Why is dissent the only place for nonviolence?
Today, in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests in the Twin Cities and elsewhere, we are revisiting a passage written in response to the 2014 Ferguson protests and the Black Lives Matter movement that gained national recognition at that time.
We have called our society a "hitman culture" in which we all pay for atrocious violence to be enacted on our behalf by the economic systems that produce our basic needs. On a daily basis, we fund war, theft of land, poisoning of water, and other violent acts so that we may have our warm houses, refrigerators, cars, and hair dryers. This passage, written in 2014, became a focal point for our 2017 book Sacred Violence and asks whether we may rightfully object to violent dissent when all other aspects of our lives are so steeped in violence.
As events continue to unfold in the following weeks—and especially if violent protests escalate—we ask you to remember that we all pay hitmen to enact gross and systemic violence in production of our basic needs (and even for mere toys and entertainment), and that if other people's violent acts are more direct this is only the difference between hiring a hitman or doing the job yourself. Do not think that your own existence is in any way nonviolent. Nonviolence is not a thing. -Paul Feather and Terra Currie
-Paul Feather and Terra Currie
Security is a basic need. Even if we have clean water, healthy food, good health, and a nice house none of this will matter if someone is shooting at us on a regular basis. A certain amount of risk is inevitable and even healthy, but we will all seek to mitigate that risk and implement measures to keep ourselves safe. These measures, while largely appropriate most of the time, are coercive, which is a form of violence. Violence that we enact on each other in order to keep ourselves safe is just as inevitable as the violence required to fulfill any of our other basic needs.
An attempt at nonviolence in a relationship or society feels somewhat dangerous to me, because it is unachievable, and thus leads to self-deception about the violence that we inevitably enact upon each other. Coercion is a matter of fact in any relationship or culture, as different people with differing agendas will attempt to control each other in order to meet their perceived needs at the expense of the needs of others. Certainly there are many examples of healthy compromise in functional relationships in which established and understood agreements lead to willing compliance with laws, traditions, or habits, but it would never be possible to achieve a frictionless relationship or society where coercion is not present.
For example, driving a car almost anywhere in this country, I may willingly follow traffic rules as a matter of safety, but the threat of a ticket, jail time, or other penalties is a significant deterrent for most people in deciding how fast to drive and whether or not to stop for signs and signals.
Certainly, if I receive a ticket for speeding, I am being coerced into following traffic laws, whether I like them or not. Before I even get into a car, I have to pay liability insurance or face penalties, which I would almost certainly not pay if there were no penalties for driving an uninsured vehicle. This is coercion, which I believe to be a form of violence in relationships. It is the use of threatened power to deprive me of my money, which is one of my tools for acquiring my basic needs. I'm not saying that I want uninsured motorists flying willy-nilly down the highway, but the possibility that this is a reasonable requirement for people who choose to drive is somewhat irrelevant to the fact that it is coercive.
When we become aware of various unjust or coercive systems in our culture, we are left with the question of how to address them. When and how do we express our dissent? These questions are further complicated by the fact that violence and injustice are both subjective concepts that are generally a part of life. At what point is a violent system too violent? When does injustice become too great to ignore?
I think for many people, nonviolent protest is perceived as the only legitimate form of dissent, with the successes of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and others put forth as the model for constructively changing the injustices in our society. Certainly the success of these leaders is remarkable and something we should all learn from and follow. It is easy, when citing the models that nonviolent leaders have left for us, to discount the efforts of dissidents or marginalized populations who do not choose these models.
Why are we intolerant of certain forms of violence while encouraging, or even funding, other forms?
The World Health Organization defines violence as "the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation."
So, according to this definition, if we use our power to pollute a river, and a large number of people depend on drinking water, or eating fish from that river for their livelihood, this would result in deprivation—and possibly some injury or death—for those people, and would constitute a violent act. Seems reasonable. What if I pay someone else to pollute that river?
