Symposium Introduction

Todd May’s Nonviolent Resistance: A Philosophical Introduction (2015) significantly contributes to the ongoing debate concerning political strategies of nonviolent resistance, what it is, and how it works. May defines nonviolent resistance as “political, economic, or social activity that challenges or resists a current political, economic, or social arrangement while respecting the dignity of its participants, adversaries and others” (59). He outlines diverse examples, practices, and strategies utilized by nonviolent movements, addressing how they work, philosophically, in relation to respect for dignity and equality. Additionally, May analyzes nonviolent resistance within the framework of contemporary neoliberalism that “erodes social solidarity . . . [and] contributes to an increasing individualization” (169). The government is less than trustworthy, and privatization and deregulation results in the government’s noninterference in what private corporations do (170). In part, nonviolent resistance is difficult to bring about because of the recurring neoliberal practices that have already structured social relationships into “isolated individualism.” However, nonviolent resistance can, according to May, bring about “cooperation, trust, and solidarity” (171). Neoliberal practices and the institutions that uphold them help to frame this symposium insofar as each participant addresses contemporary conflicts reflective of neoliberalism, demonstrating the usefulness of the book toward critically engaging with possible ways to nonviolently transform social, economic, and political conflicts.

The book begins with an extended analysis of the dynamics of past instances of successful nonviolent resistance, drawing on a history of scholarship on the role played by nonviolent resistance. From the Estonian “Singing Revolution,” to Ferdinand Marcos and Hosni Mubarak’s losses of political power in their respective states, to the Indian Independence Movement and the American Civil Rights Movement, and Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, May notes the nonviolent strategies that contributed to the success of these events, pulling from the theories produced by scholars such as Richard Gregg and Gene Sharp. He also distinguishes the anarchist strategy from a Marxist one, particularly in the anarchist’s rejection of Marxist hierarchically-organized protest, and its view that a militarized revolutionary group would give up power. Anarchism’s strategy is to be “the society one wants to see after struggle . . . in the struggle itself,” i.e. “prefiguration” (20–21).

There is much to say about May’s characterization of nonviolent protest, so, I will aim for brevity, which will inevitably exclude some of May’s argumentation. May emphasizes that nonviolence is not passive resistance, but active, and aims to avoid violence, which raises the issue concerning what kinds of violence does nonviolence avoid, particularly because the term “violence” is itself defined in diverse ways. May addresses arguments concerned with what violence and nonviolence are, produced by theorists such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Audi, Johan Galtung, Slavoj Žižek, C. A. J. Coady, Newton Garver, and various others, ultimately arguing that nonviolence, in its challenge to power, can sometimes be mistaken for a kind of violence (insofar as it communicates something that the adversary experiences as a kind of symbolic or psychological violence). May also adds that defining violence itself is problematic insofar as a restricted definition can fail to account for some kinds of violence, such as when a definition of violence only requires intentionally produced physical harm, and ignores unintentionally produced psychological harms that might count as violence. In contrast, a broad definition for violence could include too much. In the end, May focuses on Vittorio Bufacchi and Gerald C. MacCallum’s definition of violence as a “violation of integrity . . . [i.e.,] wholeness or intactness.” In this sense, a nonviolent action must respect the integrity of participants, adversaries, and bystanders. Furthermore, nonviolent resistance can be coercive, while respecting dignity, as long as the protest respects the fact that everyone involved has a life to lead, and no one exists for the purpose of serving the ends of others. Though threats tend to be violent because they do not respect the dignity of the adversary, whether nonviolent coercion counts as psychological violence depends on the context of the campaign. May also distinguishes between principled and practical nonviolence, which Geoff Pfeifer addresses first, in his encounter with May’s work. I will stop here to introduce May’s interlocutors’ primary points in their engagements so that this timely symposium can itself unfold.

