The Art of Non-Violence

Sunday, January 14, 2018
First Aired: 
Sunday, April 12, 2015

What Is It

We all hope for peace. Yet in the face of violence, it often seems the only recourse is more violence. Advocates of non-violence claim it’s not necessary to respond to war in kind, and that responding violently, even in self-defense, just perpetuates the cycle of violence. So how can we practice non-violence under the direct threat of violence? Can non-violent acts be spread to stop aggression and war? And are there times when violence is, in fact, necessary? John and Ken keep the peace with renowned cultural critic Judith Butler, for a program recorded live at the Marsh Theatre in Berkeley.

Listening Notes

Ken supports non-violence, as there are historical cases of it working. But John reminds us of certain historical cases in which violence was necessary—to defeat the Nazis, for example. There must be limitations to non-violence. Ken argues that non-violence can achieve a degree of moral clarity that violence can never hope to. But John reminds us that when the oppressor is violent enough, it just isn’t practical to be non-violent. Ken concludes that this very question is of course very divisive, just as it was in the past – for example, at the height of the civil rights movement.

John and Ken are joined by Judith Butler, professor of Comparative Literature at University of California Berkeley. John asks Judith if there was any personal event that convinced her of the power of non-violence. Judith brings up her experience growing up during the height of the Civil Rights movement, and Ken then asks what she thinks of the accusation that non-violence begets violence and is therefore violent as well. Judith dismisses this logic and argues that the responsibility of the violent act is solely on the violent actor, since provocation does not entail responsibility for the ultimate act.

John and Ken try with Judith to make a clear moral distinction between violent self-defense and aggression. John then brings consequentialism into the mix. He wonders whether it might be justified to enact violence in order to mitigate a greater violence. Judith and Ken respond by arguing that the violent means that we choose to reach our ends, no matter how just, set a violent precedent for the future world that is contradictory to the intentions behind the violent means in the first place. John responds that such a long-term view might immobilize action and leave the present hopeless. Judith returns to argue that one must live and die with one’s principles, making means supremely important, no matter how important the ends are.

A member of the audience asks the question whether the violent consequences of nonviolent demonstrations diminish the legitimacy of non-violence as a whole. Another question from the audience asks: if you practice non-violence, do you have a voice that exists only through violence, and does non-violence ultimately just amount to obedience to an overpowering violent system? Judith and Ken then discuss different “languages” of violence and non-violence. Judith offers a final remark on the hope for solidarity between violent oppressors and the oppressed, for example when police officers put down their arms. John concludes that there is a need for more exposure to the everyday acts of non-violence that successfully bring about change, and Ken concludes on the need for educating a more engaged citizenry that is more aware of these avenues of change.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 7:04): Shuka Kalantari examines the Black Panther party and their justifications for violent as a necessary means for liberation and defense from violence.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek 47:35): Ian Shoales looks into the demand of non-violence or civil disobedience the case of Gandhi to demonstrate that it wouldn’t be right to characterize it as “passive” resistance at all.