The Rhetorics of Violence
"We condemn utterly these barbaric attacks. We send our profound condolences to the victims and their families.
“All of our countries have suffered from the impact of terrorism. Those responsible have no respect for human life. We are united in our resolve to confront and defeat this terrorism that is not an attack on one nation, but all nations and on civilized people everywhere.
“We will not allow violence to change our societies or our values, nor will we allow it to stop the work of this summit. We will continue our deliberations in the interest of a better world.
“Here at the summit, the world’s leaders are striving to combat world poverty and save and improve human life.
“The perpetrators of today’s attacks are intent on destroying human life. The terrorists will not succeed. Today’s bombings will not weaken in any way our resolve to uphold the most deeply held principles of our societies and to defeat those who impose their fanaticism and extremism on all of us.
“We shall prevail and they shall not.”
--Tony Blair after today’s bombings in London
“The weight of these sad times we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” (Albany at the end of King Lear)
The weight of our sad times has nearly turned me into a pacifist. I will admit that, finally, pacifism leaves me in a position that I experience as intellectually and emotionally incoherent. But my response to today’s bombings in London is a sickening: “Here we go again.” So I am casting about for some alternative narrative to replace the all too predictable one we are about to reenact.
The rhetoric of response to violence is predicated on understanding violence itself as rhetorical. The terrorists are trying to “send us a message.” Their message is: give up your way of life or we will destroy you. Once their actions are interpreted in this way, the tenor of the response is pre-scripted. As Tony Blair said it today: “We will not allow violence to change our societies and our values.” How we will send our message? By imposing our will on theirs. “We shall prevail and they shall not.” Their initiatory act of violence calls forth our responding acts of violence.
What differentiates our violence from theirs? Three things: 1) our aims are moral; theirs are not; 2) they kill innocent people; we do not; and 3) their actions are “gratuitous”; ours are “necessary.” (Lurking behind all three is the old schoolboy standard: “he started it.”)
Pacifism calls all these familiar rhetorical moves into question. It insists that violence can never be instrumental, that it never simply produces the ends toward which it aims. The effects of violence—on the perpetrator as well as the victim—are incalculable. History suggests that violence is a great destroyer. But it does not create anything. You cannot preserve a way of life through violence; once you take up arms, kiss your old way of life good-bye. The attacks of September 11th did change America—not through what the terrorists did, but through what we did in response.
Consider the counter-example of Spain. The Madrid bombings were as horrible as anything you might image or dread. But they did not dictate a complete change in the society’s prevailing foci or goals. What if we were to respond to terrorist attacks the way we respond to earthquakes? Take reasonable precautions, but don’t act as if there is some method to render the event impossible, or think that attacking a perceived source of the danger will prevent all future attacks. Most of all, don’t allow obsession with the danger or investment in non-effective means of preventing it overwhelm getting on with the life one wants, chooses, and enjoys. If you can’t live in peace with the possibility of earthquakes, don’t live in California. Various observers noted that it was not the residents of New York City who voted on the basis of security fears or dreams last November.
Yes, maybe it is true that you can’t move somewhere to gain immunity from the threat of terrorism (although surely some places are less likely targets than others). But that’s not the point, which is, rather, pacifism’s pragmatic claim that violence cannot get you the results for which it aims. Precautions are one thing, striking out at “the enemy” is another. There are various arguments about why violence (in general) is counter-productive and why violence against terrorists (in particular) is counter-productive. I will assume that you are familiar with these and move on. The arguments here are empirical and, to say the least, open to debate. It would be very difficult to prove that not only was every historical instance of violence unable to achieve its aim, but also that violence necessarily (not just contingently) must fail instrumentally. Surely, the implausibility of such a sweeping argument partially explains why humans keep resorting to violence to get things done. But, at least, pacifism calls our attention to the fact that violence, to say the least, is a very uncertain means to accomplish anything. So if the end is something we care about deeply, we will be well advised to consider other means. Violence has a nasty habit of proving indiscriminate in its destruction.
I turn now from pacifism’s pragmatism (the focus on instrumentality) to what I think of as its realism. Of course, in matters of violence, the manly rhetoric of determination, will, prevailing, and necessity is considered “realistic”—and is opposed to the namby-pamby, pie-in-the-sky idealism of the pacifist who refuses to face facts. I beg to differ. The most abiding lesson I have learned in the four years since September 11th is the persistent inability of humans—as a species? Who knows? But certainly in many instances—to call a spade a spade. The rhetorics of violence divert our attention away from the maimed and suffering and dead bodies that are violence’s most real product. Think of the ways that “sacrifice” and “victory” were deployed in Bush’s recent speech about the Iraq War. Was there any connection offered between these terms and the dead bodies our war is producing daily? Pacifism calls us to the fact that violence means killing and maiming; it means inflicting physical harm and pain on humans. It tells us to be suspicious—very suspicious—of the words in which we cloak violence, in which we justify it, and in which we avoid apprehending its real effects on the ground. Get real. By jumping away to the message violence sends about our resolve or to the desired results we imagine it will produce, we cultivate a blindness that renders our claims to be “realists” delusionary.