In short, first, Pfeifer addresses May’s distinction between principled nonviolence and practical nonviolence, ultimately questioning the need for this distinction, and pointing out that principled nonviolence, the ideal that nonviolent resistance aims for, seems too unrealistic of an expectation for participants in an actual resistance. Pfeifer also questions whether not respecting adversaries is, sometimes, a more useful strategy. Second, Mark Lance suggests that May underestimates the problem concerning what nonviolent action is as a “practical recognition of dignity in those one struggles against” insofar as May too heavily emphasizes the need for the external expression of respect for dignity, and does not sufficiently address the internal, psychological transformations that are also a part of the struggle in nonviolent resistance. Lance also challenges May’s commitment to nonviolence, and wonders how a commitment to nonviolence can relate to potential allies who are willing to resort to violence. Third, Verena Erlenbusch challenges May, suggesting that perhaps he himself is (illegitimately?) exercising power in naming what counts as nonviolence, since he participates in a “politics of naming,” and she also wonders why we should want nonviolence in the first place. And finally, Shon Meckfessel takes issue with how May frames nonviolence as a disavowal of other kinds of violence, arguing that we cannot distinguish violence from nonviolence in the way May does, and that to do so is to undervalue the efficacy of some kinds of violent protest. That is, Meckfessel suggests that we should take more seriously the violence that occurs alongside nonviolence, particularly because riots (“unarmed violence”) have been successfully used in the past, especially by marginalized groups who are otherwise ignored. Meckfessel worries that the idea that a “good protestor” is a nonviolent one is what political authorities would have protestors believe, possibly forestalling the possibility of success.



Nonviolence, Respect, and the Work of Protest

Some Reflections on May’s Nonviolent Resistance: A Philosophical Introduction

Near the end of his excellent recent book Nonviolent Resistance: A Philosophical Introduction, Todd May offers this summary of his view on nonviolent resistance’s nature:

Nonviolence is characterized by the presence of at least two fundamental values: dignity and equality. In nonviolence everyone—participants, adversaries, and bystanders—is considered to possess dignity, and because of this is to be approached in a dignified manner where the latter is a matter of preserving dignity in the former sense. Moreover and related, everyone is considered to be equally capable of conceiving and conducting human life alongside others. (162–63)

In making this claim, May draws on the Kantian conception of the inherent dignity of humans as tied to their rational nature alongside Sellar’s notion of the human as inhabiting a socially bound “space of reasons” and also Jacques Rancière’s conception of equality.1 May argues here that as Kant shows us, one feature of what it is to be human is to be, or have the capacity to be, rational. To be rational or to have rationality is to also have the capacity to be free from being solely determined by other forces such as instinct, desire, or other causal forces that exist outside of the human will and can act as determiners of that will (112–15). Having this rational capacity then, is tied directly to freedom (or autonomy in Kant’s language) and it is through this that we get to the requirement to respect the dignity of humanity: we are dignified insofar as we are able, via the use of reason, to freely choose to do certain things and be certain kinds of people rather than do other things and be other kinds of people.

As May points out here, for Kant it is not that this capacity for freedom and hence dignity is solely the provenance of humans, but that humans are the kinds of beings that are able to make use of this capacity and hence deserving of respect and dignity (114). May also argues that the connection to reason is not as central as the idea that one of the features of being human is the capacity for free activity. Here May writes that this includes, perhaps fundamentally, that we recognize that to be human is to

engage in projects and relationships that unfold over time, to be aware of one’s death in a way that affects how one sees the arc of one’s life; to have biological needs like food, shelter, and sleep; to have basic psychological needs like care and a sense of attachment to one’s surroundings.” (51)

