The Moral Status of Political Violence
With the current situation in Charlottesville, I think the question "is political violence ethical?" is pretty damn important
The Short Version
I think political violence is moral if it meets most(or all) of the following conditions:
- It will not cause escalation
- All other nonviolent options have been exhausted
- The person using violence has little to no power within existing legal systems
- Nonviolent alternatives would be much less effective
First I'm going to explicate the positions of two thinkers have radically influenced my views on the morality of violence; James Cone and Malcolm X
Ideally I would like the reader to be familiar with "The Ballot or The Bullet" by Malcolm X and "God of The Oppressed" by James Cone. However, if you, dear reader, don't wanna read too much I'll briefly explain their positions here.
Malcolm X in "The Ballot or The Bullet" argues that because the US' political system was designed by and for white people, participating in it is implicitly supporting white supremacy. Because black people weren't originally intended to be a part of the US' political system, they will always be outsiders looking in, excluded by design. Therefore, an alternative system must be created, or there must be a radical restructuring.
James Cone in "God of The Oppressed" argues that distinguishing between violent and nonviolent activism is hard(if not impossible,) and therefore there shouldn't be a distinction at all. For instance, if there was a riot that resulted in the destruction of property, most of us would label that a violent protest. But we wouldn't label a sit in on a highway violent, even though a sit in could prevent an ambulance from getting to someone in need of medical attention. These two scenarios show that violent acts don't necessarily kill, and nonviolent acts can kill. Ergo, why differentiate? Why not just choose the most effective tactic without regard to its violent/nonviolent status?
Now that you understand both those positions we can start talking about my position.
Thank God We're Done With That, What do you Think Paul?
I adopt a slightly less extreme position than Cone. Cone was, to be honest, being pretty disingenuous when he chose his examples. He chose the least violent act that he could think of and the most damaging nonviolent act he could think of.
I think that even he would be hard pressed to say that there's no difference between full scale class war and peaceful protests. Yes, peaceful protests can kill, but they are far less likely to kill than an armed insurrection.
Therefore, I'm gonna modify Cone's claim from "use the most effective tactic since differentiating between violent and nonviolent acts is disingenuous" to "If violence is more effective than nonviolence, use it assuming there is no alternative"
The "no alternative" bit is where Malcolm comes in. Like Cone, I think Malcolm is being disingenuous when he says black people have no political power. The constitution is a living, breathing document and thus can(and will) change to include more and more groups over time.
However, I think in certain scenarios Malcolm is right that black people have zero political power within existing legal structures. Therefore, if something needs to be changed but cannot be changed within existing legal structures, you have two options:
- Don't change it
- Go outside existing legal structures
To reduce the emotional impact of this argument, I'm gonna use historical examples
Slave rebellions in the south were inherently violent affairs but(under this framework) were completely ethical because slaves had zero political power and no way to change the institution of slavery within existing legal institutions.
Therefore, if there is something today that needs changing, and if the group it impacts has zero political power, then I think it is 110% ethical for that group to use political violence to achieve their goals.
So in other words, yes I do believe beating the hell out of white supremacists in Charlottesville is ok. I don't usually like antifa, but in this instance they are completely justified.
Also this post was shorter than I thought it would be, yay!