Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Case for Pacifism: Why Threats Can't Produce Good Results (2 of 7)

This is the second part of a seven-part series on pacifism. Click here to go back to the first post in the series.

In my last post, I presented evidence that violence is not an effective solution to any major social problem. Evidence is good and all, but it doesn’t mean anything to us until we can make sense of it. So for this post, I’m going to begin addressing the question, “Why doesn’t violence work?”

But before we tackle that question, we have to ask a prior question: “Why do people use violence in the first place?” I realize that that’s a pretty big question, and that there are a wide range of reasons why people resort to violence, but for this series, I am focusing specifically on what I call justifiable violence [E1], violence which people claim is necessary for some greater good.

I believe that all of us use justifiable violence is used for one of two reasons: we either (1) seek to compel people to cooperate with us by threatening them with it, or (2) we seek to eliminate people who threaten us by killing or otherwise incapacitating them. Today, I am going to explain why threatening people is not an effective way to achieve cooperation. In my next post, I'll explain why individuals and societies can't get rid of their problem by killing the people who seem to be causing it.

Now, threatening people with violence sounds like a pretty negative and extreme action, but in reality, it is used by a wide variety of people in many different situations. For example, when parents calmly sit down and explain to their children that they will be spanked if they break a certain rule, this qualifies as a violent threat (although admittedly a mild one). When police officers give orders to civilians, they may not be explicitly threatening them, but the combination of their weapons and their uniforms convey the message that they are authorized and enabled to use "force" if such citizens don't comply. This too is a threat. And, of course, there are more blatant examples, such as when a bully threatens to beat someone up if he doesn't hand over his lunch money. All of these are threats of various kinds.

At first glance, threats seem to be very effective at achieving their goals. When an officer points a gun at someone's head and yells, "Freeze!", most people comply. Why? Because we don't want to get shot! For the same reason, children will at least appear to obey their parents to avoid getting spanked, and many students hand their lunch money over to bullies to avoid getting beat up. The same thing occurs on a bigger international scale as well. For example, one army will surrender to another when it realizes that it has been outmatched. [E2] 

Even I can't deny that in these kinds of situations, violence works. The threat of violence does produce results; it can get people to cooperate against their wishes in the short term. After all, most of us will do just about anything to avoid harm or death. But all of the evidence that I presented in my previous post demonstrates that in the long term, threats can't maintain these results. A citizen may comply with a police officer when a gun is pointed at her head, but the moment that threat is removed, she'll go right back to what she was doing before. In fact, she may feel so humiliated by the experience that it could double her resolve to break the law. Or she may decide that she needs to invest in weapons so that she can fight back against the police. Or she may work harder at finding ways to hide her behavior so that the police won't catch her the next time. However she responds, threats do not convince belligerents that their behavior is unwise, morally wrong, or intrinsically harmful. Consequently, the moment they feel like they can resume their behavior without experiencing harm, they will. [E3]

To summarize, I acknowledge that threatening people with violence can compel obedience, stop crime, and make people feel safer in the short term, but in the long term, invoking violence comes back to bite those who wield it. People who are threatened eventually find ways to rebel, and their rebellion is usually more fierce after they have been threatened than it was before. But defenders of violence might point out that there is a way to deal with this problem of escalation: what if you kill or permanently disable people who won't cooperate with you? Well, that doesn't work either. It will be the subject of my next post.


[E1] For example, some people hurt others to get revenge, even though they have nothing to gain by it. Other people lash out when they are feeling emotional, and their actions are not necessarily aimed at controlling people. And there are even a few people who find pleasure in harming others. None of these examples fit within my explanation about why people use justifiable violence. But none of these are examples are appropriate uses of violence by any standard, including people who argue that violence is sometimes necessary or good. So there is no need for me to spend time in this post explaining why vengeance, blind rage, and sadism are bad things.

Just to be clear, I call some acts of violence justifiable because I recognize that there are significant arguments that can be raised to defend them as morally appropriate. But I do not consider them to be justified – otherwise, I wouldn’t be a pacifist.

