« Culture Wars vs Political Wars | Main | Ethics and Group Differences »

A Nonviolent Response to Violence?

The neo-Nazi, White supremacists who converged on Charlottesville over the weekend came to make a statement: they wanted to show their strength in numbers and their will to push their viewpoint, despite opposition from the American mainstream. Their numbers weren’t terribly impressive, except that for many of us, the fact that there are such groups at all and that they are not just isolated paranoid and misguided individuals, but instead are aligned in groups, is frightening. Their will was quite evident. They were anti-Semitic, anti-nonwhite, anti-immigrant, belligerent, vocal,  and ready and hoping for violence, and often, armed. Both their vocal pronouncements and their behavior represented the antithesis to our American ideals of equality, inclusion and justice for all. One of their group, motivated by hatred, prejudice and God only knows what else, killed someone and injured many others.

For those of us committed to a nonviolent approach to solving social and political problems, the White Supremacist groups present a particular problem. Not only do they employ violence in their demonstrations, their vitriolic speeches promote violence based on discrimination and prejudice. After all, the Nazis whom they emulate attempted to extinguish the entire Jewish community, and there is little reason to believe that those who give Sieg Heil salutes don’t support such an approach. Similarly, those who identify with and give the KKK salute must be assumed to support an approach to Black people that includes slavery, segregation and lynching. Can nonviolent opposition to such people succeed in containing or eliminating them or at least their power?

Nonviolent resistance has been shown to be more effective than violent resistance in effecting government change or overthrowing dictatorships (Chenoweth and Stephan, Foreign Affairs, July/August, 2014). But a key component of nonviolent resistance is mass demonstrations that show the government’s or a dictator’s lack of concern for rights and human life in its response, thus mobilizing even more of the society to oppose them. In America, the Civil Rights Movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. was successful in reducing and in some situations, eliminating racial discrimination in the face of hatred and bigotry that was at least as virulent, and shared by more people, as that espoused by today’s alt-right. However, the situation in which the malignant actor is a minority on the fringe of society and their threat is that they will attract more to their point of view, is different than that of challenging the regime of a dictator, or segregation and Jim-Crow laws that discriminate against non-whites.

In America, the right of malignant minorities to express their views—even views that are racist and hateful— is upheld by Supreme Court interpretations of the first amendment. The only legal recourse to suppressing the views of groups such as neo-Nazis is when those views can be tied directly to incitement of violence, which is prohibited by Supreme Court decisions. It actually seems reasonable that much of what was said and done by White supremacists in Charlottesville might fall under such a prohibition.

But legal remedies won’t work for prospective White supremacist demonstrations when incitement to use violence cannot be proved in advance (the argument that the organization “stands for violence” has not been successful in previous court challenges). Many people have concluded that the only solution is physical intimidation of such groups, i.e. punching enough neo-Nazis in the face to dissuade them from marching again. It’s conceivable that this could work, although should the courts step in, those who urge such behavior could be hoisted on their own petard and charged with inciting violence. They might conclude that it is worth being charged with such a crime in order to accomplish their goal. Up to this point, such violent responses, when they have occurred, have had the unfortunate outcome of blurring the distinction in many people’s minds between the provocateurs and the responders. Violent melees appear as out-of-control clashes and both sides are blamed, losing the moral advantage for those who oppose the White supremacist viewpoint (mostly by changing the conversation to one of who is being most violent instead of who is promulgating hateful, racist views). Although, those who are firmly against racism and discrimination are in little danger of confusing the moral issues, those who are most vulnerable to the White supremacists' message are, and to some extent, it is their minds which this battle is about. Giving them and the media outlets to which they listen as few reasons as possible for excusing the behavior of those who are bigoted and racist is an advantage in winning the minds of the entire American population, not just in convincing those who already agree.

Nonviolent resistance has relied upon the moral ground afforded by revealing the unreasonable, unprovoked, and one-sided use of violence by its opponents. Nonviolent resistance also relies upon large numbers, demonstrating that those who favor their viewpoint (in this case diversity, inclusion, fairness and justice) far outnumber those who favor the alternative viewpoint. This serves to isolate their opponents from the rest of society. Nonviolent resistance can use a variety of methods, such as drowning out speeches with song, barring access to space to promote a message, voicing an alternative message to a larger crowd at the same time, etc. The possibilities are almost numberless and only a lack of imagination should convince someone that violence in return is the only option. Finally, nonviolent resistance exemplifies the ethic that hate is unacceptable much more than does punching someone in the face.

