Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Why Threats Can't Produce Good Results (2 of 7)

This is the second post in seven-part series called "A Pragmatic Case for Pacifism." For a link to the table of contents for the entire series, click here.

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?   

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