violence the solution to all of the world’s problems? It is an excellent question. One instinctively wants to say ‘yes’. Non-violence should be the preferred method in resolving disputes and grievances in all circumstances. Getting bloodstains off you and your community’s collective psyche is almost entirely impossible. Especially since one cannot soak their brain in cold water and bleach.

If there is, what would it look like? How would one nonviolently resist Islamic ‘State’? If you were a citizen of Mosul and this army swept through your town and set up shop what would you do to depose them?

Maybe one would scrub the ن and the ر of the homes of your neighbours at risk of being caught and shot? Could one take your Christian and Shia neighbours and hide them and get them safe passage out of the warpath? Could one organise a mass march of citizens within and refuse to move until Islamic ‘State’ left, laid down their arms and handed governance back to the people. What about chaining oneself on a mass scale to government buildings, military vehicles, or other important targets? What about hunger strikes if you were imprisoned? Refusing to do business with people who collaborated or actively shunning them? Forming mass groups to stand watch while neighbours worshiped?

“Provocative nonviolence” (to steal a term from Fr Robert Barron) is a powerful tool of action. It is a fine art that holds a mirror to bad behaviour, allowing the perpetrator to see their actions and attitudes for what they are and invite them to change. It is not angry or offensive, it is surprising. It catches one off guard. Recent masters of this art include  Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, Bl Mother Teresa, and Desmond Tutu to name a few. The Crux article did not refer specifically to ‘provocative nonviolence’, but one little historical anecdote in the article caught my attention. I think it is so interesting that I will quote it in full below.

Even as late as 1939, Gandhi continued to advise Jews in Germany and Austria to practice nonviolent tactics when confronting Nazism. In a series of letters and private communications written that year to the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, Gandhi urged the Jews of Germany “to melt” Nazi hearts by engaging in “Satyagraha,” or “truth force.” Buber, who had fled Europe and Nazism in 1938 for safe haven in Jerusalem, condemned such counsel.

In a lengthy 1939 open letter to Gandhi, Buber asked: “And do you think perhaps that a Jew in Germany could pronounce in public one single sentence of a speech such as yours without being knocked down? … Such actions, however exerted, apparently do not have the slightest influence on their (Nazi) opponents.”

The pacifist Buber was under no illusions that nonviolent resistance would save Jews from death. He reminded Gandhi that “ineffective, unobserved martyrdom, a martyrdom cast to the winds — that is the fate of innumerable Jews in Germany.”

Being a politics and history student means that I have inevitably spent much time studying and mentally (not literally) ruminating on WWII, the Shoah and it’s aftermath. I spent a whole semester studying Genocide complete with an 8:30 am lecture every Tuesday.

One of the most fascinating aspects was discovering how ordinary people dealt with what they were seeing at the time. Who resisted and why? Who did nothing and why? Who actively joined the ‘party’ and why? What were the great voices of the time thinking, writing and saying. Gandhi, proves himself a committed and consistent pacifist. His ideas about nonviolent resistance would be vindicated by an independent India.

However, his advice seem hopelessly naive looking back on his advice to the Jewish people in 1939. It seemed ludicrous to contemporaries who were actually in the space. British Colonialism was no less ugly than Nazi Anti-Semitism. Comparing the two would be like a cane toad beauty pagent. The article continues:

Despite the ugly colonialism of the British and the racist Jim Crow laws in America, Gandhi’s and King’s foes were not genocidal Nazis…

Here I think we have got to the crux of the article (pun totally and gleefully intended). What is the difference between one racist, ugly-ass toad and another racist, ugly-ass toad? There is actually a real difference and it’s the reason why nonviolent resistance works in one context but not in another.

For those who don’t make a habit of reading UN Conventions, the definition of a genocide is as follows:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948

The primary precondition of a genocide, the one thing that makes perfectly normal people go and do crazy things (see Rwanda in 1994) is systematic and widespread dehumanisation of the victim group. It starts off relatively harmlessly with labelling. It escalates into a stereotype. Then comes the constant barrage of increasingly twisted and inhuman stereotyping, name calling and public identification of that group being the enemy. It culminates in the conclusion that the enemy are no longer human and therefore can be disposed of like feral animals and pests and society will be better for it.

Racism, ugly as it is not necessarily dehumanising. A racist does not necessarily think that people of other races are less human in essence than they are, they just think their group of particular humans is better than another group of particular humans. Now you could racist logic  down the genocidal path, but it doesn’t have to. Systemic racism does not necessarily lead genocide or genocidal acts (see Cambodia 1975-79).

America in the 1960s and India in the late 1940s was a radically different environment from Germany in the 1930s. American law discriminated against African Americans, but it didn’t decide that they were human scum of the earth engaged in a sinister plot of world domination. Some racists did go down the dark road of eliminating their perceived enemy, but it was certainly not State sanctioned or encouraged (wilful blindness is not certainly not acceptable, but it is  quite different to active organising and encouragement).

This is why MKL’s & Gandhi’s provocative nonviolence  worked and worked so brilliantly. It worked because their adversaries hadn’t taken the conscious thought-leap from racism to complete and utter dehumanisation. It was why provocative non-violence didn’t save the Jews, despite the best efforts of countless courageous people who smuggled, hid and disguised the Jewish people.

So, the initial question: At what point does non-violence cease a prudent course of action? What criteria can we use to make a prudent decision about an appropriate response to an enemy threatening and carrying out existential violence? I would like to propose a few working points.

  1. How does your ‘enemy’ describe you or a group? Do they totally dehumanise you or  particular group? This would could look like a myriad of different things, unique to cultures and places. However, from history a few universals emerge. Equating with animals or insects is one, particularly animals or insects associated with pestilence and uncleanliness is one.
  2. As a result, are individuals of that group targeted for harassment, intimidation, boycotting, and shunning?
  3. Is there an asymmetry between the threatening group and the threatened? Is the threatening group well armed and organised compared to the threatened group?
  4. Is the threatening group allowed ‘permitted’ by the rest of society to blatantly and subtly dehumanise the other? How are critics dealt with?

Now, these need much more fleshing out. But I would argue that if all of these elements are present, a tipping point has been reached and nonviolent resistance is neither effective, nor viable. Particularly since even nonviolent resistance would be taken as a provocation. The next step then becomes, if nonviolence is no longer an option, how does one conduct a war? The conflicts of the 21st century are nothing primarily asymmetric and guerrilla based. Psychology matters as much as hardware.

Is there still a need for a set of ‘rules of engagement’ and what do they look like in light in this context? Join me after my exams for a tentative toe dipping into the pool of Just War and 21st century conflict!


Compliments welcome, but I'll settle for criticism...

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