Pacifism also calls us to get real about the justificatory distinctions made between “innocent” and non-innocent victims. Ever since the Blitz of 1940, warfare has pretty much obliterated the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. (And in what sense are soldiers not innocent? The sliding from “civilians” to “innocent” is usually unmarked, but incredibly problematic. Is the civilian Donald Rumsfeld more innocent than the soldier in the field? You get into very swampy moral ground once you start claiming that some people deserve to be the victims of violence. But even if we could establish and endorse that distinction in theory, contemporary warfare can’t abide by it in practice. ) The poet Robert Hass, in a recent visit to Chapel Hill, said that he had read somewhere that 90% of the casualties in World War I were soldiers, but that 90% of the casualties in wars since 1939 were not soldiers. I can’t vouch for the figures, but the trend is undeniable. To think that “our” violence can be so “surgical” that only the non-innocent will feel its brunt is another delusion, one that the Pentagon has developed a whole new vocabulary to create and preserve.
I guess I must add here—since liberals are so often willfully misunderstood on this score—that I condemn and abhor today’s bombings. I am only saying that pacifism has some very solid reasons for saying that once you begin making distinctions between “good” violence and “bad” violence, or between “acceptable” violence and “criminal” violence, or between “surgical” violence and “indiscriminate” violence, the consequences, more often than not, are lamentable—and the rhetorics deployed to make those distinctions prove a means for not even seeing the consequences.
Pacifism’s realism also extends to a candid look at the joy humans can take in destruction. Since violence has proven so unreliable throughout history, our attraction to it can’t be simply its instrumental efficacy. Push aside the rhetorics of necessity and/or of moralism and it’s not hard to see the glee of the teenager who throws a brick through a plate glass window or the child who stomps on the sand castle. The last four years have also taught me how bourgeois I am. I love the life that I have constructed painstakingly over fifty years—and the people with whom I share that life. I am enormously grateful to the peace and stability that has made that act of construction possible and that makes its continuation likely. Contempt for all things bourgeois runs deep within modernity from both the right and the left. Having thrown my lot in with the arts early in life, I have gone through my own anti-bourgeois phases. And, even today, my understanding of the bourgeois virtues is carefully distanced from the ethos of capitalism. I will spare you an articulation of my bourgeois loyalties at this time and place.
The current point is that, for many, peace is boring, constraining, complex, and frustrating. They accept gleefully the opportunity to flee domesticity and the difficulties of getting along with others. (Much of the frustration on the ground in Iraq is that it is a “political” war, really more a policing action than combat, the kind of action for which our soldiers are poorly trained and equipped. Many of them would feel a whole lot better if it was no-holds-barred, shoot-‘em-up simple.) Politicians love making those “resolve” speeches. It offers them their Churchillian moment—and puts the messy compromises of politics and the entangling details of enacting policy on the back burner. Violence as destruction offers a clear field for action. Pacifism asks us to cast a cold eye on this human capacity to take joy in violence, irrespective of its consequences or its legitimacy. We need to devise ways to push a leash on or divert such capacities—and we should be wary of the high-minded or instrumental rhetorics that often mask a love of violence for its simplicity and the heady sense of vitality it affords.
what a stunning essay. thank you. you have put into words many thoughts that I have percolated on pacifism, war, terrorism, and have not been able to express in such a moving manner. thank you again.
you mention Chapel Hill, are we neighbors??
peace.Posted by on 07/07 at 02:30 PM
As an aside, I am in Chapel Hill, too.Posted by coturnix on 07/07 at 02:54 PM
Absolutely outstanding post, and a much-needed reminder for progressives to maintain their (always problematic, hedged, morally fraught, angst-ridden, etc.) commitments to pacifism. As you point out, there’s so much to be lost to the alternative, and not just in the Middle East.
Thanks for articulating all of this so well.Posted by on 07/07 at 02:55 PM
Wonderful post. This is by far the best thing I’ve seen thus far responding to the attacks in London. Thank you.Posted by Scrivener on 07/07 at 02:56 PM
A truly excellent post. Bravo.
