Judith Butler on the Case for Nonviolence

"Nonviolence requires a critique of what counts as reality."

The case for nonviolence encounters skeptical responses from across the political spectrum. There are those on the left who claim that violence alone has the power to effect radical social and economic transformation, and others who claim, more modestly, that violence should remain one of the tactics at our disposal to bring about such change. One can put forth arguments in favor of nonviolence or, alternately, the instrumental or strategic use of violence, but those arguments can only be conducted in public if there is general agreement on what constitutes violence and nonviolence.

One major challenge faced by those in favor of nonviolence is that “violence” and “nonviolence” are disputed terms. For instance, some people call wounding acts of speech “violence,” whereas others claim that language, except in the case of explicit threats, cannot properly be called “violent.” Yet others hold to restrictive views of violence, understanding the “blow” as its defining physical moment; others insist that economic and legal structures are “violent,” that they act upon bodies, even if they do not always take the form of physical violence. Indeed, the figure of the blow has tacitly organized some of the major debates on violence, suggesting that violence is something that happens between two parties in a heated encounter.

Without disputing the violence of the physical blow, we can nevertheless insist that social structures or systems, including systemic racism, are violent. Indeed, sometimes the physical strike to the head or the body is an expression of systemic violence, at which point one has to be able to understand the relationship of act to structure, or system. To understand structural or systemic violence, one needs to move beyond positive accounts that limit our understanding of how violence works. And one needs to find frameworks more encompassing than those that rely on two figures, one striking and the other struck. Of course, any account of violence that cannot explain the strike, the blow, the act of sexual violence (including rape), or that fails to understand the way violence can work in the intimate dyad or the face-to-face encounter, fails descriptively, and analytically, to clarify what violence is—that is, what we are talking about when we debate over violence and nonviolence.

It seems like it should be easy to simply oppose violence and allow such a statement to summarize one’s position on the matter. But in public debates, we see that “violence” is labile, its semantics appropriated in ways that call to be contested. States and institutions sometimes call “violent” any number of expressions of political dissent, or of opposition to the state or the authority of the institution in question. Demonstrations, encampments, assemblies, boycotts, and strikes are all subject to being called “violent” even when they do not seek recourse to physical fighting, or to the forms of systemic or structural violence mentioned above. When states or institutions do this, they seek to rename nonviolent practices as violent, conducting a political war, as it were, at the level of public semantics. If a demonstration in support of freedom of expression, a demonstration that exercises that very freedom, is called “violent,” that can only be because the power that misuses language that way seeks to secure its own monopoly on violence through maligning the opposition, justifying the use of police, army, or security forces against those who seek to exercise and defend freedom in that way.

American studies scholar Chandan Reddy has argued that the form taken by liberal modernity in the United States posits the state as a guarantee of a freedom from violence that fundamentally depends on unleashing violence against racial minorities, and against all peoples characterized as irrational and outside the national norm. The state, in his view, is founded in racial violence and continues to inflict it against minorities in systematic ways. Thus, racial violence is understood to serve the state’s self-defense. How often in the United States and elsewhere are black and brown people on the street or in their homes called or deemed “violent” by police who arrest them or gun them down, even when they are unarmed, even when they are walking or running away, when they are trying to make a complaint themselves, or simply fast asleep? It is both curious and appalling to see how the defense of violence works under such conditions, for the target has to be figured as a threat, a vessel of real or actual violence, in order for lethal police action to appear as self-defense. If the person was not doing anything demonstrably violent, then perhaps the person is simply figured as violent, as a violent kind of person, or as pure violence embodied in and by that person. The latter claim manifests racism more often than not.

An ethics of nonviolence cannot be predicated on individualism, and it must take the lead in waging a critique of individualism as the basis of ethics and politics alike.

