Non-Violence, by Mark Kurlansky


To put it mildly, I have spent considerable time researching and thinking about nonviolence, in terms of its history and even more so its philosophy. At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, I delved deeply into the subject and wrote a great deal about it, attempting to articulate the moral philosophical underpinnings of nonviolence (never with more than mixed success, at least based on the reactions of my professors, who were more puzzled or bemused than anything at my choice of “specializing” in something so far from the mainstream of academic philosophy).

The style of this book is a staccato listing of historical occasions where nonviolence “worked,” or at least where violence failed even more miserably than nonviolence likely would have.

I think it’s reasonably good as an introduction to the general topic of nonviolence, but to be substantially more than that, to be a more thorough defense of nonviolence, it would need far more argumentation.

Though I certainly understand why in a book for a general audience you don’t want to get bogged down indefinitely in semantics and the kind of explication of concepts in which philosophers delight, I’d like to have seen at least a little more of an effort to establish and defend a conceptual framework that would enable a reader to understand what does and does not fall under the category of “nonviolence.”

When Kurlansky does venture in this direction, it can be a little shaky. He commits the common but highly unfortunate fallacy of equating pacifism with being passive. (Despite the superficial similarity of the words, “pacifism” is not derived from “passive” but from “peace.” It’s not “passivism.” Think of it as “peace-ism.”) He does this in order to reject pacifism in favor of nonviolence, which he chooses to define narrowly as an active, pragmatic method of seeking political ends without using violence. I’d say what he’s describing is a subset of nonviolence (and one that overlaps with, rather than contrasts with, pacifism).

That’s OK, he’s certainly free to use the term that way and focus his book on that particular phenomenon that he’s singled out, but I’d have preferred he acknowledge that others can and do use the term differently, and that there’s a lot more conceptual work to be done here that he’s choosing to set aside in order to, as I say, not get too bogged down in that when he’d rather use his limited time and space to deal with historical examples.

But the problem of where to draw the line came up for me repeatedly in reading his examples. Occasionally he acknowledges there’s some fuzziness to how he’s using the term, but he doesn’t attempt any further explication.

Though a part of me finds that unsatisfying, another part of me welcomes it. There is a temptation for people of principle to want to make sure they only ally themselves with people who are equally “pure,” which can lead to endless internecine squabbling among folks who really aren’t that far apart and should be directing their energy against the “common enemy.”

Pretty clearly Kurlansky’s vague concept of nonviolence counts some things as nonviolent that I or some others would not, and fails to count some things as nonviolent that I or some others would, but that doesn’t change the fact that broadly speaking we’re on the same side. I’m never going to match up perfectly with another person in terms of moral values in general, or morally acceptable methods of political activism specifically, but there can still be a great deal of overlap.

It would be nice if we could learn to express our opposition to people/ideas/political movements, etc. in proportion to the degree to which they deviate from our own values, instead of getting too hung up on our lesser differences with near allies.

But I also wonder if the author’s sometimes questionable treatment of gray area cases, his failure to more fully defend his line drawing, makes his argument unsatisfying not just to a believer in nonviolence such as myself, but to someone who has not adopted such a philosophy and needs some persuading.

As I went through the book, when I adopted more of a devil’s advocate or skeptical mindset, when I tried to put myself in the position of a newcomer to all this who more or less takes for granted the conventional view that violence is often justified against evil people and evil regimes, it didn’t seem to me like it would be very hard to call into question many if not most of his examples.

Kurlansky casts his net quite widely in order to support the idea that nonviolence has been used often and successfully throughout history. But many of his cases seem at best to be examples of a mixture of violent and nonviolent elements and techniques. Or in some instances even if the “good guys” were nonviolent, there was the potential for violence unless at least some concessions were granted. That is, a critic could well wonder what the outcome would have been in some of these cases if the powers-that-be had been confident that the nonviolent folks opposing them a) had no violent allies, and b) were so sincere in their commitment that they would not expediently opt for violence later if nonviolence wasn’t achieving their ends.

Like I say, I think this book is decent as an introduction, as a way of getting people to think about nonviolence and to consider that it may have been used more effectively in history than they realize. But it’s thin and leaves a great deal unargued for that really needs to be defended if you’re going to make a case for nonviolence.

The prima facie case for violence is really quite simple: There’s a bad guy doing bad things. You put a bullet in him and he’s no longer doing bad things. You use nonviolent methods—verbal persuasion, boycotts, non-cooperation, a Gandhian hunger strike or other form of self-suffering, whatever—and he may or may not continue doing bad things. So why use speculative, iffy methods when you can address the problem directly?

If you want to argue against that kind of simple, conventional position, you need to get into some complex stuff about indirect and subtle and long term consequences and the like, and/or you need to augment if not replace a consequentialist defense of nonviolence with non-consequentialist moral reasoning. I think it can be done, but I don’t think it’s easy, and I don’t think it’ll convince more than a fraction of those who aren’t already believers in nonviolence.

For the most part I don’t see this author trying to do that kind of argumentative heavy lifting however. What he provides is a list of historical events that are frankly open to multiple interpretations, and I just don’t know that people who aren’t already sympathetic to his conclusions will find his preferred interpretations all that persuasive.

I hope I’m wrong and the book can have more of an impact. Certainly I applaud what he’s doing, and to one like myself who is already sympathetic to his conclusions, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here. (For one thing, I did rather enjoy his iconoclastic interpretation of the American Founding Fathers as basically violent folks usurping a revolution that had been succeeding without violence, and that would have led to a more just society if left well enough alone. I don’t have enough confidence in my historical knowledge to strongly agree or disagree with him on that point, but it’s thought-provoking to read someone actually criticize our secular saints.)

Overall I have a higher opinion of this book than one would probably guess from what I’ve written so far. As I say it’s peppered with plenty of worthwhile and interesting points and examples. Maybe I’m wanting too much from it.

I think as it stands it’s a book well worth reading.


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