You can’t be amongst radicals for more than 9 seconds without getting into a discussion about whether or not people should use violence or whether or not property destruction is violence.
As I’ve said before, I think people who are very good at violence and cruelty are usually not so great at building a new and just society. As for property destruction being violent, the answer is…sometimes. Is it violence when the army comes and burns down an entire village leaving people homeless and hungry? Fuck yes. Is it violence when there is a controlled explosion of a building so that something new can take its place? Of course not.
I have been against war since I was old enough to understand what it was. As a kid, I thought pacifist only meant being against war (which is still how some people define it). And let me tell you, of all the things I have identified as over the years, that seems to be the one that pisses the most people off. Naturally, it makes me want to continue using it.
But as much as I love pissing people off, it makes me crazy when people equate pacifism with offering yourself up as a sacrificial lamb. If I had a nickel for every time someone responded by suggesting that I thought the person getting attacked in an alley should just sit there and die, I could take that bag of nickels and beat the crap out of them with it.
People have the right to defend themselves. The fact that so many people, especially women, end up in prison for defending themselves is unconscionable. But the tricky thing is that people are not usually attacked in an alley by a stranger. They are hurt by people they know. They are hurt by people they love. They are hurt by the people who they are often hesitant to hurt back. The kind of self-defense people usually refer to when talking about gun ownership or critiquing a wrong-headed view of pacifism does nothing to address the majority of rapes, assaults, child abuse…
When people are attacked by strangers, those attacks don’t always result in bloody noses or the need for a rape kit. The trail from perpetrator to victim is often murky. When a multinational company poisons the water, it may eventually end in deaths. But how do we self defend against that kind of thing? Self defense usually means imminent danger. (Unless of course you are a U.S. president. Then you get to define self-defense as a preemptive invasion.)
So the really clear cases of immediate violence are often perpetrated by people close to us and who we may not be inclined to punish severely because we see them as human beings. In contrast, some of the most destructive kinds of violence are difficult to defend against because of distance – between perpetrator/victim and often between the act and its result. It is easy for some company who poisons the water to claim they didn’t know what they were doing. It is much more difficult to make an imminent danger defense when the crime is bureaucratic instead of in your face violent.
One of the many books I have been reading while on jury duty is Matt Hern’s One Game at a Time. (I’ll write more about it later. It’s fantastic). In it, Hern pushes back against the idea that sports – even fighting – are violent, saying that “violence is coercive by definition.” He also says:
The key pivot in identifying violence is agreement. Not unlike various forms of sexual activity (say BDSM, for example), physical contact, collisions, and even bodily damage is not violence if consent is present. There are any number of physical, aggressive, damaging, risky, and painful activities that we willingly and happily participate in that are not violence.
Seeing violence as coercion clarifies things a lot. It explains why that village being burned down is violent and the building destruction is not. It may even get at that multinational that poisoned the water. If the people didn’t want them there to begin with, then it is violence from the start. Of course it may be that the company arrived with promises of benefits. And that is where things get complicated. Because then we really have to start talking about consent.
What if a community consents to the destruction of their environment because of economic realities outside of their control? Can a person ever consent to working in a sweatshop given the sociopolitical circumstances in which any decisions happen? How does a community give consent if there is no consensus? How old does a person have to be to give consent? How neurologically typical does a person have to be to give consent? Do we err on the side of agency even if it means people may die?
These are some of the things one thinks about as you sit in a grand jury hearing about murders, rapes, child abuse… Horrific acts where the victimized go on to victimize others. A massive criminal injustice institution built for bureaucratic and sanitized violence. Very little questioning or thinking by the participants or those judging them. Holding some individuals solely responsible for acts that their social situation pushed them towards. Holding other individuals as helpless victims without agency.