What starts, then, as an apparently moral argument about whether to be for or against violence quickly turns into a debate about how violence is defined and who is called “violent”—and for what purposes. When a group assembles to oppose censorship or the lack of democratic freedoms, and the group is called a “mob,” or is understood as a chaotic or destructive threat to the social order, then the group is both named and figured as potentially or actually violent, at which point the state can issue a justification to defend society against this violent threat. When what follows is imprisonment, injury, or killing, the violence in the scene emerges as state violence. We can name state violence as “violent” even though it has used its own power to name and to represent the dissenting power of some group of people as “violent.” Similarly, a peaceful demonstration such as that which took place in Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013, or a letter calling for peace such as the one signed by many Turkish scholars in 2016, can be effectively figured and represented as a “violent” act only if the state either has its own media or exercises sufficient control over the media. Under such conditions, exercising rights of assembly is called a manifestation of “terrorism,” which, in turn, calls down the state censor, clubbing and spraying by the police, termination of employment, indefinite detention, imprisonment, and exile.

As much as it would make matters easier to be able to identify violence in a way that is clear and commands consensus, this proves impossible to do in a political situation where the power to attribute violence to the opposition itself becomes an instrument by which to enhance state power, to discredit the aims of the opposition, or even to justify their radical disenfranchisement, imprisonment, and murder. At such moments, the attribution has to be countered on the grounds that it is untrue and unfair. But how is that to be done in a public sphere where semantic confusion has been sown about what is and is not violent? Are we left with a confusing array of opinions about violence and nonviolence and forced to admit to a generalized relativism? Or can we establish a way of distinguishing between a tactical attribution of violence that falsifies and inverts its direction, and those forms of violence, often structural and systemic, that too often elude direct naming and apprehension?

If one wants to make an argument in favor of nonviolence, it will be necessary to understand and evaluate the ways that violence is figured and attributed within a field of discursive, social, and state power; the inversions that are tactically performed; and the phantasmatic character of the attribution itself. Further, we will have to undertake a critique of the schemes by which state violence justifies itself, and the relation of those justificatory schemes to the effort to maintain its monopoly on violence. That monopoly depends upon a naming practice, one that often dissimulates violence as legal coercion or externalizes its own violence onto its target, rediscovering it as the violence of the other.

To argue for or against nonviolence requires that we establish the difference between violence and nonviolence, if we can. But there is no quick way to arrive at a stable semantic distinction between the two when that distinction is so often exploited for the purposes of concealing and extending violent aims and practices. In other words, we cannot race to the phenomenon itself without passing through the conceptual schemes that dispose the use of the term in various directions, and without an analysis of how those dispositions work. If those accused of doing violence while engaging in no violent acts seek to dispute the status of the accusation as unjustifiable, they will have to demonstrate how the allegation of violence is used—not just “what it says,” but “what it is doing with what is said.” Within what episteme does it gather credibility? In other words, why is it sometimes believed, and most crucially, what can be done to expose and defeat the effective character of the speech act—its plausibility effect?

To start down such a path, we have to accept that “violence” and “nonviolence” are used variably and perversely, without pitching into a form of nihilism suffused by the belief that violence and nonviolence are whatever those in power decide they should be. Part of this task is to accept the difficulty of finding and securing the definition of violence when it is subject to instrumental definitions that serve political interests and sometimes state violence itself. In my view, that difficulty does not imply a chaotic relativism that would undermine the task of critical thought in order to expose an instrumental use of that distinction that is both false and harmful. Both violence and nonviolence arrive in the fields of moral debate and political analysis already interpreted, worked over by prior usages. There is no way to avoid the demand to interpret both violence and nonviolence, and to assess the distinction between them, if we hope to oppose state violence and to reflect carefully on the justifiability of violent tactics on the left. As we wade into moral philosophy here, we find ourselves in the crosscurrents where moral and political philosophy meet, with consequences for both how we end up doing politics, and what world we seek to help bring into being.

Nonviolence requires a critique of what counts as reality.

One of the most popular arguments on the left to defend the tactical use of violence begins with the claim that many people already live in the force field of violence. Because violence is already happening, the argument continues, there is no real choice about whether or not to enter into violence through one’s action: we are already inside the field of violence. According to that view, the distance that moral deliberation takes on the question of whether or not to act in a violent way is a privilege and luxury, betraying something about the power of its own location. In that view, the consideration of violent action is not a choice, since one is already—and unwillingly—within the force field of violence. Because violence is happening all the time (and it is happening regularly to minorities), such resistance is but a form of counter-violence. Apart from a general and traditional left claim about the necessity of a “violent struggle” for revolutionary purposes, there are more specific justificatory strategies at work: violence is happening against us, so we are justified in taking violent action against those who (a) started the violence and (b) directed it against us. We do this in the name of our own lives and our right to persist in the world.