Nonviolent resistance, because of its prohibition on injuring those who it is enacted against (and anyone else), respects the fundamental dignity of all (participant, bystander, and opposition) according to May. Moreover, it is not just that in its outcomes nonviolent resistance does this, but May argues that this is a grounding feature of a kind of nonviolence he calls “principled nonviolence” as opposed to what he terms “practical nonviolence” wherein dignity is not respected (at least in the same way). This is because where a practical commitment to nonviolence sees nonviolent action as a means to succeed in a particular political campaign (and is merely goal oriented in using nonviolent methods), a principled nonviolence

is characterized by a commitment to methods of nonviolent actions for ethical reasons, a view of means and ends as inseparable, a perception of conflict as a problem shared with an opponent, and acceptance of suffering during the struggle in order to convert the views of the opponent, and a holistic view of nonviolence as a way of life. (63)

So here the distinction between a pragmatic nonviolence and a principled nonviolence tracks a distinction in commitment on the part of the practitioners of nonviolent actions between, in the case of a principled nonviolence, seeing their opponents as able to be converted to their cause through the persuasive action (or coercion) that arises in the nonviolent campaign itself and, in the case of pragmatic nonviolence, not necessarily needing to be committed to this conversion, but rather using nonviolence as a tactic in situations where it seems the best option for forwarding the cause. But for the latter, there is no principled commitment to nonviolence and presumably, if the situation called for it, the practitioners of pragmatic nonviolence might choose violent resistance instead. I’ll return to this distinction in a moment, but I want now also to talk a bit about how May draws a connection between principled nonviolence’s commitment to dignity and to a commitment also to a notion of equality.

I think we can see already, at least partially, how this connection functions for May in his reliance on Kant for the claims about the respect for dignity. If it is true that principled nonviolence is committed to the form out of a respect for, and recognition of, the dignity of all (friend and foe alike) then the practitioner of principled nonviolence is also committed to a belief in the equality of all involved insofar as one recognizes that all equally possess the right to have their dignity respected. This commitment holds even and especially when, as in the case of those acting unjustly, they are not respecting the dignity of those that are being oppressed or wronged in some way. But this is not all there is to it. As noted above, May draws on Jacques Rancière’s conception of equality as a means to further develop his own.

As May explains here, Rancière is not interested in arguments that prove the equality of all but rather Rancière is interested in, as May puts it, “what can be done” if we presuppose equality as a component of our interactions with others and “what might happen if we treat one another this way” (137). One of the key features of Rancière’s framework that May draws on here is that of a presupposition of equal intelligence, which is defined here as “a capacity to make decisions for oneself . . . a capacity one shares with others and can recognize oneself as sharing with others” (140). Here May returns to Sellars in further working out this idea claiming that part of what it is to recognize this kind of equality of intelligence is to recognize that decisions made and reasons given for those decisions are social insofar as they arise out of a shared space of reasons that is made possible by interaction with others. Thus as May puts it, “reasons are the webs of inferential connections that suffuse our social practices” (142). It is because of this that as May goes on to argue, we must recognize the partial and contingent nature of our reasons and decisions. Our reasons are fallible because they are historical and social and everyone’s reasons are equally so. It is because of this, argues May, that “we must adopt a certain modesty with respect to our own beliefs and a certain openness to the beliefs of those with whom we disagree” (142–43).

All of this is what grounds the claims above about the distinction between a principled nonviolence and pragmatic nonviolence. Principled nonviolence sees the adversary as someone who is deserving of respect because they possess dignity in the sense described above. It also sees them as equally intelligent in that they are also involved in a socially bounded space of reasons and they have made decisions based on those reasons in such a way that leads them to the actions they have undertaken and the lives that they lead. Even when those actions and lives are in disagreement with the actions and beliefs of those acting against them, argues May, opponents must recognize the shared social space of these disagreements as well as the potential fallibility of all reasons.

