After Derrick Jensen's visit to Binghamton University, we've had a great discussion on Peacenet,
one of the best in years. Central themes include "When is violence permissible?", and "what defines violence?" So I dug this up....
My note to Peacenet indicated that I wrote this "several years ago". I believe I wrote this sometime after March 17, 2003 during the trial of the Saint Patrick Day's Four. Republished here Sept. 2008. Small updates Oct 17, 2016.
A Taxonomy of Violent Actions:
What defines violence?
What are the limits to non-violent actions?
This framework is an attempt by one activist to evaluate what is meant by "non-violent direct action". This is because of the wide variations of what is meant by violence, especially with regards to property damage, non-physical methods (like psychological warfare), and when non-human animals are the victims. This framework can be used by people who are thinking about engaging in non-violent direct actions, civil disobedience, ploughshares actions, etc., to help evaluate if such actions are morally justifiable. This framework can also be used to judge the moral justifications for state-sanctioned violence.
Categories of Seriousness
- Peace Protest (quite trivial)
- Never produces injury or property damage
- No intentional violation of any law
- Clearly non-violent by almost any definition
Nonviolent Resistance / NVR (from Elliott Adams)
- This is where a law may be broken, but it is incidental to the act of disrupting some harm.
- Generally, no intent to cause injury or property damage.
- For example: a blockade at an industrial facility, a lockdown to some construction equipment, or disruption of a meeting.
- This may involve violation trespass, or disorderly conduct.
- The law broken is not the issue -- there is some other cause.
Civil Disobedience (usually trivial, but some risk of charges)
- Never produces injury or property damage
- A law is broken deliberately.
- e.g., smoking pot in public, at a "weedfest",
- a Rosa Park-type civil rights action
- The law broken is the issue
Vandalism (trivial to moderately serious)
- Never produces injury to sentient creature
- May involve minor physical property damage
- Ploughshares actions, hammering on nuclear weapons
- E.g., defacing money, government signs, buildings (graffiti),
- defacing or spoofing websites, or Denial-Of-Service; adbusting / pranks (Yes Men)
- Pouring your own blood on buildings
- Consider: some treat this as more serious threat due to potential blood transmitted diseases
- use of threats or exploiting a power relationship to restrain action, or to elicit non-voluntary action
- Use of actual force against a person to restrain or obstruct that person from acting, or to force a non-voluntary action
Major Physical Property Damage (very serious)
- Purpose of the action may be actual or symbolic
- Inanimate: e.g., Destroying buildings, vehicles, weapons, data/information
- Environmental: e.g., crops, forests, air or water pollution
- Consider: Affects persons or institutions?
- Consider: Second-Order effects (military bombs water filtration
system or destroys crops, which causes actual injury to persons later)
Injurious Violence (gravely serious)
- Crimes against sentient beings which cause injury, suffering, or death
- E.g., kidnapping, assault, torture, murder
- Clearly inconsistent with principles of non-violence
- Consider: Animal vs. Human
- Consider: non-physical violence (e.g., psychological torture)
- Consider: is this ever justifiable?
- to prevent future violence?
- punitive? revenge? retribution?
- to stop "an evil so great"?
- Seriousness: Trivial? Moderate? Grave?
- Is there ACTUAL or Potential damage to structures, machines, or other inanimate things?
- Is there ACTUAL or Potential environmental damage (crops, forests, water supplies)?
- Is there ACTUAL or Potential injury to persons (sentient creatures)? How many persons affected?
- Consider the motive: Symbolic (generally less serious) or for Direct Effect (generally more serious)?
- Consider: prior actions of the adversary
- Must we think in these terms? What about "Turn the other cheek" and forgiveness?
- Gandhi taught liberation through suffering the blows of our attacker
- "Iterated Prisoners Dilemma" (Tit-For-Tat, etc) model from mathematics [see Dawkins, Axelrod, Hofstadter, etc.] may support this
- "In a society, to minimize overall violence, we must each
expend effort to not become replicators of violence. We must each
absorb it when it comes our way."
- Forms of Proactive:
- Preemptive intervention
- Unprovoked attack
- Forms of Reactive:
- Retaliation, Revenge, Punitive
- Redemptive, Repentance, Atonement
If you take responsibility for your action, it may be better justifiable.
- Personal Atonement, Repentance, Disapproval Display, Interventionist
- In a democracy, the people are ultimately responsible for the actions of their government. Thus, if the people do not act to separate themselves from a renegade, oppressive regime, then by silence and inaction they become complicit and bear responsibility for the violence committed on their behalf
- Retribution, Revenge, Punishment? To shame your opponent?
- Consider: Have you condemned your adversary as evil, or do you allow
for their rehabilitation and atonement? Might they have some good in
their hearts? Do you forgive them?
- Were innocent creatures actually harmed? How many?
- Was caution exhibited to prevent harm to innocents?
- Was any harm to property, persons, or the environment limited to only what was necessary?
- Even if there is a Small Chance of Grave Harms, have you considered alternative actions?
- Gandhi taught of taking suffering upon yourself as most effective (Satyagraha)
- Or did you actually cause harm to other living beings?
- Did you put other living beings at RISK of harm?
- Will the cause seem justified in the court of public opinion?
- Is public opinion important?
- Will people come to your side or move away from it?
- Is it done in such a way to cause many others to learn from it? (Publicity/spectacle)
Evaluate within this framework:
- Several people block entrance to a federal building prior to, and in protest of their government engaging in what they perceive to be an unjust military action
- Someone spray paints "No War!" on the side of a building in the middle of the night
- Someone murders a doctor who commits abortions, for moral and religious reasons, and to prevent future abortions
- Someone anonymously throws a Molotov cocktail through the window of a recruiting station located in a plaza with many other businesses, but it does not ignite
- The state executes a man accused of being a serial murderer
- Several nuns and a priest break in to a military installation and use small hand tools to damage tanks, missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction. They are caught doing this.
- The police use tear gas, non-lethal "bean bag" bullets, and psyops (like bright lights and amplified sounds of animals being killed all during the night) against a 53 y/o woman who refuses to be removed from her home for a psychiatric examination. She was not accused of any crime. (Shirley Allen, Roby IL 1997)
- The U.S. Preemptively strikes Iraq, a sovereign nation because they possess WMDs and have links to terrorism.
- American Revolutionary War
- Peace is not only the goal. Peace is a process: We should not become too focused
on goals/results. "There is no way to peace. Peace *is* the way." -- A. J.
- Would I do it?
- Even if I would not do it, would I approve of others doing it?
- Would Gandhi or Jesus have done it?
- An authentic spiritual practice may be helpful. Often Christians who do this work are knowledgeable of Liberation Theology, or are Catholic Workers, or Quakers, or Mennonites.
- Other activists claim that Yoga or Buddhist meditation practice is helpful.
- Gandhi was trained in the Yoga tradition.