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The Dilemma of Non-Violence

by Nathan Segars

The efforts in the United States toward righting the wrongs performed by the privileged upon the oppressed, has had a history both famous and infamous. The struggle has had its moments of joy and triumph. That said, social justice has not come so far as one might have hoped. For the purposes of this paper, attention is given to the inequalities between black and white America. The economic realities are undeniable. The political barriers are still in place. Educational opportunity continues to be elusive for African-American families. One's 'blackness' remains a factor to the average American psyche.

In so many years shouldn't we expect more? Are the means by which social injustice has been confronted the right tools for the job? If so, are they being used in a manner fitting their function? In this paper, I will be addressing the latter of these questions. It is my contention that there has been much confusion about just what the chosen methods of bringing social justice are all about. Further, if this confusion could be cleared up, I expect there might be a greater hesitancy in enjoining those methods. I do not intend to criticize the project of condemning racial inequality as it has most often been advanced. I only wish to expose the nature of that project so that a fair assessment is available for those who endorse it. My proposal is to show violence to be a necessary part of non-violent resistance, the popular effort to peacefully relieve racial injustice.[1]


There have been various positions on the prospect of ending white dominance over blacks.[2] As we will examine non-violent resistance as the most popular American effort to overturn racial injustice, I turn to the ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr. King was influenced by the teaching and practices of Mohandas Gandhi in his work for civil rights in America. The ruling principles behind Gandhi's work in India and South Africa were the Hindu ideal of ahimsa and the concept of satyagraha.[3] Ahimsa may be generally understood as the respect for all life. Satyagraha literally means 'holding to truth,' but as an activity it is resistance of the present order with the principle of ahimsa in mind for the sake of positive social results. The lessons learned from Gandhi's non-violent struggles with the British government lent a great deal of optimism and momentum to the vision of King and others in America. Non-violence in both protests and marches became an identifying mark of the civil rights movement. Volunteers for the cause were schooled in the doctrine of non-violent resistance. They were taught how to respond to force peacefully. They were taught that this type of resistance would ultimately overcome the powers of oppression.

But how peaceful was this non-violent resistance? Is 'non-violent resistance' a possibility at all? The language of King leaves one to wonder. There is an ambivalence in how the movement in America was presented. King described the non-violent demonstrations as an intentional move 'to create a situation... crisis-packed.'[4] He talks of progress made by the movement as the result of 'non-violent pressure.'[5] He concedes that 'freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.'[6] The tension in these phrases comes from the mixing of language that suggests both aggression and non-aggression. It suggests something that is at the same time forceful and peaceful. The movement was designed to force conciliation of some sort from the oppressive ruling culture. While there was always strict caution placed on inciting violence, the quest for freedom seems laced with implications of at least a subtle form of violence.

But is this a fair reading? Are we being unjust in squeezing out a rare drop or two of latent force and connecting it with violence? Does this really indicate that force lay at the source of the civil rights movement? Clearly this sounds foreign to ears that have grown accustomed to descriptions of non-violent protests and the stories of volunteers subjected to police cruelty for their peaceful demonstrations. Perhaps, though, we should consider a broader notion of 'violence' than the common notion associated only with physical harm. If there is a more appropriate way to think about violence, it may apply to the methods used in non-violent resistance.


To assist us along these lines I turn to the work of Howard McGary and his distinction between physical and psychological violence.[7] We are quite adept at recognizing physical violence when we see it, but psychological violence often fails to register as strongly in our minds. McGary reminds us that violence may have other forms that are just as damaging.

To do violence to someone is to injure that person, but persons can be injured in two basic ways: we can injure someone by physically abusing that person and we can injure someone by causing that person's psychological distress... Psychological violence often results from the misuse of others through the manipulation of their emotions and feelings.[8]

The context of McGary's explanation of psychological violence is its abundant use in marginalizing people along racial lines. While physical violence has certainly been a part of African-American history, many suggest that it is the psychological violence that has done more damage over the years.

It can safely be assumed that there is such a thing as psychological violence. The question is whether it can be fairly associated with the non-violent teaching of King and others. Could the methods of civil resistance have psychologically violent effects on the oppressive culture to which it responds? I believe the answer is 'yes.' My justification for this conclusion calls on the essentially violent nature of self-defense.

