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 http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/early/2014/04/16/injuryprev-2014-041187.full. I got the statistics from this link, which cited that article. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2015/01/good_guy_with_a_gun_myth_guns_increase_the_risk_of_homicide_accidents_suicide.html

[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.  http://www.npr.org/2014/01/31/268417580/how-one-womans-faith-stopped-a-school-shooting. 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. http://crimewatchdaily.com/2015/08/27/wv-school-shooting-averted-with-help-of-heroic-teacher-pastor-says-superintendent/

[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. http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/IS3301_pp007-044_Stephan_Chenoweth.pdf Chenowath also has a great Ted Talk on this subject, which you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJSehRlU34w


Anonymous said...

Very good post. I have to comment mainly on one part, and that is the part about the ineffectiveness of spanking children. This is a topic my husband and I disagree on and have talked about a lot. We are bringing a son into this world and I am scared about using any sort of physical discipline on him. I personally was spanked a handful of times as a child and not even really by my parents but by babysitters actually, from what I remember, and all I have learned from my experiences with that is that it traumatized me from an early age. The trauma affects me every single day. I'm not saying that every person who is spanked finds it traumatic later on, but I know of a lot of people who have had it affect them like it affected me and not only does it traumatize the hell out of children in the moment (whether that lasts into adulthood or not is different for each), but it can cause complete confusion in them about physical violence and in general how to treat others. Spanking a child teaches them that bigger, stronger people can and have the right to hit smaller, weaker people. A child who is already vulnerable due to their age and immaturity level does not need to be shown that those who are unable to protect themselves are allowed to be physically hit by those who have the authority to assess whether or not what they did was wrong. The line between what is wrong and right can be very difficult to discern in many cases and not every person who makes this judgment has seen all sides or understands the entire situation to the point that a definite wrong and right can even be established. Even when the wrong is correctly and officially determined, hitting seems like the absolute backwards thing to do to a child who has done something clearly wrong in my opinion. Spanking is a violent act, even when done with "love". The issue my husband has with NOT spanking our children is that they will be hellions that have no self-discipline. I believe there are ways to teach and instill self-discipline without the use of physical force, but my husband (a gun advocate and has no problems in the idea of turning to violence to protect the ones he loves if their lives are threatened) seems to think that spanking is the only effective way of doing so. I'm scared to traumatize my child like I was. I personally will never spank him. I don't know how to convince my husband to never do that as well. I am worried about my son's well-being. My husband has said it would be the absolutely last resort for him when it comes to disciplining him, but I don't want it to be a last resort ever, I don't want it to even be an option. He is aware of how it has traumatized me and how it affects me every day, and yet he doesn't see the warning signs of why we shouldn't do that to our child. My husband is a good man and even being a gun advocate he has never resorted to violence for anything since I've known him, but he has been in fights growing up and doesn't see anything wrong with teaching our son to fight if the situation calls for it. It's a tough call for me. I'd like to believe we don't need violence in this world to get points across. But America and many other parts of the world has violence so ingrained in the culture that it's hard to imagine a world where there aren't people beating up the "bad guys" and fighting wars to protect our people. Your post here has given me much to think about and I found it quite intriguing. Perhaps, in your future posts, some insight on alternative reactions to violence (in parenting AND in a larger global sense) would give me more insight to the best way to approach my issues with my husband on this topic. Looking forward to the next post.

Brian Bither said...

Thanks for sharing about your powerful, personal experiences. One of the shortcomings of this post is that I did not identify nonviolent alternatives for each of the points I made below. (Another shortcoming was that it was too long... so it was a little bit of a lose-lose situation there.) Regarding discipline, there are a range of ways that a parent can respond to misbehavior, (1) from simply talking to your child about their behavior (2) to grounding them and/or putting them in time out (3) to taking away privileges that aren't vital for their well-being (4) to requiring them participate in more chores or community service (5) to finding creative ways to expose the consequences of their actions. That's just off the top of my head. I do hope to get into some more analysis in future posts which you may also find helpful. Good luck to you as you and your husband find ways to work through these differences together.