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The Obvious Needs to Be Stated: Against Political Violence

I wrote the following essay when thinking of how I wanted to introduce the concept for my blog and podcast. I came up with “7 Habits for a Better Society,” of which one was recognizing that violence is almost never the answer when it comes to politics. I may publish the other essays at some point, but in light of the insurrectionist mob that tried to interfere with the functioning of our federal government in certifying the results of our presidential election, causing 5 deaths in the process, I thought that now might be an appropriate time to publish this.

Obviously, my warnings about the dangers of supporting political violence are even more true today than when I first wrote this a few months ago. A lot can happen between now and January 20th, which is why I support the impeachment and conviction of Trump immediately. He clearly is not capable of doing what is necessary to stop political violence, and while he is clever enough with his words to have never directly endorsed any specific act, I think his words were very dangerous and inseparable from what occurred on January 6th.

In case it’s not absolutely clear, I am not endorsing political violence of any kind under any circumstances. With all of that said, here is my essay, which is written from a broader, more theoretical perspective.

Why Violence is Almost Never The Answer

Strictly speaking, I do not think that it is never the right thing to do to take an absolutist stance on an issue, or to have deep grievances with an entire system or way of doing things, or to call out widespread corruption for what it is, or even to start a revolution -- this country was started by one, after all. Though I can’t know what would have happened without it, I’m glad that we had one.

Unlike in 1776, violent political revolutions don’t require a large group of people all meeting and expressly agreeing to the idea. That can happen, and even then it was more complicated than that, but they also can arise organically. Thankfully, the number of people calling for revolution in America today, or acting like they are getting ready for one, is fairly small, but it does seem to be growing at a rate faster than I am comfortable with.

I think it’s important for everyone in this country to realize the risk that comes with this, whether we are talking about words or actions that lead to political violence. If someone is inclined towards political violence, that person should at the very least prepare themselves as much as possible for what is going to unfold, and they should also be willing to reconsider if what they are attempting is really going to succeed, or if it will, in fact, bring about the opposite of what they are trying to achieve.

To that person I would say this: While you and I might find a lot of agreement about the injustices in our society today, I disagree strongly with you that these injustices justify political violence. But if you are really committed to this, then I believe that you must also recognize that a political movement that is convinced that it is completely in the right, that no serious argument against it can be made in good faith, and that no one on the other side is even worth listening to is, by its very nature, dangerous. In the short term, such a movement is guaranteed to invite chaos and death. In the long term, such a movement runs a very high risk that it will upend the very concept of truth and justice that it claims to be fighting for.

Versions of this argument have been made before, but I will make the case in my own words here. Let’s grant that the most radical position, the one you hold, is the correct one. You then have three options.

The first is doing the very hard, tedious, exhausting work of convincing others of the righteousness of your cause so that you can do something about it: nonviolent protest, arguing in court, participating in the public discourse in other ways, and so on. This will be very slow going, and, if you do it honestly, you will have to commit to the possibility that you are wrong about something, which would make you less radical, and you may be unwilling to consider that prospect (even though you should).

The second option, which can at times be a very good one, is a peaceful parting of ways. There are three methods to achieve this: you can leave the society that you’re a part of and join another one, you can start your own, or you can allow the opposition to leave peacefully. For a variety of reasons, of course, it may be that none of these methods are available. At the very least, this option requires that both sides believe that the other has a right to exist -- a very low bar, to be sure, but a disturbingly large number of people in history have not conceded this right to their fellow human beings.

The third option is the most radical and the most frightening. Suppose your side is correct, but it does not have the political power to bring about its views, and it is not willing to convince enough people so that it can gain the necessary power. Finally, neither side is willing to part ways or allow the other to do so. The only option remaining to you, then, is to be in favor of large-scale, systematic violence, where those who are in the right do violence against those who are in the wrong. Then, even supposing that you win, you are still not done. If there are any people remaining who are in the wrong, you have to decide how to stop them from reverting things back to the way they were. To do this, you have to either get them to agree that you are right or restrict their political power. You can do this by restricting their freedom of speech or other rights, by expelling them, or by killing them. There is also the very real possibility, which has happened time and again throughout history, that those who are on your side will one day decide that you are now insufficiently radical and that you are among those against whom violence or repression is justified.

If you have joined such a revolution, and it is for a just cause, then I hope that you have good reason to believe that it will succeed and that those who are on your side will not one turn against you. Regardless, though, there are still at least two things that you are committed to: violence against others in the short term and, at the very least, restriction of others’ political power in the long term. These two things are so damaging to humanity, and so likely to end up with something very different from what you want, that you had better be damned sure you’re right.

This is why for me, a commitment to liberal democracy today includes a commitment to the belief that even if the most radical ideology is the correct one, it is still extremely unlikely that initiating violence is the right answer because of its extremely high cost and extremely low chance of success in achieving what you actually want to achieve. Whatever you want to accomplish, there are almost always better ways of doing it than starting a revolution, and we sure as hell don’t need one in America today.

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