The Art of Non-Violence

Sunday, January 16, 2022
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 Judith Butler from UC Berkeley, author of The Force of Non-Violence: An Ethico-Political Bind.

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.


Comments (3)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, January 6, 2022 -- 5:55 AM

Suppose the capitol police

Suppose the capitol police didn't put up barriers and instead let rioters into the capitol on Jan 6 of 2021. What would have happened? The strangest footage of the insurrection is seeing the mob transect the capitol through a cordoned path while looking up at the dome.

This show originally aired in 2015 and focuses on protests that seem quaint compared to the dissonance of 2022. The capitol insurrection one year ago was intolerable, but the cause is not hard to fathom.

There is a social pressure to be non-violent when people are included in the social process. Inclusion is the critical determinant and a sense of ownership and appreciation for the process.

If a mosquito buzzes in your ear, do you swat it? If you feel heartburn, do you treat it with a proton pump inhibitor? These actions could be viewed as violence toward an insect or a bacteria. The concept of violence is tied to identity.

Rob Dunn @ North Carolina State is one of my favorite scientists and authors. 'Never Home Alone' (NHA) is a fun read, but he has several, 'The Natural History of the Future' is next tome up for me. The gist of NHA is that you are never far from an insect. Ed Yong's 'I am Multitudes' takes this even further to say a very large part of you and me is not really you or me.

When confronted with violence, we can practice non-violence with understanding, inclusion, and appreciation of our social projects (like government, K-14 schooling, and our armed forces, among others.)

Non-violence is neither contagious nor preferred at all times. Sometimes the mosquito bites, sometimes the bacteria ulcerates. When a mob forms, it can be dangerous, but it is always a sign of unrest. Non-violent approaches to crowds, incited or not, will not solve the underlying causes for those gathering.

It is fine to swat the biting fly or treat the ulceraterous bacteria. But to poison, the silverfish from your basement has consequences unseen and complications. Violence takes more understanding than non-violence, and its inverse application to our lives and homes as wonton violence and indifferent non-violence is the norm and needs reversion.

I found Judith's self-report of a majority intent not to play ball with Nazis shallow and insensitive. The entire show was too focused on righteousness that should be revisited. These are the airs of the insurrectionists who stormed our capitol. If only professor Butler could appreciate the ills of non-violent righteousness and the insurrectionists the glory of the capitol dome.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, January 12, 2022 -- 7:14 AM

I looked back at my brief

I looked back at my brief quip from 2015. Also skimmed comments from others. Then, I was new to PT and the blog experience. At this time, I reserve remarks to non-violence as it applies to human-to-human interaction, because that seems to me as being what matters in context with this post. Violence, as we often see it, is symbolic of anarchy and mob rule. Those who subscribe to these acts want matters to go their way---the way of their chosen affiliation. This does not place their actions within the same category as sanctioned warfare: such conflicts come under greater scrutiny because their goal, ostensibly, is a greater good for the larger number of people, not the success of a splinter group at a cost to a majority of others. Wars (most of them) attain justifiability in this regard. Anarchy and mob rule do not. The latter forms of violence are symptoms of deeper resentments and defiance, not a defence of any sort of greater good. As negative examples of propositional attitude, they are a darker facet of humanity: those better angels of our nature fly off into oblivion.

Anarchy and mob rule can claim to pursue equality. Fairness. Justice. Those claims are a facade. Followers know this. I will always remember what a friend (deceased) told me when I think about the bluster of a mob of anarchists: never apologize, it's a sign of weakness...

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, January 22, 2022 -- 3:26 PM

Trying harder to think better

Trying harder to think better...and so on. For there to be characterizations such as the art of non-violence. The art of war. The art of deception (or self-deception)--- these are insulting to the nobler applications of art, as we commonly understand them. Curious. Disappointing? Sure. There are contexts, however. We cannot escape them and the origins that led us there. I am tracking context. .. have claimed reality, at least one version of it, has plasticity. That depends upon context. And context rules this realm. Fully x% of so-called reality is contextual. Most of us know reality but do not recognize contextual reality. This is why the value of x is unknown.. Be selective when you think about, recognize and trust reality. And ask yourself, will this help me. Or will it hurt? Moreover---what may I change?

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