I’m finding myself both heartsick at the grotesquerie in London--a city I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several times--and heartsick at the thought that a singularly horrific day in London qualifies as business as usual in “liberated” Baghdad.Posted by on 07/07 at 03:01 PM
I agree with all of the above—great post, John. I couldn’t care less about the institutional status of literary theory today, myself. So I’ll just add that this blog not only condemns the bombings but also mourns for the people of London, struck by murderous brutality in the midst of their city’s celebration.Posted by on 07/07 at 03:08 PM
Thanks for this post. While I agree with your general argument, I think there’s a flaw--not fatal but disfiguring--in Robert Hass’ observation. In fact the wholesale destruction of civilian populations (as distinct from combatants, though I agree this distinction is more functional than moral) is a practice that modern states adopted in relation to colonized peoples: the British in India, the Japanese in China, everybody in Africa. By the time the Germans applied it in Guernica, the horror was that these methods should now have come back to European soil; the Italians had already bombed population centers in Ethiopia.
This history doesn’t excuse (though it may help explain) the use of violence against civilians, even where that use can be plausibly framed as retaliatory. I bring it up because it seems to me that if we are trying to develop a politics that can look itself in the eye, morally speaking--as your post seeks, very creditably, to do--we should try our best to shed any remaining illusions about history, including our occasional amnesia for such things as the British bombing of rebellious villages in Iraq in the 1920’s.Posted by on 07/07 at 03:38 PM
I have always felt about pacifists much as I do about libertarians. I’m glad they exist, but I don’t want them in power.
I think there are rational arguments for using violence. The problem is, irrational arguments work better. Those in positions of leadership are faced with the dilemma. When violence is logical, the stakes are probably very high. Take the easy path of preying on irrational hatred, or risk failing to motivate the populous to back a necessary violent action. Every leader takes the easy path. Convince the people there are demons to be slain.
This causes many problems. Sometimes the people discover they are not actually fighting demons, and feel betrayed. On the other extreme, sometimes the goals are met, but you can’t unmake the demons.Posted by on 07/07 at 04:49 PM
What discourages me (and I detect a note of discouragement in Michael’s post, too) is that even when the arguments for violence are damn near irrefutable--and here, as so often, Nazism supplies the perfect test case--the demons won’t stay dead. Nazism as such is still fairly marginal, but militarism and racism and leader-worship and thuggish violence we still have with us, and a lot of what was done in the cause of defeating the Axis (Dresden, Hiroshima, Tokyo, etc.) makes even the strongest arguments for violence sound kind of hollow. I don’t know, I’ve generally stopped short of pacifism on much the same grounds as you summarize here, but look where we are… might we, at last, get to somewhere else, somewhere beyond the cycle of violence?Posted by on 07/07 at 05:11 PM
Thank-you John, thank-you, thank-you.
I spent the morning getting in touch with friends of mine who live in London. They’re all fine. Then I turned back to see what was being said, and then wished I hadn’t, until I got here.
Not only a wonderful essay, but a brave one.
My only quibble, I actually prefer non-violent; I know it seems oddly wishy-washy, why not just say pacifisim, and indeed, non-violence as a stand-alone noun is fairly meaningless. But a non-violent response, or non-violent resistence or a non-violent alternative preserves the active nature of non-violence. It’s not about giving in, to terrorists or any other perceived “enemy” or bad guy. It’s not about abandoning the pursuit of either truth or justice, or about not countering evil; in many ways it is the most active response to evil, and the most active way to defend human rights, because as the other “John” reminds us, it requires of us “a politics that can look itself in the eye.”
No one seems to read Gandhi anymore; I recommend his autobiography, though the language in translation is a bit stilted, but Gandhi’s tough-minded realism comes through. Along with it, I also highly recommend Erik Erikson’s “Ghandi’s Truth.”
In the end, it was non-violent resistence that brought down the Soviet empire, that and its own violent internal contradictions.Posted by Leah A on 07/07 at 05:20 PM
I’m always upset we don’t get more credit for how hard we try not to kill innocent people, you’d think that would be enough to cut us some slack on the large numbers of innocent people that we do, regrettably have to kill.
You know, why can’t the grieving parents be a bit more understanding? “You know, we only killed *one* of your children. Our terrorist enemeies would have gone for *all* of them. So you should be thanking us.”Posted by Rory on 07/07 at 05:21 PM
I think this was a great essay. I want to add one thing: non-violence is encouraged by Gandhians and others not only as moral, but also as effective. It is intended to effect change, and it is my firmly held belief that it can do so. It is a difficult path, especially for someone enraged or outraged; it often entails personal sacrifice, sometimes quite a bit of it; but it can and does result in positive change, in a positive way, and it really is the most respectful, moral, simple, and clearheaded way to effect that positive change. And no innocents get hurt, at least not by the people practicing the non-violence: none.Posted by Zenji on 07/07 at 05:31 PM
Whenever the Nazis are trotted out as the justification of violent solutions to political problems, remember this: 50,000,000+ died in WWII. How many would have died employing non-violent solutions? Arguably not 50,000,000.
