On Violence

Review of the video “Non-Violence for a Change”, JustUs Productions (justus@gn.apc.org)

Review of the video “Non-Violence for a Change”, JustUs Productions (justus@gn.apc.org)

By George Monbiot. Published in the Ecologist, November 2001

Just after the attack on the World Trade Centre, I sat down with the philosopher Paula Casal to examine the circumstances under which violence — whether practised by states, dissident groups or individuals — might be morally acceptable. The violence/non-violence debate had been the defining dispute of the anti-globalisation movement. Now, we figured, it was about to become the defining dispute of the early 21st Century, and we wanted the means of navigating the moral minefields opening up around us.

We came up with five broad criteria, all of which have to be met before any kind of violence towards people becomes acceptable. The violence contemplated must be a response to a life and death situation: in which death or grievous bodily harm is threatened by a failure to act. All other means of achieving your objectives must have been exhausted. The violence used must be the minimum necessary to achieve your ends. It must have a high likelihood of success. It must reduce, rather than increase, the sum total of violent conflict.

It’s clear that if these criteria are applied, then both the terrorist attack on New York and the American attack on Afghanistan fail the test. Fighting Hitler more or less passed, though it failed at all times to meet the “minimum necessary” test (witness the bombing of Dresden). There is a moral argument for violent insurrection in West Papua (where the grip of government is loose), but perhaps rather less so in Tibet, where the chances of success are very low.

To me the criteria suggest that violence during street demonstrations in the nominal democracies of the First World is always unacceptable, failing on at least three counts. But this is not to say that violence is never permissible in societies where political closure (ie the termination of all other options) has not been achieved. Take, for example, the case of an asylum seeker, who is just about to be deported to a country in which she is almost certain to be killed. A handful of you are protesting, and you can see that if you were to shove the two immigration officers out of the way and bundle her into a taxi, you could save her life. All five criteria are met: by shoving the officers aside, perhaps even with a fair degree of force, you are reducing the sum total of foreseeable violence.

As the possibilities of violence increase in the world, we need to be sure that we know when its use is and isn’t acceptable. Just as importantly, we need to explore all the means by which it can be avoided, to expand, in other words, the range of options whose elimination is required by criterion two. No better tool has been provided than the moving and remarkable video “Non-violence for a Change”.

It is a common misconception that non-violence or pacifism implies passivity. Violent activists have often characterised pacifists as cannon fodder, easily crushed by the unanswerable force of arms. This video shows how unjust that characterisation is. The people whose lives it follows have developed brave and delightfully creative strategies of subversion.

Ellen Moxley, a tiny, jolly, white-haired Trident Ploughshares campaigner, is shown climbing into Trident’s floating research laboratory on Loch Goil and tipping its entire contents (minus the first aid kit) into the sea. It was doubtless partly because of their good humour and gentleness — the non-violence which emanates from every pore — that she and the other avengers were acquitted, despite causing £80,000 worth of damage.

A rally organised by opponents of the Ilisu dam the Turkish government is hoping to build with British help, drowning the cultural heartlands of the Kurds, brings Kurdish campaigners together with the villagers who were flooded out of their homes by a similar concrete apocalypse in north Wales. The historical grievance of the Welsh villagers is transformed into a burning and effective passion to prevent the same injustice being visited upon their new friends.

Non-violence for a Change shows how heat is turned into light: how protest can explain itself, becoming a demonstration in both senses of the word; how fury on both sides can be deflected and slowly turned into mutual respect and even resolution; how training and forethought can incapacitate and shame otherwise violent police, soldiers and security guards.

The world will never be the same again, and we must re-examine our means of mapping and negotiating it. This video is the best compass you can buy.