A principled nonviolence then attempts to win those opponents over to the cause of the protesters by offering them both respect and the kind of argument through action that will allow the opponents to see the error of their ways. And further, on May’s view, principled nonviolence offers a model to those on the other side for what a commitment to the dignity and equality of all looks like. The practitioner of principled nonviolence offers, through the principled stance and actions undertaken as a result, a kind of living instantiation of what it looks like to take the dignity and equality of all seriously and to respect this. This last bit is what May means in the definition of principled nonviolence given at the outset when he refers to the idea that the practitioner of a principled nonviolence views the opposition as a problem “shared with an opponent” there is a connection between the two sides (a shared space of reasons) that requires mutual resolution. Furthermore, part of the resolution comes in the form of a demonstration on the part of the nonviolent resistors of a commitment to a particular way of life; a way of life that respects the dignity and equality of all, and a way of life then, that all should come to see as correct and assent to (63).

Now that we have a picture of the overarching philosophical argument May’s book offers in favor of a principled nonviolence, I want to raise a few interconnected concerns and questions about this. The first is about the distinction between a principled and pragmatic nonviolence. Here I wonder if such a distinction is really necessary. Indeed, May himself recognizes this to a certain degree, stating that in practice, such a distinction may not amount to much in terms of the visibility of nonviolent actions themselves (65). But my question is more about whether or not there are good reasons to assent to the rigors of May’s version of principled nonviolence. I am also interested here in the question of property destruction as a form of nonviolent protest. May argues that property destruction is only acceptable insofar as it also does not induce the kind of fear that might go against the required respect for dignity of those involved (67–69). Again, here, I wonder if in some cases fear functions as a means through which protest can achieve its goals and so again, I wonder if the injunction to respect the dignity of opponents is too high a bar. I will say more about each of these in turn.

In relation to the first, I think that May has done a really nice job of laying out an argument in favor of a principled nonviolence but wonder about why we should assent to it or even think that the proper orientation for nonviolent movements is centered around the need to respect the dignity and equality of those whom the movement opposes (and for that matter, bystanders). There are two main reasons for my questioning this, one is practical and one is philosophical. In relation to the first, I question the idea that those who are oppressed, threatened, or lacking rights, share some social context beyond the conditions of their oppression with their oppressors. The idea that nonviolent resistance should be seen as means through which those who are oppressed, and their supporters, can convince their oppressors to join them and thus change this seemingly shared context seems to be problematically constraining to those seeking justice and an end to their conditions. There may be times when actually disrespecting their opponents and bystanders and disrupting their projects and trajectories is precisely what is necessary.

I do not think, for example, that Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists fighting racialized and other forms of police violence in this current moment need to respect the dignity of their oppressors in order to be principled. The only requirement here that matters is that protesters engage in their actions with a view toward the end goal of justice for those murdered—and the larger goal of an end to the practices of over-policing that exist in low-income communities and communities of color. I also wonder about, in this same context, May’s emphasis on the idea that part of what nonviolent action should do is offer a kind of argument (or an appeal to reasons) that either convinces opponents and bystanders to join them or coerces them into changing their ways.

I want to highlight some of the recent actions by BLM activists in this context. Blockading highways, the brunch disruptions, the threat to shut down the Twin Cities Marathon in 2015, and other similar actions are not always described and understood by activists as means to bring more people into the fold of the movement or to convince them to join forces with the protesters. Rather these types of nonviolent actions are sometimes performed simply as acts of disruption meant to make it hard to go about daily life in ways that ignore or allow people to remain untouched by the issues that the protesters are highlighting. There is a value in this for precisely the reason that these actions keep a spotlight on the movement, but at the same time, there is certainly no need or intent to respect the dignity of the bystanders that are caught up in these actions. In fact, the goal of many actions like these depends in part, as just noted, precisely on not respecting the projects, relationships, and choices of those who are going about their everyday lives. There is no doubt that some of the actions BLM groups have undertaken are in fact meant to build social solidarity and turn detractors into supporters, but not all need to do this to be effective and useful for the movement and I wonder what May would have to say here.

My philosophical reason for questioning the need to respect the dignity and equality of those who one is opposed to has to do with May’s rejection of the Kantian idea that there is an overarching Reason (with a capital R) that individual humans are participants in, and that dictates and grounds a kind of universally true conception of the proper organization and orientation of human existence. Here May claims that we need not posit such a thing and this is why he opts for the Sellarsian historical and contingent space of reasons as the proper explanation of the background against which we live our lives.