If the Allied powers had isolated Germany early on, we’d possibly be arguing today about the cruelty of sanctions and the death-by-starvation of German civilians; certainly a horrible thought as well.
But a mixture of sanctions and embargo might have brought Hitler to his knees. His war machine was not that robust in 1939.
But he was supplied by neutral countries thoughout the war. If political solutions had been tried and modified, and it took 15 years and cost 10 million lives instead of 4 years and 50 million lives, how would we view history today?
But it’s indicative of the imaginative limitation of political leaders that violence is almost ALWAYS the first action of choice, despite their disingenuous claims to the contrary.
There is never a conflict that is not justified with the old saw, “Sometimes war and violence are necessary.” Alternatives are rarely sought.Posted by on 07/07 at 08:06 PM
Gandhi’s rhetoric (speech acts and demonstrative actions) was addressed to, among others, the Raj and its British imperial maintainers and especially, the Labour Party.
His rhetoric was at home within a commonly accepted modern colonial/post-colonial language. It would have fared less well had it been addressed to Nazi Germany.
Is violence appropriate when the “Other” does not “speak” our language?Posted by on 07/07 at 08:23 PM
John, you have said eloquently what I have been feeling, inchoately, all day. Thank you for the words.Posted by on 07/07 at 08:32 PM
We cannot wash the dark
Stain from the bottomless night.
You cannot bleach
The sun to a brighter light.
Toss your fatigues
In the churning machine.
The world waits for one
Who battles for peacePosted by The Heretik on 07/07 at 09:07 PM
I’d just like to add another “thank you.” As a pacifism flirt, I completely agree with you that it is the efficacy argument that is both most needed and lacking in the public sphere, not some vague moral argument that just comes down to “I don’t like killing people.” Of course, I don’t like killing people, but I recognize that sometimes it becomes necessary. However, I think it becomes necessary much less often than those in power claim. Yes, I changed on 9/11, but unlike most people, my change manifested as a saddened cynicism that, like it or not, most people want blood for blood, and they don’t much care whose blood it ends up being.Posted by on 07/07 at 09:08 PM
It would be very difficult to prove that not only was every historical instance of violence unable to achieve its aim, but also that violence necessarily (not just contingently) must fail instrumentally.
the fact that is is not true in every instance doesn’t lessen the import of the idea. even if it is 90% true, or whatever percent correct, it still automatically lessens the amount of violence to consider the possibility. there is no way that 100% of the violence achieves its goal, but that doesn’t seem to matter to proponents of violent solutions. i thought peace was the goal. right? we want to live in a peaceful world?
There are various arguments about why violence (in general) is counter-productive ... I will assume that you are familiar with these and move on.
the majority think that violence leads to good solutions. though you take for granted the arguments for pacifism, someday you should articulate those. you have the talent and many people have no idea of those arguments.
a great thinker from india:
Question -How can we solve our present political chaos and the crisis in the world? Is there anything an individual can do to stop the impending war?
Krishnamurti: War is the spectacular and bloody projection of our everyday life, is it not?
he goes on to say (sorry for the long quote):
Obviously what causes war is the desire for power, position, prestige, money; also the disease called nationalism, the worship of a flag; and the disease of organized religion, the worship of a dogma. All these are the causes of war; if you as an individual belong to any of the organized religions, if you are greedy for power, if you are envious, you are bound to produce a society which will result in destruction. So again it depends upon you and not on the leaders – not on so-called statesmen and all the rest of them. It depends upon you and me but we do not seem to realize that. If once we really felt the responsibility of our own actions, how quickly we could bring to an end all these wars, this appalling misery! But you see, we are indifferent. We have three meals a day, we have our jobs, we have our bank account, big or little, and we say, “For God’s sake, don’t disturb us, leave us alone”. The higher up we are, the more we want security, permanency, tranquility, the more we want to be left alone, to maintain things fixed as they are; but they cannot be maintained as they are, because there is nothing to maintain. Everything is disintegrating. We do not want to face these things, we do not want to face the fact that you and I are responsible for wars.
You and I may talk about peace, have conferences, sit round a table and discuss, but inwardly, psychologically, we want power, position, we are bound by beliefs, by dogmas, for which we are willing to die and destroy each other. Do you think such men, you and I, can have peace in the world? To have peace, we must be peaceful; to live peacefully means not to create antagonism.
rest here.Posted by a-train on 07/07 at 09:39 PM
Very erudite, Michael, but such profound words are wasted rhetoric to these terrorists.
They gave you 9/11 and now delivered our 7/7 in the form of 37 Dead and 700 injured in London.
These perverted people are prepared to kill random civilian targets in the name of their God.
