Let’s Talk About Violence

Enough about sex already. Let’s talk about violence, baby. And when I say talk, I don’t mean the kind of sanctimonious, hysterical, and tightly prescribed discourse the western media tends to revert to whenever anyone — God forbidbreaks a window or sucker-punches a neo-Nazi. Why skirt around the issue? There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Violence, after all, is a perfectly natural thing. Just turn on the Discovery Channel and see for yourself.

It’s high time each and everyone in polite society had “the talk”. How are societies born, and how are they begotten? Do they emerge, ready-made, from a neatly wrapped bundle delivered by a stork on its beak? Or does the process tend to involve bodily fluids like blood and sweat, raised heart-rates, grunts and screams?

Allow me to torture this metaphor even more violently: We aren’t cute anthropomorphic Disney animals living in some peaceful suburb where everyone has a mommy and daddy, yet nobody has reproductive organs. We don’t live in Duckburg. We live in Fuckburg.

Politics is the business of defining, maintaining, and challenging power relations. Ultimately, all social power can be measured in units of human bodies, hearts, and minds, and by the potential to mobilize them. An MP has constituents, a general has his battalions of armed men, and a cult leader might have disciples fanatical enough to kill and die for their guru. All forms of politics — the non-violent means of “passive resistance” and civil disobedience included — are inextricably linked to the mechanics of violence. Thus, the question of political violence is almost never whether it should exist or not — since all politics is saturated with at least latent violence — but, rather, what form it should take. “Should we crush their skulls, or should we allow them to crush ours, thus making them look bad?” Either way, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.”

How, then, should violence be managed and channeled? Should the state always have a monopoly? Even if it’s a failed state, a rogue state, a slave-holding state within the Union, or a state resembling the Third Reich? Where should we draw the line between the legitimate and illegitimate, the lawful and the awful? Who should fill a possible power vacuum, and how? Hysterical avoidance of these questions is itself a political act, a kind of perverted non-cooperation movement spearheaded by the assholes who get to set the premises of most political discourse.
Some movements consciously focus on violence — either as a virtue or vice — while others prefer to sweep the whole issue discreetly under the rug. Out of sight, out of mind. Often this makes for the most violent and inhumane policy of all. Think of all the “moderates” who, throughout history, have failed to oppose state-sanctioned aggression, oppression, and abuse, from slavery to child labor, while maligning those who call for change as dangerous and misguided, violent radicals. And yet, in retrospect, when a renewed social contract is established as the new normal, the unlawful actions that brought about these societal shifts are turned into mythical tales of nationalistic heroism and dates for kids to memorize at school.

There’s a direct continuum from the mild-mannered and cautious reactionaries of yore to the present-day neoliberal nomenklatura. A person belonging to this clique might well get all teary-eyed singing the Marseillaise or watching The Hunger Games, but still shudder at the thought of any non-state actors actually using force or breaking the law to further their political agenda. It’s a taboo, like sex out of wedlock in Victorian society. Someone threw a Molotov cocktail at a GOP campaign office? The horror, the horror! Somebody was brutally tortured in one of Obama’s black sites in Somalia? Oh well, shit happens.

The liberal reactionary might support so-called humanitarian intervention, even if it was in breach of international law, but would probably label a present-day John Brown as a blood-thirsty madman. An unauthorized individual engaging in “humanitarian intervention”? Sorry, not allowed, not even for a noble cause — unless it’s a movie. Why not have a constructive dialogue with the slave-owners instead, Mr. Brown? Why not engage them in the marketplace of ideas, rather than in the field of battle? Or, better still, why not have a shot at Passive Resistance®?

The establishment venerates Gandhi, MLK, and even the guerrilla fighter Nelson Mandela as the canonized saints of change by peaceful means. What is seldom mentioned is that the guy who came up with this whole civil disobedience thing, a man by the name of Henry David Thoreau, was in full support of the violence committed by the abolitionist John Brown. In his Plea for Captain Brown, Thoreau, “the father of passive resistance”, concludes:

“When I reflect to what a cause this man devoted himself, and how religiously, and then reflect to what cause his judges and all who condemn him so angrily and fluently devote themselves, I see they are as far apart as heavens and earth are asunder.”

Even by Gandhi’s standards, radicals like John Brown, Malcolm X, or the female Kurd commander Hebun Sinya, were brave freedom fighters who made the only honorable choice “between cowardice and violence,” which is “to cultivate the art of killing and being killed” rather than fleeing from danger.

“Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defence or for the defence of the defenceless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission.” (From R. K. Rabhu & U. R. Rao: The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi)

In fact, Gandhi’s black-and-white stance on sex, aside from being confused, lacked all the nuance of his views on violence. Quite like the censors at the Motion Picture Association of America, he considered sex the more obvious, unmitigated evil. Make war, not love!

It should surprise no one that schoolbooks and official speeches typically either sing the praises of state-sanctioned, professional murderers, or civilians who would just like to see everyone get along. Western media turned Gandhi into a mythical sage already during his lifetime, in the midst of India’s independence struggle. What was going on? People deemed dangerous to the existing power structures are not usually portrayed this way:

Granted, Gandhi was an immensely charismatic, fascinating figure, and a masterful manipulator of public perception and the mass media. But that’s just half the story. The powers that be could see the writing on the wall. It was inevitable that the colonies would gain their independence sooner or later, either by peaceful means or through violent upheavals. Following World War II, the resources needed for maintaining a colonial army in the “Jewel of the Crown” had run out. There were good reasons for the British establishment to prefer Gandhi over competing and sometimes fiercely militant leaders, figures like Subhas Chandra Bose or the communists.

It wasn’t just a question of peaceful transfer of power, but of power dynamics beyond national flags, anthems, and lofty gestures. The fact that Gandhi had no coherent political program for the nation of multitudes made him rather harmless. His obscure, half-insane spiritual visions of bucolic village councils and married couples universally abstaining from sex provided an ideal facade for the pillage and looting that would define Indian politics from thereon. As Dr. Ambedkar, the iconic advocate for India’s scheduled castes, bitterly noted:

“Leftist and radical leaders have been giving blind and unquestioning support to the Congress which admittedly is run by capitalists, land-lords, money-lenders and reactionaries, only because the Congress calls its activities by the grandiloquent name of Fight for Freedom.”

In a similar vein, in South Africa, the utterly corrupt ANC, along with its white industrial paymasters, cynically takes advantage of Mandela’s legacy. Conversely, it’s interesting to note how the black Democratic leadership in the US has almost entirely divorced itself from MLK’s explicitly socialist positions.

The most extreme case of quasi-Gandhian politics serving as a smoke screen for extreme violence and abuse can be found in today’s Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi, the junta’s ostensible opponent and the country’s current de facto leader, has, in effect, become their co-conspirator in the genocide of a powerless Muslim minority group. As the junta nominally ceded some of its power to Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, it also ramped up its decades-long persecution of the Rohingya people, “the world’s most persecuted minority”.

While Trump’s Muslim ban has been universally condemned, very few have even noticed the Muslim genocide currently unfolding in Burma: the burned villages, mass-rapes, and death camps. As for Suu Kyi, on the rare occasion the soft-spoken Nobel-laureate is challenged on the issue, she keeps repeating, like an automaton, that she simply wants to “follow the rule of law”.

To conclude: It’s near impossible to completely divorce ourselves, as political animals, from violence. Most of us have no clear conception of what our own stance is, but vanishingly few are genuine or absolute pacifists. Since violence is a reality with practicalities we have to deal with, it’s essential we don’t shroud the issue with borrowed, meaningless slogans and simplistic narratives. In the case of Burma, for instance, if the aim is to minimize human suffering, which option should we prefer:

A) the continuation of the “peaceful progress”, i.e., the media stunt concocted by the junta’s generals and business elites, aimed at western investors, with Mother Suu Kyi as its subservient mascot, and an all-out Muslim genocide on the side, or

B) a good old revolution, culminating in the genocidal military brass being dragged in front of a firing squad?

You decide.

[Related article: Guns and Propaganda: Lying for a Good Cause]

(Photo credit: Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA)

4 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Violence

  1. I assume that your question at the end is a stand-in for our own troubled situation here in the U.S. That being said, if you choose B) you are going down the rabbit hole – how many innocent people (who, left alone, would choose peace or choose to remain neutral for whatever reason) are you going to kill to achieve *your* revolutionary goals? Do you have a plan for what’s next after you bury the bodies?

