January 18, 2008
Where should we draw the line between protest and violence? Are forms of suicide acceptable means of protest? In short: how far should one be willing to go when protesting?
Let us begin at the least contentious act
of extreme protest, and work our way to the most shocking.
Hunger strike was considered a legitimate form of protest by Gandhi, and indeed he employed several hunger strikes during his time in prison. Although the idea that this action is non-violent is debatable, it remains one of the few forms of protest available to someone who has been imprisoned. The British authorities were anxious not to allow Gandhi to die while in jail, as it would reflect poorly upon them internationally, and create a martyr – and quite possibly a retaliatory uprising.
The goal of a hunger strike or any other
extreme act of protest is to draw attention to the cause – to get attention
from the media (and hence the world) for what is being protested. In this
respect, a hunger strike is an effective means of protest.
More extreme is self-immolation – the act of setting oneself on fire and burning to death as protest. This is almost as extreme as it gets. While in a hunger strike one is not committing suicide but endangering one’s life, in self-immolation one is trading in one’s own life for the hope of publicity to a cause. In the short term it works: news services do report these horrifying events. But it is questionable whether the cost of a human life is worth a brief dose of attention, especially when less extreme measures (such as public nudity) can bring even more attention.
Consider the following instances of
Norman Morrison burning himself to death outside the Pentagon in November 1965 to protest the Vietnam War. Roger Allen LaPorte doing the same one week later outside of the UN headquarters.
Jan Palach self-immolating as protest
against the Soviet invasion of
Sándor Bauer protesting the Communist regime in
Márton Moyses self-immolating in a protest against Communist dictatorship in
And finally, Malachi Ritscher, a
How many of these have you heard of? How many do you remember? Do you believe that these people helped their cause? Could they have done more to help their cause if instead of committing an act of suicide-as-protest they had contributed to their cause in other ways?
The trouble with direct acts of suicide as protest is that while it is certainly shocking, it is not necessarily effective: people tend to see anyone willing to commit suicide in this way as mentally unbalanced, thus undercutting any value in bringing attention to the cause being pursued.
And if self-immolation is of questionable
value as an act of protest, what of suicide bombings, and other forms of
protest that involve not only suicide but murder? Here, the effectiveness of the action is not just reduced, it has become counter-productive: while committing murder certainly increases the
news-worthiness of your protest (suicide bombings make the news tickers almost
every day), it decreases any sympathy people may have for your cause.
Since the goal of extreme acts of protest is to draw attention to your cause, and it is desired that this attention bring more people into support of your position, neither self-immolation nor suicide bombing can be viewed as wise courses of action, although suicide bombing is certainly far worse: not only do you damage your cause, you entrench the culture of those you murder into deeper opposition, rendering it utterly counter-productive.
Neither murder nor suicide (with the
possible exception of the threat of suicide from hunger strike while imprisoned)
are effective forms of protest. Since they are not effective, they should never
The suicide bomber might also have the aim of taking as many of the enemy with them as possible.
Suicide bombing is more of an aggressive act than a protest act, in my view.
And while I don't have any first hand knowledge, I have to believe blowing one self up is "easier" than self-immolating. This, in my view, also detracts from the protest "worthiness" of suicide bombing.
Posted by: Neil | January 18, 2008 at 12:53 PM
I just wrote a long post then my computer crashed. Too bad. Here comes the short of it.
First you "assume" "we" should draw a line. Who should? why should they do this? How will they go about doing this? In whose interest? Who are "we"?I think these are all points that need some clarity before we can honestly start a discussion.
second, im weary of getting into a discussion that includes "violence". People use very varying notions of violence and we should sort that out beforehand otherwise we'll just miscommunicate. The notion of violence doesnt need to be universally true ,just acceptable for the discussion.
third, you raise the legitimate unligitimate flag a couple of times. to be honest im unwilling to discuss on those terms. I will refrain from commenting on these territories thinking that every new scenario, event etc, needs its own unique approach and has its own ethical/moral question which is/might be different for each party involved.
I do think that mostly these suicidal and hunger-strike acts are acts of force from the more pacifist minded. I personally think pacifism is a deeply flawed idea, but i really shouldnt elaborate on that. that would be for another discussion.
I've got more on mind but i already typed this twice so there you go! :)
Posted by: Sankofa | January 18, 2008 at 01:26 PM
Neil: "The suicide bomber might also have the aim of taking as many of the enemy with them as possible."
Hmm... except suicide bombing usually targets civilian targets, in accordance with usual terrorist agendas, so "enemy" must be a very broad (and weak) claim in this regard. I think it's still a form of protest - albeit both violent and despicable to my own tastes.
