Different Strokes for Different Folks!?
How do we evaluate movement tactics and particularly property-damaging or truly aggressive or violent tactics?
Pacifism comes from a religious, philosophical stance and says violence or even property damage is a bad personal choice that brooks no exceptions. Many pacifists-for example, Dave Dellinger--argue publicly on behalf of political nonviolence using evidence, values, and experience of the sorts we'll address below. They respect and interact positively with those holding different opinions. There are some other pacifists, however, who don't primarily use evidence, logic, and experience to argue for nonviolence, but instead assert that to reject nonviolence is immoral. Their morality/religion trumps political debate.
When adherents of a political view assert that all other actors must agree or be irrelevant, it is often called sectarianism. Agree with me or you are a political infidel. In philosophy or religion similar rigidity is often called fundamentalism. Agree with me or you are a moral infidel. Here's the hard part: When a pacifist says that everyone must be pacifist because all other options are immoral, it is fundamentalism. Lifestyle, philosophical, or religious pacifists have every right to argue that the movement should always be nonviolent, of course. But if they do it by proclaiming greater morality they can't expect to be taken seriously--and the same goes for those who assert the limits of nonviolence from atop a high moral horse. So we are back where we started. What's characterizes obstruction, property damage, or aggressive or violent options, and how might folks reasonably argue their preferences?
With any tactic we can usefully ask:
- What are its effects on those who utilize it
- What are its effects on those it seeks to pressure
- What are its effects on the those protestors wish to organize, and
- What are its effects on enduring movement organization and culture?
One side claims that tactics "exceeding" nonviolence tend to be good in that they delegitimate authority, reduce tendencies to obedience, uproot accomodationist habits and culture, inspire participation among working people and minorities, graphically pinpoint protestor's anger, promote increased media coverage that communicates the movement message more widely, and also raise high social costs for elites, pressuring them to relent.
The other side claims that tactics "exceeding" nonviolence tend to be bad in that they help authority rationalize its lack of legitimacy, increase tendencies to thoughtless individualism, amorality, and paranoia, put off unorganized working people and minorities (not to mention those unable to participate in violent settings), curtail open discussion and democratic decision-making, obscure the focus of protestor's anger, distort media coverage disrupting communication to broader audiences, and also give elites means to change the rules of engagement to their advantage.
The point by point contrast highlights the complexity of judging tactics. Is having teach-ins, marching, rallying, doing civil disobedience, obstructing large numbers of people, or destroying draft card files, a missile nose cone, a war-making facility, or targeted windows, or trespassing, rioting, resisting arrest, or even escalating to pro-active aggression against police, scabs, or other sectors, a good choice? To know, we have to decide which claims are true and which false, and how we regard the overall tally.
But why do we have to consider each case on its own merits? Why can't we have an across-the-board always binding judgment? In some situations aggressive tactics yield all the positive affects their advocates expect. Yet in other situations aggressive tactics fail to deliver any potential benefits. Likewise, in some situations aggressive tactics yield all the debits their critics anticipate. Yet other times aggressive tactics minimize or even eliminate the debits. Thus there are no universal rules about specific tactics and the best we can do is assess each tactic in each situation, seeking to maximize potential benefits and minimize potential ills.
For example, proponents and critics of aggressive tactics need to pay very special and priority attention to not providing authorities a rationalization to obscure the government's wrong-doing. Proponents and critics must be sympathetic to those disagreeing with them and work hard to increase democratic participation and reduce tendencies to anti-social individualism, paranoia, or passivity. They must try to find ways to increase possibilities of wide participation and open discussion and decision-making, and particularly to prevent their tactics from alienating sought-after constituencies. They must put a high onus of evidence on themselves on behalf of avoiding adventurism or endangering others or otherwise weakening the balance of power between the movement and elites, whether by action or inaction. They must raise social costs today consistently with being able to do better tomorrow. It is also important to undertake or refrain from actions in ways that don't fracture the movement and that don't reduce sympathy for the movement or obscure its message among constituencies it seeks to reach. And both advocates and opponents of any particular tactic must avoid pressuring movement participants into hostile stances toward one another, rather than battling only opposed elites.
Pursuing non-nonviolent tactics by disdaining participation and democracy or by wildly imagining non-existent conditions looks like macho play-acting rather than seriously seeking maximal impact. Opposing non-nonviolent tactics by equating minuscule disruption or destruction with the unimaginably inhumane and catastrophic violence of elites or otherwise worsening movement communication looks like fundamentalism rather than seriously seeking maximal positive impact.
On the upside, when groups who either advocate or oppose aggressive tactics pay serious attention to strategic concerns so that others are aware of their motives, logic, and attentiveness, and of how they take into account the views and agendas of their protest partners, then while folks may still sharply disagree about choices, the dialog can be one of respect and substantive debate.
Surely we can all ratify that respect and substantive debate are worthy goals. Then doesn't it also follow that having protest norms that facilitate opposed groups communicating usefully is much better than having protest norms which pit opposed groups against one another in ideological death matches? "Different strokes for different folks" is a good slogan, as long as we add that they need to also pursue mutual concern, understanding, and empathy.