Perverted by religious Mullahs or Clerics that preach such indiscriminate slaughter in a Jihad or Holy War ?
Can they sincerely believe a worthy God would
condones killing innocent victims in his name ?
It stinks !
Right now, waiting forlornly for Justice seems an inadequate response when this wicked act is fresh in our minds - as the blood of innocent victims is spattered fresh on the pavements and buildings of an innocious bus route in London.Posted by LukePDQ on 07/07 at 09:59 PM
Look, what was Blair going to say? Personally, I wish he’d said “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.”
The only person to respond to recent violence in any stirring way was (gulp) Rudy Gulliani when he said the 9/11 casualty figures would be more than we could bear. But that was after being at ground zero all day. People like Bill Clinton, with rhetoric that can make it seem like he really can feel your pain, are rare. Blair is capable of it. Let’s see what he come up with in a day or so.Posted by on 07/07 at 10:12 PM
John, thank you very much for saying what I feel, much better than I could hope to. I hope it’s not too late to stop the escalating spiral of violence, but it’s almost a faint, theoretical hope. I felt we went into the abyss in 2001-2, and would probably never get out.Posted by on 07/07 at 10:23 PM
Beautiful post, Mr. McGowan. I’ve lately been reading Voltaire for the first time and he’s been feeling shockingly up-to-date. Here’s a couple of paragraphs from the “Philosophical Dictionary,” in a short entry called “End, Final Causes.”
“Sheep, undoubtedly, were not made expressly to be roasted and eaten, since many nations abstain from this horror. Mankind are not created essentially to massacre one another, since the Brahmins and Quakers kill no one. But the clay out of which we are kneaded frequently produces massacres, as it produces calumnies, vanities, persecutions, and impertinences. It is not precisely that the formation of man is the final cause of our madnesses and follies, for a final cause is universal, and invariable in every age and place; the horrors and absurdities of the human race are nevertheless part of the eternal order of the things. When we thresh our corn, the flail is the final cause of the separation of the grain. But if that flail, while threshing my grain, crushes to death a thousand insects, that occurs not by the determination of my will, nor, on the other hand, is it by mere chance; the insects were, on this occasion, actually under my flail, and had to be there.
It is a consequence of the nature of things that man should be ambitious; that he should sometimes discipline a number of other men; that he should be a conquereror, or that he should be defeated; but never can it be said: Man was created by God to be killed in war.”Posted by sfmike on 07/07 at 11:11 PM
Thank you. That’s the first post I’ve read all day that really made me question some of my thoughts on war/peace/revenge.
The whole subject always brings me back to “The Onion” and their pretend press conference with God after 9/11 - if I recall, they had him asking “Which part of ‘thou shall not kill’ did you people not understand?”Posted by Kristen on 07/07 at 11:14 PM
So long as mainstream America continues to be shielded from seeing the bloody results (actual unsanitized photos of the carnage) of our “good and necessary” violence, it’s going to continue to be an extremely slow learning process for Americans.Posted by on 07/07 at 11:56 PM
today i got into an argument w/ my closest friend over whether this bombing was actually carried out by anyone related to islamic fundamentalists or people protesting g8.
i am upset by this, actually, as it was via tony blair & “truthout” that i read the bit about “g8 protestors” (which i hardly believe) & i find myself way too tired to defend islamic fundamentalists-- or fundamentalists of -any- stripe --were the Xian fundamentalists not in a position of incredible -world- domination at this point (as far as junior is in large influence of what happens over the rest of the world), i would not wonder that they might do, if not as a body, more as individuals along the line of timothy mcveigh. all right; but they neednt now. now it is the time for the islamic fundamentalists to show their glimmer, & a filthy glimmer it has turned out to be.
i am struck by how much has changed since i was a child being taken to anti-war protests by my mother-- as a ridiculously informed leftist child outcast, coming from ridiculously informed leftist parents, i remember quite well that the creed of the day was to GET THE PEOPLE OUT before anything was blown up. one may not appreciate the weatherfolk for what they did, & one may challenge their ideology, & one may blame them for -missing- at times, but this -was- the dominant ideology under which they operated. & it has -really- changed, just as the meaning of “moral values” has been subsumed by vitriolic fag-hate & vengeance. & i wonder how that happened, & i wonder about that A LOT.
it seems we, & i speak of we as workers, as ordinary people riding a subway or working in a tower, are attacked by -both- sides. there MUST be something we can DO, --DO-- (i come from an iww family. i believe in DOING) to STOP this. elsewise we are just sitting ducks, poked off by everything from air rifles on up.
