The Problem With Pacifism

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The Illusion of Pacifism

The problem with pacifism is not that it's mistaken or impractical (although it is), nor that it's an illusion indulged in by people whose own safety is protected by non-pacifists (although it is), nor that non-violence has probably caused more loss of life and suffering than it has prevented (although it has) nor even that the record of pacifists in supporting brutal, corrupt and repressive regimes is at least as bad as that of the CIA (although it is). The problem with pacifism is simply that it does not exist.

What is Non-Violence?

The last four items on the list are calculated, manipulative, and deceptive practices. Neither Gandhi, nor Martin Luther King, nor the anti-war protestors of the 1960's were non-violent. They were skilled orchestrators of violence by others. The fact that their opponents were usually stupid enough to oblige them doesn't make the tactics any less manipulative or deceptive; in fact, often the response to an initially restrained opposition was an escalation of confrontation in order to cross the threshold into violence.

Certainly nobody who uses drugs can claim to be non-violent. Yes, I know all about the theory that our war on drugs is really responsible for the violence, and that if we simply legalized drugs the problem would go bye-bye. But in the world as it is, drugs are banned and traffickers are violent, and if you do business with them you are supporting their violence. Could there be anything more absurd than a vegetarian who won't eat meat because she opposes harming animals, while at the same time using drugs and pretending that she's not contributing to violence?

Forms of Pseudo-pacifism

The only truly non-violent tactic, in the sense that it neither commits nor provokes violence, is complete non-resistance and submission to the demands of the power elite. Even something as benign as education or public health, if it threatened someone else to the point of violent action, would be forbidden. Women would have to submit meekly to rape rather than struggle to resist. And no "pacifist" I have ever heard of advocates that. Generally, what passes for "non-violence" or "pacifism" is one of the following:

I don't have any problem with the use of violence in self-defense, or for taking down an oppressive regime, or for subduing criminals or protecting the weak. And the fact that somebody is so insecure that they resort to violence when confronted by mere demonstrations is often (not always) a pretty good idea who ranks where on the moral scale. But then again, I never pretended to be a pacifist. What I have a problem with is advocating, instigating, or indirectly causing violence while pretending to be non-violent.

What Would Jesus Do?

"The search for the historical Jesus" is generally a search for ways to make Jesus say the things we think he ought to have said if he'd possessed our wisdom. The historical reality is that Jesus lived in a society under military occupation by a foreign empire, and one swarming with insurgent groups at that. If Jesus had ever meant to condemn imperialism or endorse "liberation theology" or "wars of national liberation," he had one of the most perfect settings in all history to do so. Not only did he not do so, but Roman soldiers are just about the only group in the New Testament who are given complimentary treatment. When a group of soldiers came to John the Baptist asking what they needed to do to be saved, he told them not to abuse their power. He didn't even remotely suggest they should quit the army.

It gets worse. Jesus was put to death on trumped up charges. What a perfect opportunity to condemn capital punishment. Yet, while he and two criminals were dying, one of the criminals chided the other one, saying that they were only getting what they deserved. What a perfect place to say that nobody deserves to die at the hands of the state, that the criminals are really victims of unequal wealth, lack of empowerment, and poor self esteem. Jesus, apparently failing completely to understand what was at stake, said nothing. And his followers, while they condemned the execution of Jesus and some of his followers, always did so on the sophistic grounds that they were innocent and morally in the right. Not once did they challenge the right of the state to take the life of genuine criminals.

Attempts to equate Christianity and pacifism simply don't stand scrutiny. Christianity does not teach that life is sacred. Jesus and his followers ate animal products. Christianity doesn't even teach that human life is sacred. Christ told his followers not to fear those who merely destroyed the body, and said that he who loved his life would lose it.

Thou Shalt not Murder

But what about "Thou shalt not kill?" Notice that it's "Thou shalt not kill," but David slew Goliath? Why two different words?

Because the original meaning of kill was more nearly that of murder, whereas slay meant homicide in general. Although there's some overlap in usage in the Bible, generally actions like killing in battle are translated with slay. The distinction was clear in the 1600's when the King James Bible was published. It's only when we became intellectually sloppy that we blurred the distinction between the two words.

This is a pons asinorum (bridge of asses) - an initial first step that has to be made before any productive discussion can begin. People who trot out "thou shalt not kill" as a basis for pacifism are revealing only their illiteracy.