It is ironic, given our present discussion, that McGary's work in declaring the seriousness of psychological violence as compared to physical violence is placed in the context of self-defense. His concern is to show that self-defense by African-Americans is a legitimate, warranted response to the psychological violence found in the prevalent denial of human rights.[9] What is most important to us from his argument is the open assumption that self-defense is a kind of violence.[10] If self-defense may come in the form of physical violence, it can just as certainly come in the form of psychological violence. Where a physical response to a threat might be ineffective, it is likely that psychological self-defense would be opted for to prevent further harm from an attacker.

I want to reiterate my earlier disclaimer that however psychologically violent we may find King's program to have been, I am not suggesting in the least that it met the level of violence used by the oppressive white culture. My contention is only that a measure of violence is necessary to the non-violent resistance taught by King and others, even in self-defense. While McGary argues that a violent response in self-defense is morally permissible, I leave that issue to others.

How, then, may the self-defense of King's resistance be seen as violent? What harm could be said to be brought upon others by non-violent resistance? What effect did marches and demonstrations have on the oppressive culture in a psychologically violent way? The answers to these questions may come from looking into the intention of non-violent resistance is in its particular usages.

Take for example a sit-in at a lunch counter that refuses to serve blacks in the same manner as whites. What's the purpose of the sit-in? The goal is to change the policy of the establishment or at least thrust the unjust policy into the public eye. In either case, psychological force is clearly in play. If the owners are put under enough pressure by the demonstrators and the negative attention brought by them, whatever the outcome may be, psychological distress is placed on those owners. If the example is changed to a higher profile exercise of non-violent resistance, the level of psychological pressure also rises. This being the case, when non-violent resistance is put on a national stage, the psychological force placed on government officials and citizens, even those on the periphery, could be called an act of violence. Again, it might not reach the level of violence motivating the oppressed demonstrators, but it is a clear instance of violence.

The bottom line for King is that his movement purposefully used psychological force as a means of deliverance from oppression. Next to the social structures he was concerned to cast off, his acts were decidedly mild and even peaceful. As a method of self-defense against a daily burden of racial discrimination however, non-violent resistance is in reality nothing more than a creative form of protective, psychological violence.


There are two objections I should consider before closing. One is the objection that the psychological pressure of non-violent resistance does not actually constitute harm in a real sense. The second is not actually an objection, but rather an offer of a true non-violent alternative to overcoming racial division through educational discourse. In either case, I believe total avoidance of violence to be too optimistic.

The first objection admits psychological pressure as a part of the strategy of non-violence, but denies that it rises to the level of a true harm. It may be true that from the viewpoint of the oppressed there is not much for the oppressors to complain about in giving up whatever hold they have on a suffering people. Yielding the former dominance of white culture in the workplace does not threaten the human rights of whites in the way the presence of that dominance has threatened the human rights of blacks. However, this does not mean that some real loss does not accompany that change. Very real harms, both tangible and intangible, are made by white culture in allowing equality and just treatment for others. In the category of tangible things, equal opportunity means that white job seekers and college applicants will encounter lower chances of being hired or accepted than before. Intangibly, a sense of losing hold of a superior position in society can have deep effects.

The second objection presents an option that does not carry the psychological harms of non-violent resistance. As a representative of this option, I look to a suggestion by Robert Gooding-Williams.[11] His proposal is a multicultural, 'race conscious' education that will enable students to interact and listen to other perspectives, ultimately changing the dominating social structure into one that is more aware and sensitive to multiple cultures.[12] The goal is a blending of cultures that follows from the natural progression of discourse rather than revolutionary upheaval and violence.

Acquiring a know-how and a feel for cross-cultural hermeneutical conversation is likely to reinforce a student's inclination to understand and learn from the self-interpretations of cultural 'others...' In the case of multicultural education, one cultivates a skill which is motivationally conducive to the sort of mutual understanding that is critical to the flourishing of deliberative democracy in a multicultural society.[13]

By this means, people are to come to a recognition of the cultures around them and a deeper recognition of their own culture as a part of the resultant blend of cultures in a community.

This is a beautiful picture of democratic society. But as with most beautiful pictures, it is also quite naive. The social reality of our situation, democratic or not, stands in the way. In the first place, the amount of time necessary to produce a society that fully recognizes multiple cultures and their value in this manner would be horrible to endure. King was firm in his claim that we had waited too long, endured too much.[14] The slow process of multicultural education, even if it were successful, would have to achieve its end student by student, year by year. It would have to overcome counter influences from the generations of status quo that would vilify such an education. It is a long and painful history to be surmounted by such a methodical and tenuous process.

