Illiberal Pacifism

Tuesday, 11th September 2007 at 3:06 UTC 6 comments

To say that I’ve been turning this over in my head for some time is, even against the rest of the blog posts for which the statement might be true, a complete understatement. At first I found myself a little uncertain of what it was that was causing me so much frustration. How could people who espoused a way of peace be so completely infuriating? More to the point, how could some others with a similar message make me feel so much more at ease?

There are many stereotypes of protester. There’s the socialist, who invariably wants to sell you a newspaper, or so the stereotype will portray them. There’s the trade unionist, who takes things really very seriously, and will be damned if they’re seen involved with anything too radical or fun. There’s the munter, who won’t actually protest, but will hang around like/with a bad odour and drink beer while everyone else does the protesting. There’s the anarchist, who wants everything to be as flat-structured as possible, and jumps on their high horse every time someone imposes some kind of leadership (yes my friends, there was some self-mockery in that statement).

And then there’s the nice person who generally wants everything to be nice and respecting, and who opposes anything which excludes people, and certainly anything violent. Generally speaking, we call them the Liberal Pacifist. They are the bedrock of many campaigns, such as CND and pretty much anything NGO-led. They form the bulk of those arrested during most Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) events outside nuclear-warfare bases.

Myself, I have met many sworn pacifists during campaigns that I have been involved with. Over time, I’ve realised that they fit two basic categories. The first I have huge amounts of respect for, because they act on their principles, whilst showing respect, and giving space to, those who have different ideas of how to conduct themselves. These are usually the people I feel most at home amongst on protests; there’s no pressure to conform, but my desire to keep a protest peaceful fits in nicely enough.

But I have to say I have also met another breed of pacifist. Sadly, this is someone who not only has high standards, but wishes to make it clearly known that they won’t stand for anyone who’s values are anything less. Don’t get me wrong, I know people who have quite a lot of disdain for violent protesters, but who can keep it to themselves. But it is this grouping, committed to tolerance but completely intolerant, that I have come to see as being the Illiberal Pacifists.

I should perhaps relay some important points that people I know complain are not communicated enough. First, that a violent protester is not necessarily an out of control protester; indeed, many pacifists are people who know only too well that they themselves will go way over board really quickly, and many of those who might choose to engage in some small degree of physical violence are often the most adept at limiting themselves rather than simply losing it.

Second, that people who have been involved in violent protests are themselves violent, or for that matter, that they want all protests to be violent. Very very few protesters will strike first, but, whereas we see nation states with second strike policies as morally superior to those with first strike policies, protesters are never given the benefit of the doubt. And protesters who have been to protests which were violent are made to feel responsible for other people’s actions, again a really annoying argument.

This leads nicely to the point about Black Blocs, which are generally made of people who have no interest in starting a fight, but include people who draw from a range of perspectives on the whole violence issue. The point of a black bloc is to stay together and not give the police anything to help them identify people. It works on the principle that by hiding we become visible. But it also works because people choose how to respond to different situations, and allow each other the dignity to make up their minds for themselves, which is something certain ‘Liberals’ could perhaps learn from.

Oh, and I really really want to get past this argument thats doing the rounds that its a protesters’ fault if a police officer hits them because its clear that they must have been winding the police officer up. Thats as sick as saying that its the Iraqi’s fault we bombed them. The fact is, when you show someone the injustice they are supporting, they have a choice; they don’t have to lash out at the person who’s just revealed the horror of what they’re doing.

While plenty of pacifists seem to get the above nuances, sadly the Illiberal Pacifist does not. They tell you how important non-violence is, and when you disagree with them, they look shocked. They lecture you till you just want to hit them, making you marvel at the contradiction: the pacifist who makes you want to use violence. I find that these people are most annoying because, as I try and find a middle ground with them, rather than simply argue endlessly, basically hoping to find some way of making peace, I end up feeling helpless in their path, and generally a bit more pissed off as a result, and thats not a peaceful ending to the problem.

You see, I might have a problem with physical violence, but actually, I have a bigger problem with psychological violence, whether its the police officer photographing my every move towards despair or the force of argument of being thrust at me as if somehow I’m worth dirt for not agreeing. I have a problem with anyone who thinks that non-violence is a bigger principle than respect. I can have respect for people who will work, perhaps physically, not so close, but still share common cause, with people who have different tactics, but I really struggle when working with those who I can’t be entirely sure won’t back-stab some people over tactical differences.

