Violence is (almost) never the right answer

Like Indiana Jones, when confronted by Nazis, most of us want to punch them in the face.  American white supremacists like Richard Spencer are so obviously and cartoonishly evil that the temptation is to treat them like movie villains, and dispatch them with heroic fisticuffs.  However, it’s critical that we resist this temptation to go Captain America on their smug supposedly-Aryan features.

There are obvious reasons for restraint, ranging from a moral opposition to violence, to thwarting these loathsome creeps’ strategy of inciting violence so that they can appear to be the aggrieved party.  But the most important reason is the fundamental corrosiveness of violence on civil society.

In his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Steven Pinker uses historical evidence to argue that our modern society, news broadcasts nonwithstanding, is the least violent time in human history (based on the chance that the average individual will perish due to an act of violence).  I would argue that the force behind this decline is the fundamental bargain of modern civilization: Granting the government a monopoly on legitimate violence, in exchange for protection and the fair administration of justice.

The role of the military is to protect the residents of a nation from external violence, while the role of the police is to protect us from violence committed by other residents.  All of us effectively give out the right to mete out justice ourselves in exchange for a less-violent society.

This bargain is incredibly effective.  Imagine if our disputes, rather than being resolved by the courts, were still settled by exchanges of gunfire.  Actually, we don’t have to do too much imagining; this is why life as a criminal is so dangerous.  Rather than going to the police to resolve their inter-gang disputes, rival gangs murder each other (and innocents suffer in the process).

This is why it is so dangerous to advocate violence as a solution to political problems.  While it may feel good to talk tough (just ask President Trump), legitimizing violence outside the military or the police attacks the fundamental underpinnings of civil society.

Recently, history Professor NDB Connolly of Johns Hopkins University (and the co-host of one of my favorite podcasts, Backstory) came dangerously close to doing just that (though possibly by accident) in a Washington Post editorial.  In this editorial, he used the metaphor of rock-paper-scissors as a guide to fighting white supremacy.  He argues that the “paper” of what he characterizes as “liberalism” cannot defeat the “scissors” of white supremacy:

“For a long while, we’ve been throwing a lot of “paper.” Liberalism — our paper — preserves our country’s long commitment to contracts. Under liberalism, citizens stand in contract with their government. The government’s job, in turn, has been to enforce contracts between individuals and groups. Truly, when people ask for rights, be they women’s rights, gay and transgender rights, or rights as people of color, they are asking for contract rights.”

In other words, Connolly argues that the fundamental underpinnings of civil society are insufficient to defeat white supremacy, which historically has been based on denying minorities their contractual rights (either through direct means such as slavery itself, or indirect means such as unfair policing).

Resistance, be it forceful or clandestine, threatened or explicit, stands as our “rock.” Rocks can look like armed self-defense or nonviolent direct-action campaigns. They appear, too, as blunt, bald public speech about the hatred arrayed against the dispossessed. Our rock against racism has also included the sacrifice of people like Medgar Evers, a black World War II veteran and civil rights organizer, dying in Jackson, Miss., in 1963; or Viola Liuzzo, a white Northern Unitarian Universalist, dying for the same cause in Selma, Ala., two years later…. 

…No matter its form, rock breaks scissors. A half-century ago, nothing less than radical anti-racism could reduce white supremacy to an outlaw religion. Paper could not do that. The contract logic of liberalism, on its own, was not built for that. On matters of racism and discrimination, capitalism can never serve as the great social fix, because in many instances, the very sectors of the economy that have historically been the most profitable in American history — for instance, slavery, real estate — have also been the most discriminatory….. 

Then, in April 1968, amid a flurry of other “rocks,” riots shook American cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It took that rolling unrest, not the promise of further economic growth, to spur President Lyndon Johnson and Congress to action. Within a week they had passed the Fair Housing Act.
Over the past century, liberalism, vexed by an ever-sharp, ever-cutting white supremacy, has needed these rocks….

Consider that the Klan and neo-Nazis are again out and about in daylight, wielding not so much torches as scissors. We can keep on throwing paper. Even after a couple of centuries of trying, we can keep hoping a commitment to commerce can still be the great fix. We would do well, however, to wise up and start throwing rock — public denunciations of white supremacy, clear anti-racist institution building, and fighting for policies that undo the money made off racism, especially with an ancient hatred now standing unhooded. 

Segregationists have again assumed their pedestals in the Justice Department, the White House and many other American temples. Paper alone won’t drive them out. Start throwing rocks.

There’s a lot to unpack in these excerpts, so let’s go point by point.

First, I think it is dangerous to do what Connolly does when he includes a huge continuum of actions under the “rock” of resistance.  He describes “rocks” as including everything from public speech to the riots of 1968.  To me, that sounds dangerously like saying that violence is necessary to defeat white supremacy.  Even our fundamental bargain makes some allowance for violence, since the police aren’t everywhere all the time.  That’s why we excuse violence committed in self-defense.

I think it is perfectly reasonable for protesters who are facing a set of armed opponents to make preparations to defend themselves.  The tricky thing is that this logic applies to both sides, which results in two heavily armed mobs that really don’t like each other, and makes it far more likely that a fight will break out by accident.

But characterizing rioting as necessary is both wrong and dangerous.  At least a fight between opposing protesters is a fight between voluntary opponents.  Riots harm many innocent bystanders and cause economic harm to businesses and homeowners who have nothing to do with the conflict.

Second, Connolly seems to argue that capitalism cannot fix discrimination.  I strongly disagree.  Capitalism, with its amoral focus on returns, tends to reduce, rather than increase discrimination.  The evidence is clear that more diverse companies do better than their peers in our current capitalist system.  The discrimination that Connolly appears to be referring to, such as the abhorrent practice of redlining and discrimination against African-American home buyers, is a distortion of capitalism, caused by racist individuals who are willing to make less money for the “satisfaction” of carrying out their bigotry.

Finally, intentional or not (and given his profession, I am inclined to believe that this was his intention), using the phrase, “Paper alone won’t drive them out. Start throwing rocks,” is both dangerous and inflammatory.  Certainly, Connolly’s previous paragraph defines rock as “public denunciations of white supremacy, clear anti-racist institution building, and fighting for policies that undo the money made off racism,” but I believe that nearly any objective reader would read “start throwing rocks” as an incitement to violence, especially considering how often throwing real (rather than metaphorical) rocks often leads to riots.  If a white supremacist had used the same metaphor, but in reverse, describing “left-wing violence” as the scissors and “heroic Aryan resistance” as the rock, we would rightly condemn him for exhorting his audience to, “Stop throwing paper, and start throwing rocks.”

What is particularly disappointing about this is that Professor Connolly is a well-respected academic working at a flagship university, which means that A) his words carry considerable weight with those who are inclined to agree with him, and B) the white supremacists he opposes can use his words to accuse academia and the mainstream media of being pro-violence, “Just like President Trump said!”

Confronting evil is important, but we don’t live in a Hollywood movie, where violence solves problems and leads to a happy ending.  As the late, great Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.” (Note: This quote is often attributed to Gandhi, and Gandhi’s family believes he may have spoken it, but there is no written evidence that he ever used these words.)  Meeting white supremacists’ violence with violence will exacerbate the conflict.  And if you are willing to follow the advocacy of violence to its ultimate conclusion of killing all those who hold a particular belief, at least be willing to admit your purpose so that others can see you for who you really are.

If you believe in the value of peaceful civilization, don’t argue for actions that attack its fundamental principles.

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