I am generally in agreement with May’s rejection of the Kantian absolutist/universalist notion, but wonder if given this position, May’s insistence on a proper principled nonviolence resting on notions of universal right to the respect for dignity and equality is viable. It seems rather that in the absence of a universal and absolute truth about the proper way we should treat each other and organize ourselves socially, all we have is the hope that some of the reasons that exist in the space of reasons are more powerful, or gain more traction than others.

This calls to mind Jean Paul Sartre’s point in “Existentialism Is a Humanism” when he says that given that there is no overarching, universal, absolute truth, that all we have is historical practice, choice, contingency and circumstance—much like May’s description of Sellars’s view—we can only fight for ways of life that we believe are better and against those that we believe are worse. It is in this context that Sartre makes this famous claim that if he and his comrades who are fighting Fascism are no longer able to continue this fight, and those who want to establish Fascism are without opposition, “Fascism will then be the truth of men, and so much the worse for us.”2 Sartre’s reflections are relevant for a couple of reasons here. First and foremost, since there is nothing apart from human action to guarantee a right way and a wrong way to live, all we have is that action. Second, there is no injunction to respect the dignity of those who one is in opposition to, and in fact, it seems that to do so in this context might risk the normalization of perspectives or reasons that might allow a kind of equal airing of ideas like those of Fascism. Normalization could lead to triumph. It seems to me that this is a very bad place to be and once again we find ourselves thinking about the contemporary moment.

In a time in which we are witnessing a return of Fascist ideologies I wonder if nonviolent resistance to such views that relies on treating the opposition with dignity might also allow the mainstreaming of those views as one set of legitimate views amongst others in a “marketplace of ideas” in ways that activists who work against racism, nativism, and fascism would find problematic. Again thinking about the contemporary moment, we can look to both nonviolent actions that do not respect dignity and equality of fascists and some quasi-violent actions as examples to think through here.

Starting with the latter, we can think of the power that the image of alt-right organizer Richard Spencer getting punched by an antifascist activist during the January 20, 2017, protests of Trump’s inauguration had both in terms of galvanizing a movement against the alt-right in the United States and also in terms of what it did for Spencer’s own view of his ability to spread his views. He himself reported that after being punched he felt much less comfort publicly announcing his views than he had recently and also that the episode, because it was filmed, had the potential to become viral in a way that would really bother him and make him into a cartoonish figure (which it did for a time).3 This clearly had an effect on the credibility of the movement he was leading.

This is also true of the quasi-violent protests of another figure in the alt-right, Milo Yiannopoulos, in California in 2017, wherein speaking engagements at the University of California–Berkeley were shut down because of the riot-like atmosphere that was created by antifascist protesters.4 The Berkeley protests are one example of the ways that protestors engaging in property damage actually did achieve the goal they were seeking to induce via inducing fear in Yiannopoulos, his supporters, and the larger university that had agreed to host him.

Movements to “no platform” people like Spencer and Yiannopoulos are designed by activists precisely to make sure their ideas are not normalized, and not allowed to become just one other set of reasons among many that people can choose. What I want to highlight here is how these actions can have effects activists desire and that such actions need not respect dignity and equality. Certainly it is the case that more standard nonviolent actions against the types of ideas espoused by the alt-right and those that follow them are also effective. But some of those also have the effect of creating conditions of fear in those they are opposing, and they do not then satisfy the condition of respect for dignity and equality outlined by May.