Of course, I’d have pretty similar feelings about anyone I found myself working with who tried to convince me that lobbing bricks was the only way forwards. The thing is, only a tiny number of people will do that. In fact, one of the things that draws me to the anarchist movements is that I can make my own mind up. I just don’t feel the need to make it a big thing, and I don’t have a problem leaving space for people who want to use different tactics to me.  And the thing is, I always end up doing non-violent protest anyway.


Entry filed under: Activism, Peace, Politics.

You don’t say Illiberal Pacifism: The Making Of…

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Duck  |  Tuesday, 11th September 2007 at 23:07 UTC

    Dunno how much that was aimed at me, but I don’t claim to be ‘liberal’, & really dislike the word. I absolutely don’t believe in reacting to what other people do with a shrug & ‘hey, whatever works for you’. Disagreeing with several traditionally ‘conservative’ positions does not mean that I don’t particularly mind what happens so long as everyone can get on & do their own thing – pretty well the opposite. I don’t claim to be ‘committed to tolerance’ – I know other people believe differently to me about important things, I try to understand why they hold those beliefs, but I disagree with them otherwise I’d have to believe the same thing. I can’t see why I’d hold a set of non-trivial beliefs for myself if I didn’t think that everyone should hold them.

    I believe in getting involved. I believe in community. I believe in caring about & for other people. Sometimes that will mean disagreeing. I hope I try to disagree constructively, politely, and try to listen as well as talk, but I do think it’s better to have the discussion – even if no-one changes their mind, I’ve generally found that talking to people I disagree with helps me clarify my own position, and hopefully at least understand why they do as they do even if I still don’t agree. Just not caring much either way, or not talking about it, is IMHO not a way to build relationships or understanding.

    My take on it is – I don’t protest ‘against’, I work *for*. IMO it’s important to know why you are on a protest, & what the bigger picture is. I cannot see that the Peaceable Kingdom can be brought about by violence towards people. It’s not that it wouldn’t be worthwhile, or that it might not sometimes be expedient to use violence to achieve good ends in the terms of this world. But by using violence I would be taking away from what my protest would hope to create. The act of protesting would become self-contradictory.

    You are the one who has a ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’ hoodie! On the terms of this world maybe ends can justify means. I believe that this world isn’t the important bit.

    I don’t expect everyone to agree with me – I know they won’t. This is another reason I don’t like being called ‘liberal’ – I believe I’m called to evangelise, even if I might disagree with many capital-E Evangelicals on quite what & how. Not talking to people isn’t necessarily ‘respectful’ of their beliefs – I don’t think it’s respectful to refuse to engage with someone else’s ideas, and that usually demands sharing your own too. Again, why hold beliefs if you don’t believe enough in them to say they are right?

    [test today – sorry if this isn’t well-written].

  • 2. R  |  Wednesday, 12th September 2007 at 10:37 UTC

    I wouldn’t class you in with the sort of people G’s talking about duck. 😉

  • 3. Graham Martin  |  Wednesday, 12th September 2007 at 12:07 UTC

    Just to reiterate, I definitely didn’t have you in mind while writing this, and had you been at the Christian Anarchism conference last weekend, I’m guessing it would have been obvious who I was taking issue with (and had you been on the Critical Mass, even more obvious still). Sorry if any offence was taken.

  • 4. Duck  |  Wednesday, 12th September 2007 at 15:39 UTC

    Not offended – & anyway I have no problems with people disagreeing with me.

    Do you think that protestors / people in general should be more ‘liberal’, though?
    I’m not sure that throwing paving stones at the police is exactly being tolerant of their right to hold different opinions to you.
    Surely the whole point about a protest is that you are not prepared to tolerate someone else’s beliefs (or expression thereof). Otherwise you may as well give up & become a Hermit.

  • 5. Jonathan  |  Wednesday, 12th September 2007 at 17:22 UTC

    “Surely the whole point about a protest is that you are not prepared to tolerate someone else’s beliefs”

    that’s quite an odd perspective. the point to me is I’m unwilling to tolerate their actions. I couldn’t really give two shits what they believe.

    (that’s hyperbole to make a point again)

  • 6. Duck  |  Wednesday, 12th September 2007 at 19:08 UTC

    Yes, but there is only so long you can get by on telling people what to do.
    The logical outcome of your position is a world ruled by you where everyone has to do what you say when they don’t want to, without you giving a reason for it.

    If I think that a detention centre for asylum seekers should be closed down, then shutting the detention centre is a good start. But if people still believe that asylum seekers should be locked up, they are still going to be nasty to them, & just go & find something else nasty to do.

    Therefore, it is better to try to change people’s beliefs on a protest than just change behaviour.


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