Is blowing oneself up easier than self-immolating? I'm not sure. It's easier to get petrol and other inflammables than descent explosives in my understanding.
Sankofa: alas, I know what's it's like to lose material in this way. My commiserations.
Your point 1: "First you "assume" "we" should draw a line."
"We" are the players in the Ethics Campaign. And yes, I make an assumption of a line of separation between protest and violence *somewhere* - dropping a nuclear bomb does not fit many people's definition of "protest" so there must be the capacity to draw a line, even if such a line is somewhat arbitrary (as all linguistic lines will be to some extent).
Point 2: yes, no definition of violence is provided here. Since this post is of the kind to foment discussion, this is meant as an opening for further discussion rather than a weakness of any case put forward.
Point 3: I only mention 'legitimate' in this one single context: "Hunger strike was considered a legitimate form of protest by Gandhi"
I can see nothing wrong with this, which is simply an attribution of legitimacy by Gandhi in the context of his system of non-violent protest, which we established previously.
So, in relation to point 2 the obvious follow up question is: does a distinction between protest and violence make sense? To answer "yes" is to inherently favour non-violence as protest, and to answer "no" is to inherently favour violence as a part of protest.
The former case draws its line at violence (next step: define violence), and the latter leaves open the question of where violent protest ceases to be protest and becomes something else (next step: define this boundary).
It is the nature of philosophy that all philosophy is at some level philosophy of language, and I make no apologies for leaving ambiguous some of the terms in pieces such as this one which are intended as stepping points for discussion. ;)
Thanks for the comments!
Posted by: Chris | January 18, 2008 at 03:51 PM
i know i can be nuisance in these things, but i feel it important to "show" where we are assuming things, but not obviously stating them (this depends on how aware you are of these things of course)I do not mean to suggest you should write without them because i do not believe this to be possible. merely wo understand.
Protest can be violent and violence can be protesting no matter on what scale. Scale is not the issue it seems to me. saying "it doesnt fit many people's definition of what is and what isnt a protest" is not an argument, i think you are aware of this.
You seem to want to seperate violence from protest where it is not necessary to do so. Both can live together BUT dont always have to do so of course. Saying that acknowledging this favors violence somehow seems strange, because a protest can also be peacful. We do not need to seperate the protest from the peace? to establish a line where the protest ends and becomes a hug-fest? or do we?
Im just weary of the violence debate. I had many debates on this topic that went nowhere but one REALLY REALLY good debate on it in which we first talked about what violence means to us. This worked amazingly well, and of course people still didnt agree on anything :) but they seemed to actually understand one another.
I think i understand your post a little better though after the third reading.
Posted by: Sankofa | January 18, 2008 at 05:14 PM
"people tend to see anyone willing to commit suicide in this way as mentally unbalanced, thus undercutting any value in bringing attention to the cause being pursued."
Are you sure about this, Chris? That's a pretty broad stroke you're painting with.
Of the 5 instances you quote, I remember only the last, but I remember it clearly. I respect the man's reasons for doing it and it DID leave a profound impression on me.
The reasons I don't remember the others? I wasn't born until 1971 and I'm an American. We aren't taught what happens in other countries - especially if it happens before we were born.
I don't subscribe to the idea that dying for a cause, or dying out of the sheer boredom of life qualifies as mentally unbalanced. In fact, I consider it one of the most sane decisions one can make.
In my opinion, it is shrugged off as unbalanced because if the masses must look at it for the cogent act that it is, they would have to look at the reason behind it. And that would require that they ask themselves why they aren't just as angry.
Posted by: Ophelea | January 18, 2008 at 06:42 PM
Seems like quite a personal post - maybe a few assumptions that seem reasonable in one's own worldview are making the commenters uneasy?
That aside, here's an easy distinction between violence and protest - the personal experience of the order of causality of conflict. One commits violence when there is no provocation, but when one is responding, it is protest.
That won't cover everything, obviously.
I think you could have included Emily Davison(the one who ran under the horses) to broaden the argument before concluding things - didn't she have tremendous effect?
My feeling is that when suicide is a form of protest, it need not be detremental if it is properly used by the movement it represents. There should be no question that sacrificing one's life for a cause can be a noble and sane undertaking. It just has to be protrayed that way - to be sold, if you will.
Suicide bombing I can see no reason to distinguish from any kind of bombing - its an act of war. Guerrilla war for independence is the only kind of war I can condone - I have to, it formed the basis of independence for my country! And by my definition above, it would be a form of protest.
Posted by: zenBen | January 18, 2008 at 08:26 PM
"Hmm... except suicide bombing usually targets civilian targets, in accordance with usual terrorist agendas, so "enemy" must be a very broad (and weak) claim in this regard."
