Tactic, Strategy, Philosophy
Nonviolence. This is a sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd. The original is outside the UN in New York. What is the “non” in nonviolence? Just refraining from hitting somebody? Some people say that is what ahimsa, means, the idea used by Gandhi that gets translated as “nonviolence.” It’s called a “privative” term –the absence of something that might have occurred. But Gandhi made it clear that he meant something positive by “nonviolence.” It’s supposed to designate a kindness and respect for others and for oneself, a certain power of the soul by which the violence and oppression we experience can be transformed into a force for good. Not to trivialize it, but say, for example, someone cuts you off on the expressway. You feel a surge of energy in your body. You snarl, you want to make a certain gesture, right? You are empowered. Nonviolence is the power to take that energy and channel it into constructive action. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., believed that this power could create peace where violent responses never could.
Malcolm X never agreed with this view, but his objections are careful and subtle. He believed that the right to defend one’s life, family, and home was basic, but then, King didn’t disagree with that. The issue of self defense wasn’t the heart of the matter for King. Even if people are entitled to defend themselves, King insisted that nonviolence was the right way to address issues of racial and economic oppression, and other kinds of issues also. Why? And what did Malcolm really disagree with? I think a lot of people misunderstand what Malcolm was saying –and not saying.One can think of nonviolence as a tactic, as a strategy, or as a philosophy and spiritual discipline. As a tactic, in any volatile situation, you might be nonviolent to diffuse the tension. A drunk guy threatens you in a bar. You say you won’t fight him. He calls you a chicken. You point out that he is drunk, and if he still wants to fight when he sobers up, you’ll fight him then. This happens every day, a thousand times. It often works, but no deep commitment to nonviolence is here, only a tactical use of one’s self-restraint to diffuse a situation. Malcolm X has no problem with this, as far as it goes (although he wouldn’t be hanging out in a bar). But if that fellow actually does hit you, and if you have reason to think he means to do it again, Malcolm questions your intelligence if you say a second time “I won’t fight you, you’re drunk.” Not only are you entitled to defend yourself, you are rapidly becoming a fool, in Malcolm’s estimation, by declaring your intention to remain nonviolent. What you should declare is that you will do what is necessary to protect yourself.
Nonviolence as a tactic is justified, Malcolm thinks, only to the extent it is likely to work, and you aren’t obligated to choose it even then. But you also shouldn’t do more than is “necessary” in the use of violence to protect yourself. If that drunk guy is your friend, you might persist nonviolently until he hits you a second time. But if he isn’t your friend, what reason would you have to think that this is the right tactic? How “empowered” are you when he beats your head in? Tactics need to work, and the “necessary means” here have to do with bringing his brutality to a halt, when it is practiced by, for example, the police force on an entire community. Tactical nonviolence in an encounter with the police might be advisable, but only to the extent it can work. But when it comes to police brutality, in places where it is a problem, tactical nonviolence doesn’t address the real problem at all.
Adopting nonviolence as a strategy means that when an on-going conflict is the problem, you make the decision not to use violence at all, even when others do, because prevailing against your opponents in the long run requires refraining from violence, perhaps to hold the moral high ground. It doesn’t mean you’ll never use violence again, only that you are convinced the current struggle can be resolved best by adopting nonviolence in every episode. You might or might not announce your strategy. That is a separate issue. Malcolm X is deeply critical of nonviolence as a strategy, especially when it is announced. He doesn’t think it’s ever a winning strategy. Rather than gaining their rights and dignity, people who resolve to be strategically nonviolent actually lose the respect of those willing to use violence, he believed.
It is true that the strategic use of nonviolence assumes a high estimation of the humanity of one’s oppressors. One’s violent foes must be capable of feeling shame, or they can grow weary of being perceived as bullies, villains, even murderers of innocent people. Malcolm did not have that high an estimation of the white people who were oppressing and exploiting blacks in the US. (See my earlier blog on “White Devils.”) It was difficult to know, back when this was all happening, whether the strategy of nonviolence could succeed. It is still debatable whether it did. Nowadays, many people, maybe even most, think it was the right strategy for the Civil Rights Movement, but I don’t know whether Malcolm would agree. King himself became a martyr, and that affects our sentiments regarding this question, but did nonviolence really work? Or was it the riots in Newark and Detroit and LA and a dozen other cities?
Then there is nonviolence as a philosophy. Here we would adopt nonviolence unconditionally, for every conflict and situation. We might not try to convince others to do the same, but for ourselves a commitment is made. If this is an intellectual commitment, it may stem from pacifism or a reasoned conviction that all violence is always wrong. One might believe that no problem is ever really solved with violence, only made worse or deferred in time. And one might adopt nonviolence as a spiritual discipline, for the progress of one’s soul and to be a presence for peace in one’s community and world.
This unconditional commitment to nonviolence was not the clear target of Malcolm X’s criticisms. He did regularly express disdain for those who turn the other cheek, and he questioned their intelligence, but I have found no discussion in his writings, interviews and speeches that considers nonviolence exclusively as a philosophy or spiritual discipline apart from its tactical and strategic employment. He brought it up as a philosophy, on occasion, but moved quickly to practical, tactical and strategic considerations. I believe Malcolm probably rejected nonviolence at this universal level, but it is interesting that he preferred to confine his criticisms to tactical and strategic nonviolence.
Perhaps Malcolm struggled with the question, especially after his pilgrimage. After all, he always greeted everyone with “Salaam Alaikum,” and his last words were reported to be “Bothers! Brothers, please, this is a house of peace!” Together these utterances were his last acts on earth, occurring just as he had to decide whether to defend himself. He died with his right hand raised in the sign of peace. I do not say he changed his mind. But we can see what he did when the time came to choose. There is a difference between peace and nonviolence, unless one follows the two ideas in a direction of an ultimate state of soul and mind. At such an extreme, it would be difficult to say what the difference is.
Here is an image often misunderstood along similar lines.