Political Violence: When Is It Acceptable?

Ellie McFarland | @el_farawayland

Often times it feels as if the United States is on the brink of something awful, some sort of civil war, some sort of coup, some sort of revolt or revolution. Since 2016 there have been more than 30 internationally reported political riots with dire consequences as a result of political violence. There have been several hundred “at risk” protests in America alone. This, along with the heightened division among American people makes the possibility of smart discourse seem further away than ever.

The acceptability (or lack thereof) of political violence has been in the limelight since late 2016. After the election of President Trump, protests and riots broke out all across the country. At the forefront of the most newsworthy and eye-catching uproars was the Antifa Movement. Founded in the 1920s, Antifa, short for Anti-Fascist, combated groups such as Hitler’s Nazi army and Mussolini’s Black Shirts.

The Antifa Riots

Antifa has continued to the present day finding its modern roots in the 1980s. Most people would agree that violence against those groups then was a necessary action of opposition to oppression. Antifa organizations were some of the most influential people at the forefront of scrubbing anti-semitism and the after-effects of  WWII out of Europe. Yet, the movement isn’t what it used to be. The real question about Antifa’s violence isn’t the legality, as the law and morality do not always influence each other.

It is clear that smashing windows, assaulting people, inciting a panic, and throwing smoke bombs is not within the law, but the important question is whether this violence is justified or effective. This is not a question we need only answer about Antifa, but about all political groups. How bad must the government or a societal situation become until violent opposition is acceptable? When Antifa first organized, Europe was on the brink of the Holocaust. People oppressive regimes acted against were being actively murdered without reason. The American revolution is an undeniable example of political violence, but it built one of the greatest nations on Earth.

Pacifism and Politics

There are people who believe that political violence (or violence at all) is never acceptable. They believe that the revolutionary war was unjustified, that the civil war was gratuitous, that the French and Haitian revolutions shouldn’t have happened. That’s fine. Pacifism is a perfectly respectable ideology, but it will not come into this conversation.

Most people who oppose anti-fascist actions are not pacifists. Therefore, their primary political ideology will always allow violence on at least one group. Philosopher Oliver Thorne says, “Politics is the distribution of power, and power is enforced using violence.” This is to say that dismissal of any political action as immoral or unhelpful only on the basis of violence doesn’t mean much. This is, in essence, a Tu Quoque fallacy of political disagreement.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose specific instances of political violence. There are plenty of reasons to oppose the ethics of specific groups; the simple charge of violence isn’t one of them. A group’s morals can be irrational, its cause can be hateful or meaningless. It could be erratic in practice, or it can be plainly ineffective. Dismissing their aims based on the presence of violence alone, however, demeans violent revolutions that improved people’s lives. Haitian Slave revolts, the American revolution, and any efforts in Burmah (also called “Myanmar”) to end ethnic cleansing are unwarranted under a critique of violence alone.  

Not All Violence Is Equal

Although no violence is good, not all violence is unjustified and not all violence is equal. Unprovoked violence is not acceptable, along with disproportionate violence, cruelty, and violence that endangers more people than the original perpetrator. If a person punches another person in the face and the victim wasn’t hurting anyone’s body or property, that violence isn’t justified and isn’t moral. If a person is smashing the windows of someone else’s car it would be appropriate to push (punch, shove, kick, etc.) them away. But shooting the person in the leg would not be moral. Although that would stop the destruction of property, it is a gratuitous response to something which one can solve in a less violent and more effective way.

The essential rule to this is that if there is a situation where someone’s body or property is at risk, it is more just to act in the least violent measure that would bar the risk from persisting. When something can prevent danger, risk, or violence, and itself is not violent, we must choose that option over the option that is more violent. However, when there is no option to act that is both effective and non-violent, the least violent option which maintains its effectivity is the most moral option.

Further, it is important to understand that not all violence is equal. Punching a person minding their own business is worse than punching a person who advocates violence. This is then worse than punching someone who is planning to commit violence, and so on. This goes all the way up the chain of action to someone who is both committing violence and causing others to commit violence as well. The way we accept and detest political violence relies on some agreement about this theory of justification.

When Is Political Violence Acceptable?

If we are to get anywhere on the acceptability of violence we must determine a few things. Is systemic or institutional violence on the same level as individual violence? Do the actions of a public figure outweigh the violence of an anonymous activist? Is the violence of a corporation worse than the violence of a government? These are basic questions of ethics and must be at the forefront of the conversation relating to political violence.  

There are people who believe that the advocacy of any political ideology conflicting with theirs is always violent. These people would also believe anyone who participates in that ideology’s activity is also participating in violence. The police, for instance, often perpetrate state-enforced killing and injury. People who believe that the state has no business maintaining a monopoly on violence and that involvement with such a system is always violent would not always find violence against a police officer immoral. This same concept also influences the destruction of certain property, such as the defamation of monuments or government buildings.

Modern Antifa Attacks

The views of fervent political radicals are important but are not central to the real issue, but rather, the way we discuss it. The truth is, most of the violence Antifa commits is not justified and falls far outside the accepted hierarchy of violence. The infamous Richard Spencer punch was not an act of opposition, but of senseless physical attack on a man, however despicable, who was not hurting anyone. Spencer was also not a member of a group with wide influence or who commits violence on a systemic level. He encourages systemic violence and hatred, but his rhetoric is not currently enacting widespread violence.

Antifa also has a great lack of real effect. In its modern incarnation, it has done very little to remove the influence of the alt-right and fascism. Rather, they shined a spotlight on them. Also, by accusing conservatives, centrists, and liberals of fascism under false pretenses, they have created a “comradery of the accused”. Those in this group are more sympathetic to fascistic causes. Both because they have come to distrust the people who defamed them, and because a group of people they lumped into “must not be that bad”. Related to this, Antifa also has a habit of doxxing not just Nazis, but completely innocuous individuals.

We must judge all other political violence on this same scale using the same questions. Is this violence reasonable? Was it responding to a real threat against a body or property? Is this violence effective? Does the violence conform to the “low violence: high effectiveness” rule? If the actions of any group fail to meet any of these criteria it’s safe to say society should never accept it, as it is either cruel, needless, impotent, or careless.

Fighting Political Violence

Violence is one of the most heartbreaking things about humans’ animal nature. However, our capacity to oppress, mass murder, and to conquer is far worse. Violence is not always ineffective, but it is never good in any capacity. The fact many violent injustices come from governments doesn’t excuse it, and we must oppose it. Part of opposition is violence, and unless it is a pacifist is dealing it out, no one should take seriously any criticism that overlooks this and the other reasons for such action.

There are plenty of reasons to chastise or dismiss violent action, but violence alone is not one of them. It not only demeans violence that has improved the lives of millions but discards violence which is actually detrimental to any progress in the same way they would a justified riot. Political violence is a serious issue, and it needs to be spoken about seriously, without the veil of moral posturing and faux virtue.


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