#28: Violent Protest Does Not Work

That which is just is not always clearly defined. It depends on societal norms and philosophies, may be contingent on historical circumstances, and is always a compromise of the day. What we consider just may change throughout history, and may also change depending on perspective. Sometimes, what is justice today could be the complete opposite of what was considered justice yesterday. Occasionally, there cannot be agreement on justice at all.

But there are some things that we can justly consider constant. Versions of the Golden Rule can be found in all societies, at all times. Murder is typically considered wrong, so are theft, robbery, rape, adultery, the willful killing of civilians, excessive uses of violence without measure, as well as lying and dishonoring of parents (basically, whatever you find in the 10 Commandments that is not specifically religious). The list of historically and universally agreed-upon unacceptable behavior is, shockingly, not very long.

Some of the things we consider unjust today like slavery, child and elder abuse, sexual violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, nepotism and corruption, religious discrimination, genocide and many other things have once been – or can still be, in some areas – found to be justified, even though they violate contemporary democratic understandings of justice. The universal standard of human rights was agreed upon globally in the wake of the Holocaust, but even this standard is questioned occasionally.

What we consider just is thus an outcome of social and political developments. In democratic societies, the exercise of justice is a sine qua non, something we cannot do without. What we think of as just is the outcome of a complex consensus-building over many years, even centuries. This means that there is a standard of justice that is typically getting more – as some people would say – “evolved” over time. Typically, whatever is considered acceptable behavior, will become more and more refined, and will involve more and more people. A democratic republic can only exist if an overwhelming majority, unassailable by electoral whim, supports the underlying assumptions about justice.

A cornerstone of democratic society is civility – which is just a fancy Latin word for citizen-like behavior. A citizen is not a subject, but the smallest part of the people, which are also the sovereign. A citizen should thus follow the Kantian moral imperative by modelling ideal democratic and civic behavior every single day. As democracy is based upon consensus-building by citizens, non-violence is implied as the standard operating principle of citizens and institutions. Exceptions are institutions that the citizens agree upon, and which are allowed to exercise limited violence, such as the police and any other policing entities. But these entities are always subject to civilian, i.e. citizen control, even the military.

Civil, non-violent protest is one of the other cornerstones of democratic societies. There are good reasons to protest against injustice, and this fight is never over. But such protests need to follow the principle of “Civil Disobedience,” as laid out by Thoreau in his eponymous essay.

Every single protest movement that followed Thoreau’s insights has a chance to succeed. This pertains to Gandhi’s movement against the British colonizers, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King and others (both Gandhi and King followed Thoreau), the Solidarity movement in Poland and the peaceful revolutions against communism, including the protests against the Chinese tyranny on Tiananmen Square. What all these movements have in common is their moral unassailability; this is what made them successful. Tyrants hate such protests, because truly peaceful protests maintain the moral high ground and will eventually shape the understanding of what is justice, and what is injustice.

The demand for protest movements to remain peaceful, and to self-police against violent agitators, is a demand based not just on morality but especially on whether you want to be successful. Many things in our world are not the way they should be. Any movement that wants to make the world better, more equitable, more just, and more peaceful, needs to model these goals by its own actions.

That which is just is not always clearly defined. It depends on societal norms and philosophies, may be contingent on historical circumstances, and is always a compromise of the day. What we consider just may change throughout history, and may also change depending on perspective. Sometimes, what is justice today could be the complete opposite of what was considered justice yesterday. Occasionally, there cannot be agreement on justice at all.

But there are some things that we can justly consider constant. Versions of the Golden Rule can be found in all societies, at all times. Murder is typically considered wrong, so are theft, robbery, rape, adultery, the willful killing of civilians, excessive uses of violence without measure, as well as lying and dishonoring of parents (basically, whatever you find in the 10 Commandments that is not specifically religious). The list of historically and universally agreed-upon unacceptable behavior is, shockingly, not very long.

Some of the things we consider unjust today like slavery, child and elder abuse, sexual violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, nepotism and corruption, religious discrimination, genocide and many other things have once been – or can still be, in some areas – found to be justified, even though they violate contemporary democratic understandings of justice. The universal standard of human rights was agreed upon globally in the wake of the Holocaust, but even this standard is questioned occasionally.

What we consider just is thus an outcome of social and political developments. In democratic societies, the exercise of justice is a sine qua non, something we cannot do without. What we think of as just is the outcome of a complex consensus-building over many years, even centuries. This means that there is a standard of justice that is typically getting more – as some people would say – “evolved” over time. Typically, whatever is considered acceptable behavior, will become more and more refined, and will involve more and more people. A democratic republic can only exist if an overwhelming majority, unassailable by electoral whim, supports the underlying assumptions about justice.

A cornerstone of democratic society is civility – which is just a fancy Latin word for citizen-like behavior. A citizen is not a subject, but the smallest part of the people, which are also the sovereign. A citizen should thus follow the Kantian moral imperative by modelling ideal democratic and civic behavior every single day. As democracy is based upon consensus-building by citizens, non-violence is implied as the standard operating principle of citizens and institutions. Exceptions are institutions that the citizens agree upon, and which are allowed to exercise limited violence, such as the police and any other policing entities. But these entities are always subject to civilian, i.e. citizen control, even the military.

Civil, non-violent protest is one of the other cornerstones of democratic societies. There are good reasons to protest against injustice, and this fight is never over. But such protests need to follow the principle of “Civil Disobedience,” as laid out by Thoreau in his eponymous essay.

Every single protest movement that followed Thoreau’s insights has a chance to succeed. This pertains to Gandhi’s movement against the British colonizers, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King and others (both Gandhi and King followed Thoreau), the Solidarity movement in Poland and the peaceful revolutions against communism, including the protests against the Chinese tyranny on Tiananmen Square. What all these movements have in common is their moral unassailability; this is what made them successful. Tyrants hate such protests, because truly peaceful protests maintain the moral high ground and will eventually shape the understanding of what is justice, and what is injustice.

The demand for protest movements to remain peaceful, and to self-police against violent agitators, is a demand based not just on morality but especially on whether you want to be successful. Many things in our world are not the way they should be. Any movement that wants to make the world better, more equitable, more just, and more peaceful, needs to model these goals by its own actions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s