We can think here also of the Boston march against a planned demonstration by alt-right groups in the summer of 2017 where some 40,000 people marched peacefully through the streets in order to shut down that demonstration.5 This also had the effect of making organizers of those planned “free speech rallies” cancel 67 other planned events in 36 states for fear of facing similar crowds around the country.6 In both types of actions, however, there was again not a desire to respect the dignity and equality of the ideas of the opponents on the part of the protesters. But these actions certainly accomplished something similar to what Martin Luther King himself enjoined people to do in saying that that they should “march on ballot boxes until race baiters disappear from the political arena . . . march on ballot boxes until the Wallaces of our nation tremble away in silence.”7

I will stop here as I know I have gone on for longer than usual in the format and I am excited to hear May’s response to both my reading of his book’s argument and also the questions raised here (and that of the other contributors as well). Thanks to the organizers of the symposium for the invitation, and to May for writing such a fantastic and engaging book on a topic that is both timely and in need of more engagement by philosophers.

  1. See Immanuel Kant, The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Thomas E Hill Jr. and Arnulf Zwieg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Wilfred Sellars, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); and Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).

  2. Jean Paul Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” in Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (New York: Penguin, 2004), 359.

  3. Maya Oppenheim, “Alt-Right Leader Richard Spencer Worries Getting Punched Will Become ‘Meme to End All Memes,’” Independent, January, 23, 2017,

  4. Madison Park and Kyung Lah, “Berkeley Protests of Yiannopoulos Caused $100,000 in Damage,” CNN, February 2, 2017,

  5. “Massive Counter Protests Overwhelm Boston ‘Free Speech Rally’ on Common,” CBS Boston, August 19, 2017,

  6. Graham Lanktree, “Alt-Right ‘America First’ Rallies Move Online after Boston ‘Free Speech’ Protest Is Overrun,” Newsweek, August 22, 2017,

  7. Martin Luther King, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson (New York: Warner Books, 2001), 285.

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    Todd May


    May Response to Pfeifer

     In his thoughtful response to my book, Geoff Pfeifer raises two challenges to my view, one of which concerns the relation of nonviolence to bystanders and the other to a commitment to nonviolence depending on the historical situation. These are both urgent matters, as Pfieffer’s examples, particularly those of BLM and Richard Spencer, indicate. Allow me respond in turn to each.

    In discussing the BLM movement, Pfeifer draws on examples of disruption, e.g., blocking highways and threatening to disrupt the Twin Cities Marathon in 2015, as examples of not respecting the dignity of bystanders. What makes the issue interesting in Pfeifer’s hand is that he’s concerned not with the adversary but with the bystander who is not directly involved in the oppression—because, let’s say, it’s police brutality that is being protested. These actions, which seem justifiable to Pfeifer, would violate the dignity of the bystanders because, in his words, “the goal of many actions like these depends in part, as just noted, precisely on not respecting the projects, relationships, and choices of those who are going about their everyday lives.” I agree with Pfeifer here both that the actions are justifiable and that they do not respect particular projects, etc., of the bystanders. My disagreement is that I do not think that such actions violate the dignity of the bystanders.

    To see this, I need to return to the concept in the book of nonviolent coercion, a concept that is prominent in Joan Bondurant’s study of Gandhi, The Conquest of Violence. Although Gandhi’s official view was that nonviolence works by persuasion rather than coercion, Bondurant shows that many of his actions were coercive; moreover, their effectiveness depended on their coercive character. The British did not grant independence to India because they were morally persuaded to do so. They granted independence because continued occupation was untenable.

    Nonviolent coercion respects the dignity of the adversary not by respecting all the “projects, relationships, and choices” of those who are one’s oppressors or who are oppressing those with whom one is in solidarity. Rather, it insists more minimally on not preventing the adversary from living a meaningful human life. In the book I define dignity as having a life to lead, which on the human level means “to engage in projects and relationships that unfold over time; to be aware of one’s death in a way that affects how one sees the arc of one’s life; to have biological needs like food, shelter, and sleep; to have basic psychological needs like care and a sense of attachment to one’s surroundings.” The nonviolent resistance that brought down Ferdinand Marcos, for instance, undermined many of his central projects, relationships, and choices. However, it did not violate his dignity as a human being because he was allowed to create a human life after being deposed (granted, with the assistance of the United States, who supported him during his years of oppressive rule).