& me, i rarely (if ever) post to blogs & i certainly dont -have- one (i cannot imagine having one), but i post to this one & read it, as i believe its owner has chained 2 extremely impotant things which are often overlooked as having interlocked import: political & cultural values.
so when dr. bérubé there talks about some rather vapid, but overly published, idiot speaking about changing the name of the discipline of “english” to-- what?? precisely, i think how all of this de-constructed de-concentration has -led- us to a place where newsfeeds get ignored after several days, no matter how long-reaching or bloody (from sandra day o’connor to bombings in spain & london), in favor of absurd discussions of which -words- we are going to use-- & this i know from the inside (i have more degrees than i ever would have wanted) that -these- discussions go on for -years- & never lead to any constructive action at all.
(some day discuss, please, the resignation of chris burden & nancy rubins --the forced resignation, actually-- of them both from ucla, if you have the chance. it’s devastating, but in this devastated world i dont know if it even scores a mention. too bloody bad.)
so while my dream would always be of pacifism, & i agree w/ it & live it, largely, in total (other than in the case of hitler, for whom it would not work, & i am afraid, of our own (little) hitler, for whom it shall not work either), i feel a bit more practicality is in order. but what?? my mother was always worried about the -real- hitler coming back & she had race memory of pogroms. & i am not certain that race memory ever goes completely away.
please excuse the rambling-- vitamin k(lonopin), w/o which i cannot sleep, especially after bombings in a city in which i hope to move (into a houseboat no less) & a late hour make me a bit less coherent than usual.Posted by on 07/08 at 02:37 AM
I thank all of you for your responses. It is a sad time.
Yes, I’m in Chapel Hill, where I teach English at UNC. So history lessons are always good for me. Wars in which non-combatants are not killed are an historical anomaly as everyone who has read Thucydides will recall, as well as those who are familiar with the history of European imperialism. Thanks to john for reminding us all of that fact.
But no thanks to him for stealing my name. So I’ve decided I will use the moniker “mcgowan” from now on to signal my postings to the comment sections. And you can follow the link to my blog, Public Intelligence, where I pursue these questions, worries, and musings about the world in which we find ourselves the other six days of the week.Posted by McGowan on 07/08 at 08:50 AM
I’ve always been a pacifist, never could see any illogic in it, and frankly figured I must be “prejudiced,” having Quaker ancestors on both sides. But nothing during my long experience as a adult has shaken my belief in it.
Even if you’re not a pacifist, you have to grant that violence and retaliation are counterproductive. We think up words like “closure” in order to justify things like the death penalty or retaliation. But I believe that avoiding frustration—because the State steps in and turns itself into a murderer on your behalf—leads straight to emotional and moral immaturity as an individual and society.
Then too, having grown up in the Fifties, it’s hard not to look very suspiciously (as Eisenhower did, finally) at the military and what it was becoming, the relationship it developed with money. Killing has become a component of economic growth.Posted by PW on 07/08 at 07:03 PM
My biggest issues with pacificism are first that it takes two (or more...all?) parties to make a peace, but only one to make a war. Peace is hard, especially in a game type situation, where one’s gain is another’s loss. The closer to zero sum, the harder it gets. How can you be a pacifist if the other guy is willing to fight?
Second, “war is politics by other means”, i.e., and extension of politics. If you’rew going to fight war, you need to extend pacificism back down into the roots that lead to the moment where you would fight that war. I don’t hear much talk about that. How should politics be run so that you never even consider war? Pacificism currently seems to run a kife edge...do anyhting you want to the brink, but NO WAR.
As a simple example, in iterated game theory, the “Tit-for-tat” strategy is the simplest strategy that is effective. From the wiki…
This strategy is dependent on four conditions that has allowed it to become the most prevalent strategy for the Prisoner’s Dilemma:
1. Unless provoked, the agent will always cooperate
2. If provoked, the agent will retaliate
3. The agent is quick to forgive
4. The agent must have a 2/3 chance of competing against the opponent more than once.
I think the only way to truly accept pacificism is to accept defeat over war. There will always be an enemy willing to fight. Especially if he gets to sleep with 72 virgins after he dies, i.e., his belief system rewards him.Posted by on 07/09 at 09:06 AM
Violence prevails, it doesn’t have to have an achievable goal, endstate, it just is and therefore is empirically valid. To assume pacifism is a better way is pure conjecture since it does not prevail and any putative world governed by it could just as easily be the worse for it. Pacifism, like all it’s idealist bretheren cloistered away in subdry towers, could not survive the light of day - it would decay into reality. It would become violence.Posted by on 07/09 at 09:59 AM
The logic of the last two comments is what I am trying--emphasis on trying--to wriggle out from under. If violence always wins and if there is always someone willing to use violence, then the logic of the game scenario pushes us inexorably to the strategy of “the preemptive strike.” We throw up our hands and say “nothing can be done, except to protect ourselves against their inevitable violence against us.” So I have turned to the thought of a tit-for-tat of non-violence. But that means someone will have to offer the first tit of non-violence in a world that has been tatting violently for a very long time.Posted by mcgowan on 07/09 at 10:55 AM
The errors in Red State Mike and Oblong Jester’s thinking are many. Over simplifying, not recognizing that organized violence only develops over time and always has historical roots that are potentially vitiated in their early stages, and assuming humans are unconscious actors driven by objective imperatives are a few.
