The Problem With Pacifism

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
First-time Visitors: Please visit Site Map and Disclaimer. Use"Back" to return here.

The Illusion of Pacifism

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

What is Non-Violence?

The last four items on the list arecalculated, manipulative, and deceptive practices. Neither Gandhi, nor MartinLuther King, nor the anti-war protestors of the 1960's were non-violent. Theywere skilled orchestrators of violence by others. The fact that their opponentswere usually stupid enough to oblige them doesn't make the tactics any lessmanipulative or deceptive; in fact, often the response to an initiallyrestrained opposition was an escalation of confrontation in order to cross thethreshold into violence.

Certainly nobody who uses drugs can claim to be non-violent. Yes, I know allabout 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 theworld as it is, drugs are banned and traffickers are violent, and if you dobusiness with them you are supporting their violence. Could there be anythingmore absurd than a vegetarian who won't eat meat because she opposes harminganimals, while at the same time using drugs and pretending that she'snot contributing to violence?

Forms of Pseudo-pacifism

The only truly non-violent tactic, in the sense that it neither commits norprovokes violence, is complete non-resistance and submission to the demands ofthe power elite. Even something as benign as education or public health, if itthreatened 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 passesfor "non-violence" or "pacifism" is one of the following:

I don't have any problem with the use of violence in self-defense, or fortaking down an oppressive regime, or for subduing criminals or protecting theweak. And the fact that somebody is so insecure that they resort to violencewhen confronted by mere demonstrations is often (not always) a pretty good ideawho ranks where on the moral scale. But then again, I never pretended to be a pacifist. What I have a problemwith 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 forways to make Jesus say the things we think he ought to have said if he'dpossessed our wisdom. The historical reality is that Jesus lived in a societyunder military occupation by a foreign empire, and one swarming with insurgentgroups at that. If Jesus had ever meant to condemn imperialism or endorse"liberation theology" or "wars of national liberation," hehad one of the most perfect settings in all history to do so. Not only did he not do so, but Roman soldiersare just about the only group in the New Testament who are given complimentarytreatment. When a group of soldiers came to John the Baptist asking what theyneeded to do to be saved, he told them not to abuse their power. He didn't evenremotely suggest they should quit the army.

It gets worse. Jesus was put to death on trumped up charges. What a perfectopportunity to condemn capital punishment. Yet, while he and two criminals weredying, one of the criminals chided the other one, saying that they were onlygetting what they deserved. What a perfect place to say that nobody deserves todie at the hands of the state, that the criminals are really victims of unequalwealth, lack of empowerment, and poor self esteem. Jesus, apparently failingcompletely to understand what was at stake, said nothing. And his followers,while they condemned the execution of Jesus and some of his followers, alwaysdid so on the sophistic grounds that they were innocent and morally in theright. Not once did they challenge the right of the state to take the life ofgenuine criminals.

Attempts to equate Christianity and pacifism simply don't stand scrutiny.Christianity does not teach that life is sacred. Jesus and his followers ateanimal products. Christianity doesn't even teach that human life issacred. Christ told his followers not to fear those who merely destroyedthe 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 "Thoushalt not kill," but David slew Goliath? Why two differentwords?

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

This is a pons asinorum (bridge of asses) - an initial first step thathas 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 theirilliteracy.

The Cycle of Violence

Before we go any further, take your mouse and put the cursor on the boldlettering 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 yourgrip, or push so hard on it that you mashed the trackball flat. The notion thatforce inexorably spirals out of control is precisely that trivially easy torefute.

Now it's probably true that resorting to unnecessary violence may very welllead to retaliation. So restraint in dealing with confrontations is usually agood idea. But all the talk about "ending the cycle of violence" failsto address the key question what do we do about people who have alreadyturned 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'texist, that people either never deliberately choose violence, that violencealways stems from earlier violence, poverty, or injustice, or that if people dodeliberately choose violence, it's in rare cases that are not really of greatimportance. But history abounds with examples of people who have deliberatelychosen violence. The ease with which people from non-violent backgrounds havebeen induced to commit atrocities in wartime shows how easy it can be for theviolent to recruit assistants, and for the gratification factor to take hold.Thus, a single individual who opts for violence because he enjoys domination maysucceed in recruiting many others less bold than he is. How do we respond topeople who have opted for violence? Appeasement merely reinforces the convictionthat violence gets results. Moreover, it provides gratification by reinforcingthe feeling of dominance. When confronting people who have already opted forviolence, non-violence has a very good chance of perpetuating the cycle ofviolence. Retaliatory force, on the other hand, makes the results of violence alot less simple, a lot less effective in getting results, and a lot lessgratifying.

Furthermore, violence is only the far end of the spectrum of force. Everyscreaming brat who throws a temper tantrum in public is testimony to the factthat children do not need to be taught the use of force. And regardless howloving, benevolent and diligent a parent is in meeting and supplying the child'sneeds, every child sooner or later runs into the fact that other people, muchless the physical universe, will not. Sooner or later every human being has toface the fact that some desires will not be gratified.

Throwing the First Punch

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

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

So What's Your Plan?

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

So what, exactly, was diplomacy supposed to accomplish in 1991? The onlyactions we can take against a country from outside are to blockade it. Ifblockade has not been effective after ten years, and if a blockade is consideredmorally objectionable if it causes human suffering, then exactly what measureswere we supposed to take against Iraq?

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

For example, saying "The United States should have relied more ondiplomacy to capture Osama bin Laden" doesn't cut it. What specificdiplomatic approaches should we have tried? What evidence is there that theywould have worked? How long should we persist before concluding that they don'twork? Are there other criteria (credible evidence of bin Laden acquiring nuclearweapons, 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.

Return to Pseudoscience Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page

Created 8 December, 2001, Last Update 24 May, 2020

Not an official UW Green Bay site