In our hitman culture, we pay other people to do our violence for us in return for the delivery of goods and services. For example, there is a class of minerals, the extraction of which is so embroiled in war, exploitation, and violence that they have been termed "conflict minerals." These minerals, including tin, gold, tungsten, and tantalum, are being mined and sold in the Congo expressly for the purpose of funding war efforts and are found in most electronics, including the computer upon which I am writing this. If we buy these minerals or products containing these minerals, we are funding these conflicts. Our purchases cannot be separated from those wars except through our fragmented oblivious worldview.
So, why do we tolerate the violence of the hitman culture? Partly, we don't see a lot of it, and it is much easier to tolerate violence we can't see. Also, violence is subjective, and we have collectively made a judgment that the violence associated with production of electricity, electronics, our food, fuel, and other products is Okay. Or rather, the producers of those goods—our hitmen—made that judgment for us, and we handed them our money.
The point of all of this is not to feel guilty about all the violence we are funding. I don't think we can extract resources of any kind, grow food, or even walk around without being violent. In my perception, we're tearing things up all the time, and that's just how we roll. My question and point is, why, in the midst of all this violence, do we single out particular types and kinds of violence and claim they are unnecessary, pointless, dangerous, or intolerable?
Take, for example the violent riots that took place in Ferguson, MO in 2014. I would not be writing this now if those folks hadn't burned those stores. I don't know anything about Ferguson. I do know that lots of people, in general, don't get up and start burning down buildings unless they're really pissed off . This is an indication of an unmet basic need for security. Sure, they could have had a die-in, sit-in, or called their congressman, but we probably wouldn't have heard about it, and the barriers to organizing such an event might have been insurmountable.
Why is this type of violence intolerable to so many of us? If it is true that the people of Ferguson (and many other communities) are experiencing systematic injustice, and that these systems have violent effects that are experienced daily by millions of people nationwide, is it also possible that smaller, strategic violent acts could draw sufficient attention to this situation as to remedy it? If so, I would contend that this is sacred violence.
It is possible that there could have been a nonviolent way for these people to get the attention that they felt was warranted for the systematic injustice that they are experiencing and their unmet basic need for security. The conditions to mobilize people in an effective campaign against any form of entrenched injustice are difficult to meet. Certainly the violence in Ferguson could have been focused and strategically directed at targets that did not ultimately damage so many innocent people (some of which were no doubt members of this marginalized community themselves). There is nothing sacred about burning down the only pharmacy that services your own community. (Unless we are trying to make a statement about the damages the pharmaceutical industry is perpetrating upon our community?) If we are using violence in a sacred manner, it should not be misdirected toward targets where it will not be strategically useful. A potentially useful example of sacred violence as applied to this situation might be for people to loot an electronics store to procure better equipment for the documentation of injustice in our communities, and to produce media aimed at building community and solidarity in the effort.
Everything is violent. All of the processes we support every day to meet all of our basic needs are more violent than necessary. So why do so many of us object to violent dissent? Because the media showed it to us and told us to? Because it is expressed in anger instead of calculated greed and ambition? Because it is disorganized, unpredictable, and often affects inappropriate targets?
Or because it is directed upward in our cultural hierarchy instead of downward?
We can object to violent dissent. I sometimes do. But we should not single it out above all the other forms of systematic violence in which we participate—and which are, in most cases, more destructive than any particular dissent movement.
A primary approach to security in this country is the accumulation of guns and protection of our second amendment. I appreciate that approach and own guns, but I can't escape the irony that we have more powerful guns than our founding fathers could ever have imagined, but have nonetheless given up most of the basic rights that we were supposed to be protecting with these weapons. The combined effects of misguided government regulations with corporate destruction of natural resources has largely eliminated our access to clean food, water, and healthy soil and limited our ability to organize communities around energy, shelter, or healthcare. It's against the law to sell power from my solar system to my neighbor, my current dwelling is illegal, and our country's creeks and streams are dammed and polluted. Guns give us an extraordinary and frightening ability to protect ourselves, but we can't just protect our guns. We're missing the whole point of the second amendment, which is to maintain our ability to protect our access to our basic needs