    While I have doubts that the situation we find ourselves in (U.S. 2017) is the crucible you are looking for, I appreciate your asking people to decide for themselves if violent political action is called for. Frankly, most people don’t have the stomach for it. Yes, the current political systems in the U.S. have been perverted almost beyond recognition, from all sides, for personal power and by/for the sake of a greasy buck, but the mechanisms exist to peacefully rectify the situation. The trouble is, it’s a lot harder to mobilize the armies of non-participants, who make up a near-majority of our voting populace, than it is to break a few windows or punch a few supposed nazis. I have no doubt the rewards for bringing peaceful change though actual non-partisan voter education and voter participation are much greater, will last longer, and will spare the innocent from being caught up in your violent rampages. It also sets a much better example for those in power both here and abroad, that we have a peaceful way to end tyranny and abuses; then, if the results of the vote are not accepted, and illegitimate rulers cling to power, we are free to take up arms in the name of freedom. It’s a right guaranteed by our founding documents. Be warned, state power can crush us all like bugs, so it’s not going to be pretty.

  2. You misunderstand the point of the essay, which is not to encourage people to start a bloody revolution but to define their own relationship to violence. A clear and coherent stance implies analyzing each situation case by case. Only a fanatic believes in absolute laws that apply in every situation. Making light of Nazi-punching, say, is not to portray it as a worthy political act but to highlight the utter absurdity of mainstream reactions to non-state-sanctioned force. You can get fired or worse for even voicing support for a riot — but advocating for violent regime change, with mass casualties, in Iraq or Libya? That’s a “policy position” and “reasonable people may disagree”.

    The Burmese junta is not a stand-in here for the plutocratic rule in the US, but another example of what words like “peaceful process” and “rule of law” can stand for — in this case, a smokescreen for unspeakable violence and oppression. As your own comment makes clear, you, too, consider violence justified in certain situations, including something as radical as a violent uprising. For whatever reason, you feel that the US constitution — a centuries-old document penned by slaveholders mostly skeptical of democracy — is a special case somehow, and should be treated as the holy book from which we seek justice. But the fact is that revolutions are illegal when they fail, and the foundation of everything that is legal when they succeed. Just ask the Founding Fathers. The winners don’t only get to write the history books but the law books.

    As is evident from the current hysterical and dishonest public discourse on violence, those in power seek to define our moral conventions in such a way that they will in no way threaten their position. In the essay, I wanted to challenge those beliefs, which _practically nobody_ in their heart of hearts actually holds.

    1. Just the other day, musician Thor Harris got his Twitter account suspended — albeit temporarily — for posting this pretty hilarious video on “how to punch a Nazi (if you really have to)”. Could you imagine Bill Kristol getting suspended for advocating for the invasion of Iran and the violent overthrow of its government?

      1. Interesting point of view on violence for resistance from a Native perspective:


        “The headline for this story says “Non-violence Training Teaches White Paternalism”. In defence of non-violence, Adam Vogal writes this,”Violence, no matter which culture is using it, is not the way to get lasting positive change.” You could literally use his quote as the headline for this white paternalism story.

        This man clearly has no understanding of what culture is. This should come as no surprise, as western culture does not even understand what violence is. Their culture is unable to make a clear distinction between human aggression and violence. Violence being a tool utilised by life in order to sustain itself. In order to sustain life while pretending to be non-violent. Western culture creates a long list of exemptions to the non-violence rule. Violence is ok when the subject of their attack is not a person. I say person, because western culture has a neat little game it plays with words. Within western culture, you can be a human but not a person. This is how they were able to morally justify the slaughter and genocide of so many humans. They exempt all non persons including plants, animals, non person humans, and the planet itself. This is how Mr. Vogal can preach non-violence at a dinner party. The dead or dying being on his dinner plate is on his exemptions list. His salad don’t count. The trees that built all the homes in his city don’t count. When a culture creates a list of exemptions, others can and have added to that list, even if Mr. Vogal does not like it. Non-assimilated indigenous people have no such list. Our use of violence is necessary and taken very seriously. Whether it is picking berries, killing a moose, or shooting at a police officer that demands a golf course be built on an indigenous burial ground.

        Western civilization is an extractivist culture that went into overshoot in Europe. Because it has no intellectual way of dealing with overshoot, it simple adds to the exemption list. Mr. Vogals non-violent path to enlightenment does nothing to address this problem. He and his 350.org group are simply western extractionists with a different kill list. A solar panel, electric car, intensive agriculture utopia, in which poor brown people supply all the resources needed. If those poor brown people do not like this, then they must negotiate on non-violent settler terms. I suspect that Mr. Vogals non-violence stance would end shortly after I claimed my UN declaration right of return, right into his living room. Mr. Vogal may not directly use violence to remove me from his occupation of my territory. He would of course use that western exemption list and have his colonial state violently remove me.”


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