Non-Violence as a Principle

Photo by National Park Service | CC BY 2.0

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral; begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.

—Martin Luther King Jr.

“Peace cannot be built on exclusivism, absolutism, and intolerance. But neither can it be built on vague liberal slogans and pious programs gestated in the smoke of confabulation. There can be no peace on earth without the kind of inner change that brings man back to his “right mind.”

—Mohandas Gandhi

There are very few people who have truly changed society for the better. I count King and Gandhi as two people who understood what it meant to transform society rather than just respond to it. They were both men who understood the power of principle and moral consistency. They understood that peace is powerful as a practical principle, not an abstract ideal. For it was Gandhi who said also: “The most awful tyranny is that of the proximate Utopia where the last sins are currently being eliminated and where, tomorrow, there will be no more sins because all the sinners will have been wiped out.”

There is not a world where putting more people in prison is going to make society more just. There is not a world where fighting more wars is going to make society more peaceful. There is not a world where buying more guns is going to make a society safer. There is not a post-racial world that will make a society more tolerant. There is not a post-gender world that will make society more fair. There is not a post-class world that will make society more equal.

This is not because such a society is not possible. It is because such a society will use methods of violence to create a world that lacks it. I do not believe in karma or stagnation. I do not believe that a woman who kills her abuser will continue in a cycle of violence. But I know that it is far more often that it is the oppressors who use violence and that as long as violence remains acceptable it will continue to be the oppressors who use it.

This is the central misunderstanding of our wars across the globe. We assume that the American Empire acts as a force for good. We fail to recognize that those who are interested in using violence are almost always interested in control and power, not justice and peace. There are exceptions to this rule. A militant group certainly can be for truth and justice. But the United States Empire is one militant group who claims to be for truth and justice. And they have more power and credibility than any of the decent militant groups that oppose them.

This is why non-violence must be embraced as a principle. As long as violence can be used, it will be used by the wrong people for the wrong ends. This is a practical truth that must counter the idealism of militants who believe that they can defeat force through force.

If we step back and look at the victims of a violent society we find that it is always the most vulnerable. It is the poor, particularly the non-white poor, who are victims of this violence. In the home, it is women and children, particularly poor women and children, who are victims of this violence. Those who get away with the violence are the heroes of society. They are the cops, the soldiers and the immigration officers. To a certain extent, they are the mass shooters whose names flash across the screen. One cannot arm teachers or civilians and stop this violence.

As long as violence remains an accepted act in society it will be used by the powerful. It will be used to stop problems. In reality it will only multiply them. Why is this? Because in a society that has inequality justice exists for the powerful and injustice exists for the powerless. As long as a society remains unequal wars and prisons will be used for profit and fear, not justice. There are once again exceptions to this rule. But far too few to justify the mass amounts of punishment and violence that exists.

This cuts against the dangerous idealism of almost all liberal and conservative minds. They believe that if a violent punishing state exists that it acts as a way to check society’s evils, rather than reinforce them. They believe it counters power, rather than maintains it.

In such a world non-violence can only make a world more just. If violence is abandoned the world will become a better place. This is because violence is used against the wrong people. It is not as if the Koch brothers deserve to live, it is that they are not the victims of violence as the world currently stands. Guns spray across the American landscape and to what ends? It is the innocent who die, and the guilty who walk free.

King and Gandhi also understood that it is only through principle and discipline that a society changes. All geniuses are a result of habit. All greatness arises from practice. All meaning arises from time and experience. There is nothing to be gained from reacting, giving into whims, or dealing within decontextualized spaces. History always dictates the future. This is a point our rapid reaction society is forgetting.

One can jail a criminal, but as long as his lacking exists, a new one will arise. This can be a financial lacking or an emotional lacking. Take a drug dealer. One can say he is wrong to do what he does, but as long as high-paying jobs are hard to find, he will be replaced by someone who needs the money. One can bomb a terrorist, but as long as people remain hungry and desperate, a new terrorist will rise. These assumptions too assume that the authorities who use such tactics are acting in the interests of society, rather than the interests of power. This is rarely the case.

The only way to stop violence is to embrace non-violence. It is through this discipline that a new society may emerge. Without such a discipline the victims of violence will continue to be mostly innocent. Perhaps in a world that was completely equal, violence could be used to solve problems. Yet one would have to ask, who would be motivated to use violence in the first place? Would it be good actors, or would it be bad? For that matter, who decides these things? Could our society ever agree? Could the voices be heard equally? Our society then would not only have to be equal, it would have to be equally heard. That is, democratic. Does anyone believe that our society is equal or democratic right now? That means violence must be abandoned. For it is an action that silences. It is an action that make democracy impossible. It coerces and controls more often than it frees.

When King said that violence will murder the liar, but it will not murder the lie, I read it as a call for principle over reaction. A call for transformation rather than reform. As long as power remains in the hands of the powerful (and when will it not?) we should have no interest in the techniques of the powerful. We should change how society acts, rather than change the individual actors. All actions arise from a need or a want. It is only through changing what the society needs and wants that society will change. As long as we want violence, violence will remain. As long as we need violence, violence will remain.

It is only through the creation of a society that has no interest in using violence to solve its problems that justice will be achieved. As long as violence exists, it will be used by the wrong hands for the wrong ends. We will continue to react, rather than transform. It should be the way we act, not the way we react, that dictates the world we live in. Violence exists as a force that acts on abstract principles. As long as it remains it will be used by various actors for various ends. Non-violence on the other hand is a refusal of violence that can be applied to any situation. It need not rely on anything. In an unjust and unfair world, it is the only act that gives us order. It is the only act that creates a possibility for fairness, justice and peace. If we let it guide us we can transform. If we fall to the whims of violence, our lives are out of our hands.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at