It is common nowadays to hear proponents of change and modern liberalism claim that non-violence is the only legitimate means of resistance to oppression. While that claim may have some merit (that question can be bracketed and returned to in the future if the need arises), it is the claim which inevitably follows that I want to address. With almost eerie regularity, almost every single modern pacifist will inevitably tack on, or implicitly hold to be true, the following claim: since non-violence is the only legitimate means of resistance to oppression, there is no use in having weapons for they [insert anti-weapon logic here]. The issue with this train of thought is that it implies that pacifism is synonymous with disarmament when that it simply not the case.
In what follows, I shall argue that pacifism is not synonymous with disarmament, something the great pacifist idol Gandhi recognized (albeit in a convoluted and culture specific way), and that armed pacifism is preferable to disarmed pacifism both for ensuring the safety of marginalized groups as well as enacting change.
Pacifism (and we shall bracket more complex discussions of pacifism as it relates to different ontologies), as is commonly used, is defined as
The belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable under any circumstances, and that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means (x)
An important thing to note when considering the above definition is that no normative statement regarding the possession of weapons is made. In other words, if I exact political change via intellectual debate, while just so happening to have a .22 Magnum in my pocket, I have used pacifism to secure change for I have not engaged in any violent action. Given the fact that pacifistic change can still occur whilst in possession of a weapon, we can reasonably conclude that pacifism does not inherently dictate disarmament. To go back to the nod to Gandhi above; this is an already recognized fact of pacifism.
Ignoring the issues with Gandhi and focusing just on the pacifist ideology, Gandhi’s realist nature begins to shed light on the extent to which his philosophy of satyagraha applies to others. For Gandhi, there was a strong and weak form of satyahraha; the former dictated never laying a hand on a weapon, as shown by his saying “a rifle this hand will never fire”(x), whereas the latter was more realist in nature. Specifically, Gandhi viewed cowardice and weakness to be paramount faults and “would rather see a person use violent force in self-defense than be passive”(x). This interesting fact, combined with the above example of political change occurring while possessing, but not using, a weapon seem to provide strong evidence for the non-mutual exclusivity of pacifism and armament.
The following, however, is where Gandhi and the disarmed pacifists will disagree with me. Ignoring cowardice and weakness, I maintain that armed pacifism is preferable to disarmed pacifism both for ensuring the safety of marginalized groups as well as enacting change. Before continuing, however, it will be useful to provide my own definition of armed pacifism. Armed pacifism can be defined most easily as the belief that non-violence, including armed deterrence, is morally preferable to violence in exacting change, but the latter is not entirely ethically impermissible if used defensively. In other words, violence is discouraged while deterrence is encouraged.
Looking out at the world today, we see non-violent, unarmed protests all the time. In fact, they are so common that there is practically one in at least one city every day. The question thus becomes, are they effective? No. From the Occupy Wall Street protests to the recent race protests, unarmed citizens have been brutalized by armed police forces. We have seen no ‘Feinsteinian’ psychological shift in the way the armed treat the unarmed, for power does not simply concede when confronted with held hands and flowers. While ideologically sexy, unarmed resistance is no longer practical, and although unarmed protests have seemingly been the driving force behind historical change (while I don’t agree with Peter Gelderloos on pretty much anything, I think his analysis here is spot on), the conditions have shifted such that the unarmed model is untenable if change is to occur.
“What is the alternative, then?” a reasonable person might ask. Armed pacifism. Armed pacifism (or soft militarism as I’ve called it elsewhere) is not a “Molotov Cocktail at the precinct” ideology, but rather is a “stoic and calm show of force” without the necessary usage of force.
It’s true that power corrupts, and without a clear and present deterrent against an increasingly militarized police force, it is naïve to assume a couple hashtags or Facebook posts will stop abuses of authority…There’s an old saying that goes “might makes right” that, although I don’t know if I agree with it as a structuring principle, I think applies uniquely and especially well to the citizen-police situation in this country…Political power, while derived in the abstract from individuals, grows out of the barrel of a gun (yes, I did just plagiarize from a communist) and asking an oppressive force to stop attacking you is akin to asking the school bully to stop taking your lunch money…At the end of the day, you only have two cheeks to turn…After that, a solid punch sends the bully on his way…Although not ideal, a unified but resolute display of force is what deters would be aggressors and saves lives (x)
Being resolute and calm, while still being armed, allows protestors to send a clear signal to would be aggressor: we want to protest peacefully, but will protect ourselves if need be. This form of militarism is starkly different from the stereotypical view the world knows. Armed pacifism is a defensive and deterrent ideology focused on maintaining peace through superior firepower. Following the age old axiom that says bullies pick on those who are weaker than them, armed pacifism levels the playing field so as to discourage obscene and unjustified abuses of power. The instant you show that you have the ability to fight back, the rules of the game change and deterrence theory comes directly into play. If one buys the assumptions of pacifism, namely that humans are on some level rational, a would-be aggressor will not attack an individual who is capable of defending themselves. Despite the names, what offensive realism is to international relations, armed pacifism is to interpersonal relations.
Note: This view is entirely antithetical to the ignorant and overzealous individuals who jump on the train of militarism and loot stores and burn buildings, the very actions that justify increased police militarization. Armed pacifism does not advocate offensive action, rather defensive action to keep the peace, and while deterrence is like walking a razor’s edge, that does not mean it cannot be done.
You can sing and march and lock arms all you want, but at the end of the day without a pistol on your waist or a shotgun on your back, you’re at the mercy of those with power. As Malcolm X once said, “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.” (x)
Finally, in keeping with my love of movies and desire to tie pop-culture back to my writings, I think the following scene from the 2014 film Captain America: The Winter Soldier sums up armed pacifism nicely.