The Cycle of Violence

Before we go any further, take your mouse and put the cursor on the bold lettering above.

Now, notice what you did. In order to move the mouse, you had to exert force, and very precise and gentle force at that. You didn't rip the mouse cord out of the computer, or crush the mouse in your grip, or push so hard on it that you mashed the trackball flat. The notion that force inexorably spirals out of control is precisely that trivially easy to refute.

Now it's probably true that resorting to unnecessary violence may very well lead to retaliation. So restraint in dealing with confrontations is usually a good idea. But all the talk about "ending the cycle of violence" fails to address the key question what do we do about people who have already turned to violence as their tactic of choice? As a problem-solving tool, "violence first" has a couple of things going for it:

Most pacifists react to this issue by simply pretending that it doesn't exist, that people either never deliberately choose violence, that violence always stems from earlier violence, poverty, or injustice, or that if people do deliberately choose violence, it's in rare cases that are not really of great importance. But history abounds with examples of people who have deliberately chosen violence. The ease with which people from non-violent backgrounds have been induced to commit atrocities in wartime shows how easy it can be for the violent to recruit assistants, and for the gratification factor to take hold. Thus, a single individual who opts for violence because he enjoys domination may succeed in recruiting many others less bold than he is. How do we respond to people who have opted for violence? Appeasement merely reinforces the conviction that violence gets results. Moreover, it provides gratification by reinforcing the feeling of dominance. When confronting people who have already opted for violence, non-violence has a very good chance of perpetuating the cycle of violence. Retaliatory force, on the other hand, makes the results of violence a lot less simple, a lot less effective in getting results, and a lot less gratifying.

Furthermore, violence is only the far end of the spectrum of force. Every screaming brat who throws a temper tantrum in public is testimony to the fact that children do not need to be taught the use of force. And regardless how loving, benevolent and diligent a parent is in meeting and supplying the child's needs, every child sooner or later runs into the fact that other people, much less the physical universe, will not. Sooner or later every human being has to face the fact that some desires will not be gratified.

Throwing the First Punch

Pacifists are vociferous in denouncing "aggression." I can think of a number of cases where "aggression" either shortened a war or ended genocide. None involve the United States, by the way.

Not only is it morally permissible to commit aggression, sometimes it's morally obligatory.

So What's Your Plan?

When the Persian Gulf War broke out, critics of the war complained that we had not given diplomacy enough time to do the job. Years later, after a decade of economic sanctions have reduced Iraq to utter misery, many of the same people are complaining that sanctions should be ended because they have failed and because they are causing great suffering.

So what, exactly, was diplomacy supposed to accomplish in 1991? The only actions we can take against a country from outside are to blockade it. If blockade has not been effective after ten years, and if a blockade is considered morally objectionable if it causes human suffering, then exactly what measures were we supposed to take against Iraq?

I suggest that pacifists have a moral and intellectual obligation to answer the following questions:

For example, saying "The United States should have relied more on diplomacy to capture Osama bin Laden" doesn't cut it. What specific diplomatic approaches should we have tried? What evidence is there that they would have worked? How long should we persist before concluding that they don't work? Are there other criteria (credible evidence of bin Laden acquiring nuclear weapons, for example) that would justify immediate action?

Why Did I Even Get Out of Bed?

Sometimes you find something written by a more illustrious writer that says it first and so perfectly, anything else is almost superfluous. Here is an excerpt from George Orwell's Notes on Nationalism (May 1945). Note: Orwell uses the term "nationalism" as a synonym for any fervently held ideology, whether attached to a nation or not. This is simply a brilliant piece of work, not just on pacifism but all forms of extreme belief.

The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to the taking of life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defense of western countries. The Russians, unlike the British, are not blamed for defending themselves by warlike means, and indeed all pacifist propaganda of this type avoids mention of Russia or China. It is not claimed, again, that the Indians should abjure violence in their struggle against the British. ...
All in all it is difficult not to feel that pacifism, as it appears among a section of the intelligentsia, is secretly inspired by an admiration for power and successful cruelty....
If one harbours anywhere in one's mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible. Here are just a few examples. I list below five types of nationalist, and against each I append a fact which it is impossible for that type of nationalist to accept, even in his secret thoughts...
PACIFIST. Those who "abjure" violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.


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Created 8 December, 2001, Last Update 02 June, 2010

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