I don't get this - only an army with the "legal" backing of its govt. is likely to worry about differentiating between civilian and non-civilian targets. Why would someone who was out to kill the enemy (e.g. the people they are fighting against) in the form of a suicide bomb bother looking for an army post (e.g. a combatant populace)?
Killing civilians (if you can even contemplate them being non-combatants by the time you are shouldering your bomb-laden backpack) would be more easily achievable and have a higher "terror component" than targeting a non-civilian populace/area.
I would say for the aspiring suicide bomber that "civilians" would be the ideal target.
And my comments about which of the awful ways of killing yourself would be "easier" was down to my own personal decision: faced with either the cans of petrol and a lighter or with a bomb pack and a detonator, I would find it "easier" to consider killing myself through explosion than immolation. Simply down to perceived length of agony.
Posted by: Neil | January 21, 2008 at 01:59 PM
Thanks for the comments everyone! A few preliminary remarks...
I've been short of time recently, but there's still a lot of material to get to. I tapped this one out as a quick supplement to the Civil Disobedience serial - I wanted to deal with the issue while we were still talking about non-violent protest, for obvious reasons. This post didn't take long to draft, and was largely stream of consciousness (as a lot of material here is). As such, I didn't spend as much effort as I could have done removing problem issues in the text.
I'll discuss some of those issues in a moment.
Sankova: "i know i can be nuisance in these things, but i feel it important to "show" where we are assuming things, but not obviously stating them"
Sure - go ahead and challenge assumptions. We don't shy away from such things here. :) This piece was rife with them, because I just tapped it out on the fly. If I'd been after a stronger point, I would have developed it in a suitable fashion - I was content to simply foster discussion.
"We do not need to separate the protest from the peace? to establish a line where the protest ends and becomes a hug-fest? or do we?"
Ha, yes, I take this point most certainly. :) My point really is: I've spent several weeks talking about some of the most effective protests that have ever taken place in the world. They were peaceful. I believe peaceful protest is generally more effective than violent protest - although I also acknowledge that there are times when (to quote Peter Gabriel) "pacifism is a luxury we can afford" ('we' being the Western nations).
Ophelia: Great to hear from you! You say, in respect to my claim that people see suicide as unbalanced:
"Are you sure about this, Chris? That's a pretty broad stroke you're painting with."
Yeah, when I don't qualify terms like "people" I assume that other people will read this as implicitly saying "some but not all people". If I meant everyone, I would say everyone. If I say "people" I usually mean something like "a broad majority of people".
However, I think you must at some level agree with what I meant, since you later say:
"In my opinion, it is shrugged off as unbalanced because if the masses must look at it for the cogent act that it is, they would have to look at the reason behind it."
...which tacitly presumes the same assumption as me.
But of course, I do not mean to suggest for a moment that suicide is necessarily mentally unbalanced - I believe euthanasia can be ethical, for instance, although this is a totally separate debate to be sure. ;)
zenBen: I confess, I didn't remember the Suffragettes when I wrote this up. They used imprisonment and hunger strikes as their primary methods - Emily Davidson was a special case, and it's not a certainty that this was suicide, so much as a very risky protest that cost Emily her life. She stepped out in front of the King's horse at a derby. She had purchased a return ticket to Epsom that day, which isn't consistent with the interpretation of suicide as protest.
I'm certainly not saying that one shouldn't be willing to put one's life on the line for a cause - I am saying that suicide as protest squanders a human life that might be better employed in other forms of protest.
I'm not sure your distinction in terms of response is appropriate, though - it means that when a conflict descends into spiralling retaliation, both sides can claim "protest".
As for Guerilla warfare for independence, well as you say, here we are talking war, not protest per se. And I note, in the case of the IRA, that their case became much stronger when they stopped bombing and killing without warning, and began providing sufficient notification of their bomb attacks. It helped shift the public perception away from an intractable enemy, and into a place where the relevant issues might be heard.
My apologies for any issues that I missed in this quick round up - I have to get to work!
Thanks for taking the time to comment everyone!
Posted by: Chris | January 21, 2008 at 02:34 PM
"in the case of the IRA, that their case became much stronger when they stopped bombing and killing without warning, and began providing sufficient notification of their bomb attacks."
A later struggle than the one I was talking about. Michael Collins and his crew, the Hollywood movie notwithstanding, were a fairly uncompromising bunch of savages and killers. Still, they didn't go after too many civilian targets (although unarmed RIC constabulary aren't far off). But they conducted a campaign of terror at a time when that kind of thing was much rarer, so its effectiveness might have been greater even though its violence and indiscriminate-ness were much lower than some later conflicts...
Anyway, thats ancient history now, and way off topic!
Posted by: zenBen | January 21, 2008 at 03:48 PM