Pacifism v. Non-Violence As a Tactic

Very good comment, rare for HuffPo, I think, over at Prof. Adam Winkler’s post talking about Dr. King’s guns:

Pacifism and non-violent activism have little in common, which perhaps explains the author’s confusions. Pacifism is a personal ethic adopted for a variety of reasons but generally not particularly well respected since it places a higher value on personal moral vanity than it does on making the hard choices in critical moments; no one appreciates the pacifist who stands by while you are attacked just because they don’t feel like doing anything that might sully their principles regardless of the consequences to others. Non-violence on the other hand is a conscious choice to refrain from violence even though it is a completely viable option; it is part of a deliberate commitment to risk oneself for the sake of accomplishing something for oneself and others, not merely a personal desire to be something for personal reasons. The key point is that non-violence is conscious restraint in the course of an active project whereas pacifism is just self indulgence and indifference to what’s happening around you. Non-violent activists make the decision from a position of strength and judgment while pacifists are just blindly adhering to an ideal which conveniently disguises their moral and physical weakness and indifference. There’s no problem with a practitioner of non-violence being *capable* of violence or even willing, should the situation force his or her hand, to forgo one principle in favor of doing something to ameliorate a bad situation even if it’s not the purest most special ideal response.

That’s an interesting way of looking at the distinction. The Civil Rights Movement was correct to be committed to nonviolence, but it was not a pacifist movement.

9 Responses to “Pacifism v. Non-Violence As a Tactic”

  1. Robb Allen says:

    First off, a mea culpa. I’m guilty of conflating the two ideas, and it’s an intellectually lazy thing.

    That being said, there’s also a MASSIVE difference between “I am non-violent and have no means to be” and “I am non-violent, but only out of choice”.

    I am non-violent, but I carry with me the means for overwhelming force. The Klan stopped bombing houses of blacks when there was the threat of getting shot. That threat ensured peace more than an inability to cause harm did.

    Two things come to mind – sic vis pacem parabellum and “The definition of civilized is to be capable of violence, but able to restrain yourself from employing it. Not being capable of violence is not a sign of civilization, but of domestication.”

    And I agree totally that MLK’s nonviolence tends to get more ‘face time’ than his other ideas, and that is sad.

  2. This is very true. The reason that the Ghandhi chose non-violence is that he knew it was the first and best way to achieve the goal he sought (a free and independent India). The same goes for MLK and most of the civil rights movement.

  3. Sebastian says:

    Non-violence only works for an opponent that values your life.

  4. Nate says:

    …Or for an audience that does.

  5. Matt Stone says:

    The first position is about passivism, not pacifism.

  6. Monty says:

    Not that I’m a pacifist, or like pacifism, but I think the quote is unfair to pacifism. Certainly there are those that adopt pacifism to excuse their inaction. The quote totally applies to them. The problem is that there are also people who adopt pacifism as part of a religion. Where pacifism is one of the core tenants of the religion, I don’t see strict adherence to pacifism as any less morally acceptable then strict adherence to any other part of a religion.

    In addition to that pacifist standing “by while you are attacked”, someone who really believes in pacifism would not resist if attacked themselves, and if given a choice, would turn down the aid of a non-pacifist while being attacked. I suspect many pacifists would expect someone to intervene if they were attacked, and sure, they deserve scorn, but there are people out there who believe in it all the way.

  7. Pacifism worked for Gandhi because he was confronting an enemy with a notion of right and wrong. I suspect that had he been confronting Nazi Germany, it might have been a somewhat less effective strategy.

  8. Alpheus says:

    I remember someone making the case that Ghandi learned non-violence from the American experience leading up to the Revolutionary War, and that, while the Revolutionary War was certainly a violent solution, it was the result of years of non-violence. Thus, it had a moral basis that the Colonies otherwise wouldn’t have had had they just resorted to Revolution at the first sign of problems.

    That’s an interesting thing to think about: sometimes, non-violence will get you what you want (if you seek justice)…but if you do need to resort to violence, initial non-violence provides the foundation that will help the violence to succeed.

    But Clayton is also right: sometimes your enemy is just so evil, that you either have to accept it, and live under the shadows, or you have to fight against it with all you got.

  9. “I remember someone making the case that Ghandi learned non-violence from the American experience leading up to the Revolutionary War, ”

    Actually, the big influence on Gandhi was Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, a byproduct of the Mexican War, fought to expand slavery, and get around the 36 deg. 30 min. part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. There were some existing Indian traditions about the use of civil disobedience (I think translated as something like “soul force”) but Thoreau is apparently what started Gandhi down that path.