As for the claim that resistance to violence is counter-violence, we might still pose a set of questions: Even if violence is circulating all the time and we find ourselves in a force field of violence, do we want to have a say about whether violence continues to circulate? If it circulates all the time, is it therefore inevitable that it circulates? What would it mean to dispute the inevitability of its circulation? The argument may be, “Others do it, and so should we”; or else, “Others do it against us, so we should do it against them, in the name of self-preservation.” These are each different, but important claims. The first holds to a principle of straightforward reciprocity, suggesting that whatever actions the other takes, I am licensed to take as well. That line of argumentation, however, sidesteps the question of whether what the other does is justifiable. The second claim links violence with self-defense and self-preservation. For the moment, though, let us ask: Who is this “self” defended in the name of selfdefense? How is that self delineated from other selves, from history, land, or other defining relations? Is the one to whom violence is done not also in some sense part of the “self” who defends itself through an act of violence? There is a sense in which violence done to another is at once a violence done to the self, but only if the relation between them defines them both quite fundamentally.

This last proposition indicates a central concern. For if the one who practices nonviolence is related to the one against whom violence is contemplated, then there appears to be a prior social relation between them; they are part of one another, or one self is implicated in another self. Nonviolence would, then, be a way of acknowledging that social relation, however fraught it may be, and of affirming the normative aspirations that follow from that prior social relatedness. As a result, an ethics of nonviolence cannot be predicated on individualism, and it must take the lead in waging a critique of individualism as the basis of ethics and politics alike. An ethics and politics of nonviolence would have to account for this way that selves are implicated in each other’s lives, bound by a set of relations that can be as destructive as they can be sustaining. The relations that bind and define extend beyond the dyadic human encounter, which is why nonviolence pertains not only to human relations, but to all living and inter-constitutive relations.

To launch this inquiry into social relations, however, we would have to know what kind of potential or actual social bond holds between both subjects in a violent encounter. If the self is constituted through its relations with others, then part of what it means to preserve or negate a self is to preserve or negate the extended social ties that define the self and its world. Over and against the idea that the self will be bound to act violently in the name of its individual self-preservation, this inquiry supposes that nonviolence requires a critique of egological ethics as well as of the political legacy of individualism in order to open up the idea of selfhood as a fraught field of social relationality. That relationality is, of course, defined in part by negativity, that is, by conflict, anger, and aggression. The destructive potential of human relations does not deny all relationality, and relational perspectives cannot evade the persistence of this potential or actual destruction of social ties. As a result, relationality is not by itself a good thing, a sign of connectedness, an ethical norm to be posited over and against destruction: rather, relationality is a vexed and ambivalent field in which the question of ethical obligation has to be worked out in light of a persistent and constitutive destructive potential.

Whatever “doing the right thing” turns out to be, it depends on passing through the division or struggle that conditions that ethical decision to begin with. That task is never exclusively reflexive, that is, dependent on my relation to myself alone. Indeed, when the world presents as a force field of violence, the task of nonviolence is to find ways of living and acting in that world such that violence is checked or ameliorated, or its direction turned, precisely at moments when it seems to saturate that world and offer no way out. The body can be the vector of that turn, but so too can discourse, collective practices, infrastructures, and institutions. In response to the objection that a position in favor of nonviolence is simply unrealistic, this argument maintains that nonviolence requires a critique of what counts as reality, and it affirms the power and necessity of counter-realism in times like these. Perhaps nonviolence requires a certain leave-taking from reality as it is currently constituted, laying open the possibilities that belong to a newer political imaginary.

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the force of nonviolence

From The Force of Nonviolence by Judith Butler. Used with the permission of Verso Books. Copyright © 2020 by Judith Butler.

Judith Butler
Judith Butler
Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Frames of War, Precarious Life, The Psychic Life of Power, Excitable Speech, Bodies that Matter, Gender Trouble, and with Slavoj Žižek and Ernesto Laclau, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality.





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