[E2] In a battle, at least. But I don't believe that military tactics (by themselves) can win a war. Our history books tend to mislead us about this, as they typically identify the end of wars with certain battles. For example, American history books often depict the Battle of Yorktown as the event that ended the Revolutionary War, due to the fact that the British were pinned between French troops and Washington's army. That is very misleading, to say the least. A closer look at the history will reveal that there were still several battles on land and at sea (especially in Virginia and the Caribbean). Moreover, it's not as though the British felt that the Americans had a stronger army then them and just gave up. They still had the strongest military in the world by the end of the American Revolution. Instead, they decided that fighting to maintain dominance over these colonies wasn't worth the cost. Leading thinkers like Adam Smith were arguing that it would be just as advantageous for the British Empire to have a free trade agreement with America than to maintain dominance over them, key British politicians like Edmond Burke were criticizing various aspects of British rule, and the morale of soldiers overseas was lowering, not just due to the fact that they weren't winning, but due to the fact that they were so far from home for such an extended period of time. I think that the Continental Army won the war, not through superior military skills but through superior resilience, which is a nonviolent feature. I would also argue that treaties, rather than battles, should mark the end of wars in our history books. Instead, they are treated more like epilogues.

[E3] That being said, I will acknowledge that there are situations in which violence is invoked, and it eventually leads to reconciliation. Children who are spanked don’t always resent their parents – sometimes, they come to see the wisdom of their discipline. Some criminals who were forced to go to prison because a police officer pointed a gun at their head have a transformative experience in prison, and they may even thank the officer. But in those kinds of cases, I would argue that the violence was not working by itself. What led to the positive results were the other factors paired with violence: the teaching that accompanied the spanking, the desire to please one’s parents, the time to reflect on one’s life, the positive encouragement one received in prison, etc. And since the other factors were ultimately what lead to the positive results, despite the negative impact that the violence has, that makes me ask – what would happen if we removed the violence from the equation and only relied on these more effective components that lead to change?   

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Case for Pacifism: Nonviolence is More Effective than Violence (1 of 7)

This is the first post of seven-part series on pacifism.

Three years ago, I started writing a blog series that tried to explain why I am a pacifist. The arguments were pretty solid (in my biased opinion), but something wasn’t working about the series. It wasn’t persuasive. It wasn’t elegant. It was too… theoretical. Yes, that was the problem: it was too theoretical.  In the end, it didn’t matter how good I could make pacifism sound in theory. After all, the reason that most people reject pacifism is not because they question its philosophical foundations, but because common sense tells them that we need the threat of force in order to survive in this world. I mean, how else are you supposed to deal with criminals who have no regard for the law? How else can you defend yourself from “a bad guy with a gun”? How else can genocidal dictators be stopped? In all of these cases, common sense tells us that violent force is the only thing that can keep these evil people and actions in check.

However, common sense has been known to be wrong, from time to time. [E1]

Therefore, I am going to begin my rebooted pacifism series by attacking this issue head-on. Contrary to what common sense tells us, I am going to argue that nonviolent methods are more effective at resisting evil and encouraging good than violent methods are. [E2] I believe that there is a great deal of evidence that supports this. So, rather than arguing from religion or philosophy, I’m just going to appeal to facts: studies, surveys, statistics, and a few concrete examples that show that violent approaches to a range of social problems are not particularly effective:

1. Physical punishment (such as spanking) is not an effective way to discipline children. Many parents use physical punishment as a tool to keep their children from misbehaving. Now – hear me carefully – I don’t think this makes them bad parents. I was spanked a few times as a child, and when this happened, it wasn’t because my father was angry or wanted to hurt me, but because he hoped it would deter me from misbehaving again. And it can work – in the short run. A child who has been spanked will avoid repeating the behavior for a few weeks. However, there have over 80 studies that have shown that spanking does not work in the long haul. [E3] Some children get used to it, others focus on hiding their behavior from their parents, and a high percentage of children who are spanked are more likely to become violent themselves. For these reasons, the American Psychological Association recommends against using it. [E4]

Oh, and by the way, this doesn’t just apply to children. The most recent veterinary studies have shown that physical punishment is not even an effective way to discipline dogs! [E5]

2. The threat of violence is not an effective way to reduce crime. Many people believe that the most effective way for societies to prevent crime is by threatening to punish lawbreakers physically. The idea is that people will be less likely to break the law if they know that they could be hurt or killed for doing it. This is the kind of common-sense thinking that justifies the death penalty in the United States: many states are afraid that, if they were to remove the death penalty, crime would rise. However, study after study has shown that the death penalty does not significantly reduce the crime rate. [E6] On the contrary, the death penalty may contribute to the rise of crime because criminals are more desperate to resist getting caught. One study has shown that police officers are more likely to be killed in states that have the death penalty than in those that do not. [E7] And this is not just liberal propaganda either. Based on this information, about 88% of criminologists do not believe that the death penalty is an effective deterrent. [E8]