I suggest they read the Krishnamurti quote several times and let the insight that the consequences of war are a result of our individual choices sink in.Posted by on 07/09 at 12:58 PM
One source of confusion regarding the efficacy of war versus pacifism is a confusion of terms of struggle.
War is a physical struggle, not an ideological one. Although ideology is necessary to maintain support for a war, winning a war isn’t the equivalent of winning an argument. What wars can do is destroy some physical assets that might make certain organized groups less able to achieve certain goals. Ideological struggles require other means, and warfare often hardens ideological divides between groups.
States are designed to pursue warfare, so warfare often becomes the hammer that finds all else to be nails. John may be underestimating just how much some people benefit from terrorism--namely those who seek a stronger police state, or a larger military-industrial complex. Those groups have been searching for a compelling enemy since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The main problem with pacifism (one it shares with aggression) is that it may not work when there are those committted to another course of action.
It was a treat to run into your post, John. I hope all is well in Chapel Hill.Posted by on 07/09 at 01:36 PM
Great post, John. I espcially like how you flip the commonlly-assumed real/ideal binary in relation to pro-war/pacifist positions.
Red State Mike: “How can you be a pacifist if the other guy is willing to fight?” I don’t know; ask Gandhi. I also have a problem with game theory. There’s no way to reduce the complexities of human motivation on such a large scale to two people sitting in separate jail cells trying to decide whether one is going to sell the other down the river. Don’t get me wrong, models are useful, but tit-for-tat, the prisoner’s dilemma, and other game theories, are *only* models. They are not crystal balls (see below.)
I must also quibble with your comment, Oblong Jouster: empirical fact though war may be--in the sense that there have, of course, been wars--it need not be so. Regarding empiricism: while I cannot wish a rock into being, I--we--can try to change the terms of our interactions with others. In that sense, the arguments we make about *our* world, about the world of human relationships, actually affect what will become future empircial fact. They have performative power.
Arugments like yours and RSM’s, then, do more than point out flaws in John’s thinking (that’s what each of you wanted to do, isn’t it?); they actually do real work *against* peace by continuing to offer viable positions for war’s justification.
Models aren’t reality, and empiricism isn’t determinism.
Keep it up, John.Posted by on 07/09 at 02:41 PM
Thank you, John, for an exquisitely eloquent post. I know what I’ve been worrying about since Thursday: how do we create sanity out of the insanity, the anger and the terror of the moment? And I worry about what would be the consequence of another attack on our land while only the id of the American people is engaged and the leaders who only can imagine violence and irrational reaction as a response to the terrorists’ jabs are still in charge.
Your words remind me that there is another answer than we’ve yet found.Posted by Mary on 07/09 at 08:50 PM
Pacifism isn’t about deciding not to go to war, it’s about never allowing the circumstances which lead up to war to prevail.
It’s much harder than going to war, but it’s more intelligent and humane and has better long term results. Peace isn’t a quick fix. Like democracy, it only survives if people work at it day after day after day.Posted by PW on 07/10 at 12:50 PM
You may be interested in this article written by Anglican theologian John Milbank.Posted by on 07/10 at 09:59 PM
I think the only way to truly accept pacificism is to accept defeat over war.
rsm, i believe we are finding that the opposite is definitely true: accepting war as inevitable is to accept defeat. what good have our wars done us? people always point out hitler, but hitler is a product of war.
Violence prevails, it doesn’t have to have an achievable goal, endstate, it just is and therefore is empirically valid. To assume pacifism is a better way is pure conjecture since it does not prevail and any putative world governed by it could just as easily be the worse for it.
this touches on a topic that i often think about and i still don’t know where i stand on it—is progress on a large scale possible?
what you say was also once true about slavery and the subjugation of women and acceptance of inequality before the law. these asepects of society were thought to be “empirically valid.”
i can also think of an equal number of negative things that are seemingly unrelated but nevertheless products of the same society. so do we always stay equal?
it seems we can and do learn from our mistakes, so why not society? although our improvement leaves a lot to be desired, it still appears to be discernible improvement.Posted by a-train on 07/10 at 10:36 PM
Mr.Gowan. Not all violence is “rhetorical”. Terrorism is rhetorical. Counter-terrorism is real. When terrorist campaigns have been defeated in the past, counter-terrorist violence has stopped. Would Islamist terrorism end if it were to prevail? Or would it continue to kill everything outside of an ever-narrowing circle of heavenly perfection? That is the difference between real and rhetorical violence.
Fighting a war of ideas, a war of intelligence and a war of guns, we can make Islamist terrorism subside, but not wipe it out. As we eliminated Nazism and we eliminated Stalinism as threats to humanity. Interestingly, some former practitioners of both remain in circulation and some even make positive contributions to civilization.
I wish I could help you stiffen your resolve because resolve is all we are lacking now, to win.Posted by on 07/11 at 06:41 AM
Great post, John. I wish I could remember all, or any, of the poem of Robert Hass’ that you and I both heard him read, the one he created out of those observations that you cite here.Posted by Sally on 07/11 at 09:48 AM
Aren’t all acts of communication inherently rhetorical? And isn’t violence, if nothing else, an act of communicating?Posted by Roxanne on 07/11 at 11:05 AM
I find myself struggling with both sides in this implicit debate.
Violence is often rhetorical, and on a blog that is basically about rhetoric it’s no surprise that the bias is toward the rhetorical function. However, violence isn’t always rhetorical. If I hit you, and threaten to hit you again if you don’t give me your wallet, I’m using violence rhetorically, to send a message. If I hit you, and simply take your wallet while you’re lying stunned on the sidewalk, that is an instrumental use of violence.
In contrast, so far as I can see, nonviolence as a strategy is always rhetorical; it depends fundamentally on the target’s capacity for embarrassment. Gandhi embarrassed the British into leaving India by raising the cost in repression of staying there to their self-perception as Decent Chaps. Ho Chi Minh famously said that had India been a French colony, Gandhi’s strategy would have failed.
“Hitler is a product of war” - yes, but there is no reset button for history.
Having said the above, I’m also doubtful of the Hobbesian counter-argument that war is ever with us. The revenge cycle is notorious for leaving populations of blind denture-wearers. The underlying assumption of the Iraq war (made explicit by Tom Friedman, no less) was that if we just kicked enough Arab butt, the Arabs would learn not to mess with us. Clearly a rhetorical use of violence, and a spectacularly ineffective one.
“Resolve is all we are lacking now, to win.” Resolve to do what, exactly? Hope is not a plan, and resolve is not a strategy. If the resolve is that of Londoners - to go on with their lives, mindful of backpacks under subway seats, but not huddling in their back rooms - that is an effective response to terrorism, and incidentally a nonviolent one. If the resolve is to blow up Arabs/Muslims more or less at random, pour décourager les autres, its effectiveness is doubtful.
The effective answers are unlikely to be any of the easy ones, from either end.Posted by on 07/11 at 11:08 AM
The logic of the last two comments is what I am trying--emphasis on trying--to wriggle out from under. If violence always wins and if there is always someone willing to use violence, then the logic of the game scenario pushes us inexorably to the strategy of “the preemptive strike.”
Maybe the other gent made that comment, but not me. Violence doesn’t always win. In fact, the whole idea of tit-for-tat is to start out trusting, and only switch to adversarial once the trust is violated.
I know it’s just a model, but it is informative.
We throw up our hands and say “nothing can be done, except to protect ourselves against their inevitable violence against us.” So I have turned to the thought of a tit-for-tat of non-violence. But that means someone will have to offer the first tit of non-violence in a world that has been tatting violently for a very long time.
Have you ever put yourself into the mind of someone who would predate on others? Imagine yourself a rapist or a child molestor for a second, disgusting as the thought may be. Or a Saddam-ish type person, who has killed his way to power. Different set of morals, whether through nature or nurture. Not like you. But imagine yourself as him.
What deters you? What convinces you to choose another target, or better yet turn over a new leaf?Posted by on 07/12 at 09:29 PM
Red State Mike: “How can you be a pacifist if the other guy is willing to fight?” I don’t know; ask Gandhi.
I wish Islam would find their Ghandi. And Ghandi at least had the advantage of having the British as his protagonists, i.e., a culture with some “vulnerability” due to their moral nature. Imagine his life span if Pol Pot had been his protagonist.
I also have a problem with game theory. There’s no way to reduce the complexities of human motivation on such a large scale to two people sitting in separate jail cells trying to decide whether one is going to sell the other down the river. Don’t get me wrong, models are useful, but tit-for-tat, the prisoner’s dilemma, and other game theories, are *only* models. They are not crystal balls (see below.)
I agree. But if the simplest possible problems create dilemmas that pacificism doesn’t appear to provide a reasonable solution to (not sure...does it?), than I worry for its efficacy in the real world.
To follow up my previous post, imagine you are prone to violence, and are repeatedly rewarded for it. How would pacificism deter you?Posted by on 07/12 at 09:35 PM