Secondly, the absence of violence in some form from such a discourse is not only unlikely, but perhaps even a hindrance to such a project. Can we really expect that such vastly different cultures can be put in such a vulnerable setting and not encounter some moment of offense? Ours may be too painful a history to expect so benign a resolution.

Additionally, Judith Butler has a further point to make on the prospect of this beautiful picture of cultural blending. One of the reasons multicultural conversation often seems so difficult is that it often turns on such moments, ones that can quickly become paralyzing, tempting the 'rational' speaker back into his or her own linguistic stable... But this break can operate as a violent inauguration of a new understanding as well, one that must break with dialogue in order to begin it again. Importing this sort of violence into the hermeneutic scheme may well allow us to develop a view that prizes the 'we' as a condition and effect of dialogue without sacrificing the mobilizing force of difference.[15]

That is, violence seems to be an unavoidable part of the discourse of multicultural recognition. It may be a lower lever of violence than that experienced by oppressed people, but it is violence nonetheless.


Recall the question I said would provide the impetus for this essay: Are the means by which social injustice is confronted in our society being used in a way that fits their function? I believe we have found the answer to that question to be 'no.' The assumption that a nation with such a violent past in regard to racial discrimination can be brought to task through non-violent means is rather Polly Anna-ish. Further, many who have worked most effectively for civil rights and stumped for such non-violent means have in reality made use of violence to overcome violence.[16]

This leaves those who endorse non-violent resistance with a dilemma. On one side is the recognition that violence is part and parcel with the struggle for racial equality. As intimated earlier I make no judgments about whether that's a good or bad thing. I only suggest that those who are truly interested in non-violence will probably not be so enthusiastic to sign on. On the other side is a rejection of all violence, 'non-violent' resistance included. The problem with this side is that it does not appear to offer any real hope of ending injustice at all. If for the sake of avoiding violence we shun the former efforts of equalizing black and white culture, we may have put ourselves in the position of just having to live in a world where black culture is exploited and repressed. Perhaps the only course for the second option is to wait for those not opposed to violence to fight the battle instead. Whatever route is taken, it seems that violence must be relied upon in one form or another to bring the resultant healing that has been the desire of so many for so long.


1. I will be avoiding here the methodologies of assimilation and emigration as they are neither the popularly adopted means nor concerned for a true resolution to oppression. Nevertheless, I would argue that the common feature of violence is also part of these movements.

2. For a helpful overview of the major strains of thought behind movements toward resolving issues between black and white culture, cf. Cornel West Prophecy Deliverance! (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), pp 69-91. The position of non-violent civil resistance could be motivated by either the 'marginal tradition' or 'humanist tradition' he speaks of.

3. Ahimsa is also associated with other Eastern religions such as Jainism and Buddhism.

4. Martin Luther King, Jr. 'Letter from Birmingham Jail,' in Expanding Philosophical Horizons, Max O. Hallman, ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1995), p 251.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. This is found in Howard McGary, 'Psychological Violence, Physical Violence, and Racial Oppression,' in Reflections: An Anthology of African-American Philosophy, James A. Montmarquet and William H. Hardy, eds. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2000). This distinction is certainly no discovery of McGary's, but it is his use of that distinction which makes it especially interesting to this discussion.

8. Ibid. p 210.

9. Ibid. p 212.

10. Ibid. pp 211ff.

11. Robert Gooding-Williams, 'Race, Multiculturalism and Democracy' in Race, Robert Bernasconi, ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001).

12. Ibid. p 249.

13. Ibid. pp 249-50, his italics.

14. King, p 251.

15. Judith Butler, 'A Reply to Robert Gooding-Williams' in Bernasconi, p 264.

16. I don't find this to be a surprising discovery given what we find among the great minds of early work toward conciliation in this country. Such variant outlooks on the prospects of black culture in America as W. E. B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington, for all their disagreement, agreed on this point at least in practice: Whatever true gains African-Americans make in this society, it will be made by taking it for themselves. Even though Dubois and especially Washington tended to frame the race situation as a battle of black culture with itself, the oppressive work of white culture is what made that internal battle the difficult fight that it is. Recognizing how hard a task it would be to avoid violence in overcoming racial injustice, one can appreciate the honesty of those like Malcolm X. Though delivered in brash tones, his assessment recalls the realization of Nietzsche that power and position are only obtained by some means of exercising power. If something is forcibly taken from you, forcible means are the only recourse to getting it back, whatever subtle form of force you may choose.

© Nathan Segars 2006