The aim of resistance—violent or nonviolent—is to insure that the White supremacy movement in America shrinks, rather than grows. Which approach will be more successful in doing this? I would be arrogant if I said I knew the answer to this question for sure. But for the reasons cited above, as well as many others, my preference is nonviolence.

Reader Comments (8)


Interesting post. There are scholars pointing out the contributions of the use of violence in self-defense as a force for change in the Civil Rights movement. Have you listened to Ep 32 of Philosophy Bakes Bread yet? If not, check it out. Touches on related issues brought up here:


All the best,


August 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEric Weber

Eric: I will listen. Those who favor nonviolent resistance differ among themselves regarding whether to defend themselves using violent methods. Gandhi was inconsistent on this point (at times he said that if all else failed, one could resort to violence), although he generally favored even dying before responding with violence. MLK, Jr. famously was protected by the "Deacons of Defense" who carried guns, but he did not favor responding with violence during a protest.

August 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

Casey, I feel very threatened, and I worry about my children, who are targets of the white supremacists for reasons I won't list here. I may not opt for getting a gun, as I desire, since I don't want to fall into the mold of the NRA. But non-violent resistance would not have worked (did not work) in Germany in the 30s, and it does not work against these terrorists. I'm absolutely sick by the absence of leadership in our country. If the Abomination is incapable of governing, he needs to be removed. His press conference today proves him a white supremacist.

August 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

Anca: There is nothing in using nonviolent resistance that requires one not defend him or her self or family. Those can be two different things. Nonviolent resistance was not a tactic used in Germany by any large number of people (and you must be in the majority or near it for it to work). Too many German people actually agreed with Hitler, including going along with his anti-Semitism because it was an exaggeraged version of their own. I believe that in America today, those who do not agree with the alt-right far outnumber those who agree with them and that advantage in numbers should be used to mount resistance. My own view is that it not only can be nonviolent, but that it will be more successful if it is, as it accentuates the moral differences between the alt-right and those who oppose them.

August 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

I stand firm as a free speech absolutist. I would actively defend a bigot's right to speak and not only speak, but to be heard. I think it is extraordinarily important that potentially vile, counterproductive words are accurately assessed. The danger is not that words perceived as repugnant are going to physically injure anyone, because they're not. The real danger is that when vicious, unexpressed feelings and thoughts are allowed to fester and foment in seclusion and repression, there is no opportunity to prevent them from igniting into direct, brutal action. At least when someone is using a platform to voice their extreme ideologies, we have a chance to evaluate the core substance of that person and then either challenge, convert or ultimately shun the speaker. I think it a dangerous tactic to label a person or even accept that person's own self-label and then suggest that the mere mention of that label means that we must not listen to that person because they are in some way beyond redemption. Hatemongers can sometimes change into people of extraordinary compassion. Selfish, petty people can become radical givers. For me, the moral high ground is the unification of the human race through dialogue, understanding and acceptance. Until the internal landscape of blighted people is changed through these means, people will continue to foster and bequeath these wicked sentiments in perpetuity and our descendants will be writing these same protestations and lamentations a thousand years from now.

August 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

Sadly, the protests by the Nazis probably succeeded in furthering their agenda and recruiting other disaffected young adults. A small number of people will see the results as exciting and the cause worth joining. The movement continues by finding sympathizers.

August 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterWarren Bull

As long as identitarian politics are being enshrined by nominal progressives, further factionalization can and must occur, leaving those without a subgroup to, by necessity, unite in common cause, albeit one of a disputatious and tenuous alignment at best. The decade's long tension between leftist globalism and right-wing populism has reached a critical mass. The most positive result of this conflagration would be for all of us to abandon cultural apartheid of every sort and focus on the shared values and moral framework which still girds this country at its core.

August 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

Some theorists even claim that Gandhi’s non-violent ways of freedom struggle in India would never have succeeded had it been ruled by Germany.
The best course for the mankind would be to embrace the best of the values based on morality, distilled out from every cultural, ethnic group and strive for a more holistic approach.

August 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSanjaya Mishra

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>