Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Taxonomy of Violence

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

  1. Peace Protest (quite trivial)
    • Never produces injury or property damage
    • No intentional violation of any law
    • Clearly non-violent by almost any definition
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. 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

  5. Coercion (moderately serious)
    • use of threats or exploiting a power relationship to restrain action, or to elicit non-voluntary action

  6. Personal Physical Restraint or Obstruction (serious)
    • Use of actual force against a person to restrain or obstruct that person from acting, or to force a non-voluntary action
  7. 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)
  8. 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?
      • Self-defense?
      • to prevent future violence?
      • punitive? revenge? retribution?
      • to stop "an evil so great"?

Evaluation Schema

  1. 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)?

  2. Urgency: Immediate threat or Time to wait?

    • Consider: prior actions of the adversary

  3. Exhaustion of Remedy: Last resort or First Approach?

  4. Necessity: Only course of action or Gratuitous/Ego?
    • 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."

  5. Cause: Reactive or Proactive?

    • Forms of Proactive:
      • Preemptive intervention
      • Unprovoked attack
    • Forms of Reactive:
      • Retaliation, Revenge, Punitive
      • Redemptive, Repentance, Atonement
      • Defensive

  6. Responsibility: Personal or Anonymous?

    If you take responsibility for your action, it may be better justifiable.

  7. Motive: Principled and just or Selfish or Irrational?

    • 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?

  8. Caution: Certainly affecting only proper target or Indiscriminate attack of innocents?

    • 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?

  9. Direction: Towards yourself or Towards others?

    • 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?

  10. Perception: Turns people on to your cause or Turns people off?

    • 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
  • Abortion
  • 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. Muste

  • Consider:
    • 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.

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