3. The threat of violence (via owning a weapon) is not an effective way to defend yourself. “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This is the mantra of the NRA, which encourages people to buy guns in order to protect themselves. I certainly understand the logic behind this: If an armed psychopath walked into a school or a mall with the intention of killing strangers, I would feel much safer if I or someone I trusted had a gun in their possession to stop this person. Of course, these situations are very rare. In the meantime, during the 99.99% of the time when the average American is not confronted with a mass shooting, possessing a gun makes it more likely that children could get a hold of the gun, that a “good guy” with a gun will incorrectly identify someone as a threat or accidently fire the weapon, or that a non-lethal confrontation will escalate into a lethal one because of the presence of guns. One longitudinal study showed that for every 1% increase in gun ownership in a community, there is a 0.7% increase in homicides. [E9] And even in those rare cases in which a psychopath intends to kill strangers and a gun could be useful, there have been plenty of cases in which unarmed people have used nonviolent means to stop violent crimes from occurring. Consider, for example, the methods used by Antoinette Tuff and Howard Swick to stop school shootings. [E10]

4. Violent revolutions are not very effective at stopping oppressive governments. Surely, if there is any scenario in which violence is justified, it is when you have to use it to stop an oppressive government. I won’t deny that there are some truly evil dictators out there who have the intention and the power to commit horrible atrocities. [E11] When faced with this evil, several of history’s greatest pacifists have given up their idealism and accepted the necessity of using violence as a “necessary evil.”

But in the middle of the twentieth century, a nonviolent method for resisting dictators emerged which has proven to be more effective than engaging in battle. Most people have heard of Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns in India, but they are not aware at this approach has developed, spread, and been successfully used in many of the most oppressive regimes around the world. In 2011, two political scientists analyzed all of the conflicts of the twentieth century and discovered – to their surprise – that nonviolent revolutions were twice as likely to succeed in their goals than violent revolutions were. [E12] Consequently, even in the face of evil dictators, nonviolence is more effective.


So there you go: I just presented a sampling of the massive empirical evidence which shows that nonviolent methods are more effective at solving a range of problems than violent ones are. Individually, these studies may seem to address various policy issues, but collectively, they make the case that there violence itself is an ineffective option. In my next post, I’ll start to move from evidence to analysis, explaining why I believe that violence is ineffective, without yet invoking my religious views.

Of course, I realize that if you weren’t a pacifist going into this post, you probably still have several questions and reservations. As everyone knows, studies and statistics can be flawed. And so I invite you to raise questions and critiques to the evidence I presented (in a respectful manner, of course). My goal for this post was not to convince you that pacifism is right, but to convince you that there is enough evidence for its effectiveness that it deserves to be taken seriously. If I’ve accomplished that, I hope you’ll continue dialoguing with me through the rest of this blog series.


[E1] Actually, common sense has proven to be wrong a lot. Just think about some of the major scientific discoveries that have disproven common sense: When Copernicus suggested that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the sun revolving around the earth, that defied the common sense idea that the sun was actually moving, which everyone thought they were observing every day. Many of our theories about time and space and matter defy common sense. For example, the concept that very solid objects such as rocks consist primarily of empty space (because they are made up of atoms, 99% of which are empty space), defies common sense. This is why Albert Einstein once said, “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by the age of 18.”

[E2] The philosopher within me is squirming as I type this. I am aware that I am framing this as an objective claim which I can prove, but from a philosophical perspective, I recognize that the statistics and surveys that I am presenting are all theory-laden, and that you cannot completely resolve debates like this by appealing to “the facts.” Even so, I think “effectiveness” is a useful category, and there is enough overlap in different concepts of effectiveness that I can get away with using it now before I define it more narrowly (through an ideological lens) later.

[E9] The article is entitled, “Examining the relationship between the prevalence of guns and homicide rates in the USA using a new and improved state-level gun ownership proxy” from the journal Injury Prevention, first published on April 16, 2014. You can see a link to the abstract at I got the statistics from this link, which cited that article.

[E10] Antoinette Tuff was the book keeper at a school in Decatur, Georgia in 2014, when a gunman walked in with the intention of shooting children in the school. She talked him down with words of love. You can see her story here. Howard Swick was a pastor who was called into a hostage situation in Barbour County, West Virginia in 2015, and was able to convince a gunman to put down his gun so that he could give him a hug. You can see that story here.

[E11] Perhaps the most famous of these is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist theologian who decided to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

[E12] “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict” by Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth. Chenowath also has a great Ted Talk on this subject, which you can see here: