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Violence and Non-Violence - BCB #6
“Just trying to find our way through, just like you”
Physical violence is one of the main types of “bad conflict,” and one of the outcomes most worth avoiding. While some surveys suggest the level of support for political violence in the US has increased, other research suggests these numbers are inflated. Regardless, 2020 and 2021 were violent years for the U.S., and re-ignited debates about when violence is justified, and even what the word means (is property destruction “violence”? Yes or no?)
There is an argument that violence is sometimes necessary to achieve justice – a salient point in the wake of the Fourth of July celebrations of American independence. Yet proponents of non-violent conflict have long argued that violence is self-defeating. Recent assessments of the historical record suggest that they’re right: having a violent strategy or even a violent wing reduces the chances of success for political movement, by a factor of two or so.
There are various reasons for this. Violence tends to turn public opinion against a movement, and careful analysis suggests that elections have been lost over this issue. Violence is also the province of the young and able-bodied, which limits the involvement of families and older people in a political movement. And of course violence incites further violence. This can spiral out of control quickly, and nothing entrenches a conflict so deeply as trauma.
In short, we believe that political violence is rarely, if ever, justified even on pragmatic grounds. However, the alternatives are not widely understood, which is why this issue focuses on the rich tradition of non-violent conflict. If that phrase sounds self-contradictory, perhaps that is only because our war-weary imaginations are impoverished.
Nonviolent Resistance Proves Potent Weapon–Erica Chenoweth
By compiling a database of all political movements from 1900 to 2006 that sought regime change or territorial liberation, Chenoweth found that non-violent movements succeeded more often than violent ones by a 2-1 ratio. In addition, adding a violent wing into a non-violent movement reduces its effectiveness. This research suggests that a variety of methods in addition to public protest are effective, including limited strikes, economic noncooperation, and other actions disruptive to a ruling regime.
This piece investigates the complicated effect of protests on politics, discussing new research from Professor Omar Wasow showing that backlash to the 1968 protests following the assassination of Dr. King tipped the presidency toward Nixon. Wasow notes, “when protesters engage in violence, often in a very understandable response to state repression, that tends to work against their cause and interests, and mobilizes or becomes fodder for the opposition to grow its coalition.”
The ACLED (Armed Conflict Location & Event Data) Project is the most comprehensive data source on global political violence. In the summer of 2020 they recorded over 7,750 Black Lives Matter protests across all 50 states. Of these, 93% were nonviolent — which also means that there were over 500 incidents of related violence. Naturally, this statistic has been used to argue both that BLM was violent and that it was nonviolent. Before you click through, it may be worth asking yourself: what is it that you hope to prove with this data?
This classic documentary series (also a book) explores the long tradition of non-violent resistance to confront injustice, and how it has succeeded in many cases around the world. One of the key messages is that non-violence isn’t pacifism or “or doing nothing,” but myriad approaches which may be more or less confrontational. For example, Gene Sharp’s list of 198 nonviolent resistance methods range from “industry strike” and “overloading of administrative system” to “protest disrobings.”
New and Interesting
This analysis of crime data across different cities, countries, and years argues that the increase in violent crime that began in 2020 (see BCB #3) was caused by events surrounding the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests, not by the pandemic. A Most Conflicted Selection, simply because the topic is so charged.
Political scholar Wood calls January 6th “the dumbest coup in history” because Trump never actually did “all of these things that typically happen in coup attempts” such as declaring the government dissolved. Also, how Saudi Arabia staved off political reform through cultural reform (such as allowing women to drive), and how and why to talk to violent extremists.
In a survey of congressional staffers, over ¾ of respondents thought “it was ‘very important’ to encourage civility and more than half (59%) said it was ‘very important’ to encourage bipartisanship among Congress members.” Yet even those who do the work of legislation aren’t sure how to make that happen.
Quote of the Week
“If you are an activist and there is this outrageous incident (like a knee on a neck) and you say, ‘How can we advance our interests?,’ it might be that both violent and nonviolent protests are legitimate—but it still might be more effective to employ nonviolence.” - Omar Wasow
Thanks for reading!
Mary-Beth Ellis - reporter
Jonathan Stray - editor