    All of this has to do with adversaries. How about bystanders, though? Are they to be treated the same way as adversaries in regard to dignity? This is a complicated situation, but I think the answer ultimately is, Yes. The basic thought is this. In disruptions of the kind Pfeifer describes, the ability of bystanders to live a meaningful human life is not undermined. What is undermined is their ability to enjoy a marathon or get to where they’re going on time. (There is the possibility of, say, a highway blockage preventing an ambulance from getting to a hospital, which I address in the book. I will leave that complicated scenario to the side, since it doesn’t concern the present issue.) Therefore, it seems to me, the dignity of the bystanders is not violated by actions that target an adversary but rather cause them inconvenience. What is at issue in dignity is not all of their projects, relationships, or choices, but their ability to live meaningful lives, which are not disrupted by the actions.

    However, and here is a complication, would this view then permit targeting bystanders with a nonviolent action rather than adversaries if it would prove more effective in advancing a cause? Let me offer three brief considerations here. First, I can’t think of a situation in which such a move against those who are purely bystanders would advance a cause rather than simply sacrifice support. Second, if they are pure bystanders and their projects are being disrupted, that seems to me to be a moral problem independent of the issue of nonviolence and dignity. Finally, the relation of bystanders to adversaries is a complex one. Bystanders are often not “pure” but instead complicit in various oppressions, and it might happen that a particular disruption of their convenience might bring that complicity to light without violating their dignity.

    Now let me turn more briefly to the question of the historical situation, because it seems to me that the question there is not one of whether nonviolence violates the dignity of others but of whether certain situations call for violence. The concern is that allowing certain situations to unfold might normalize them; therefore, we must shut those situations down. I want to be clear here that I am not a pacifist and the book does not recommend principled nonviolence. There are, to my mind, cases in which violence is justifiable and perhaps even called for. There are far fewer of them than people imagine, but they exist. Those are precisely the situations in which a pragmatist about nonviolence would recommend abandoning the nonviolent approach.

    For the record, however, I do not believe that punching Richard Spencer or the Berkeley demonstrations against Milo Yiannopoulos or, for that matter, the demonstration against Charles Murray were justifiable acts of violence against the normalization of the alt-right. They were, to my mind, poor tactics whose result was likely to be less sympathy for resistance to our creeping fascism rather than more. Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at my university, Clemson. I was approached by students to ask whether I was in favor of demonstrating against him. I opposed it and in the end there were no demonstrations. His talk had no effect on our campus—it was well attended, and I and others were trashed by him during the evening, and then nothing came of it. More important, however, almost nobody outside a small circle of students even knew he had been here. Many people who have ongoing relationships with the university were surprised to learn that he had spoken. This is not to say that there are never reasons to shut down a speaker violently. Normalization of oppressive ideologies is a real danger in this historical period. However, there is no direct link between that normalization and the justification for violent intervention, as the Boston demonstrations that Pfeifer cites show.



Further Thoughts on Nonviolent Resistance

Comments on Nonviolent Resistance: A Philosophical Introduction, Todd May

Give the format here, I’m going to skip most of the preliminaries and jump right into two points that I think are important for thinking about nonviolent resistance in our current moment. I will say that I think Todd has produced a fabulous book. I’ve been teaching it in my nonviolence course at Georgetown—a required course in our Justice and Peace major—every semester since before it was published. (Hmmm, does that betray a lack of appropriate respect for intellectual property?) It raises genuinely new issues, and approaches them from a genuinely new perspective. And I agree with most of what is said.

This latter is hardly surprising since Todd and I have been engaging on these issues—as philosophers and as organizer-activists since the mid-1980s, when we first worked together with the River City Nonviolent Resistance Campaign—and later in the South African divestment movement, Central American solidarity, Palestinian solidarity, and much more, right up to the movement for black lives that we both support today. So Todd and I are colleagues, comrades, and friends. The first time we had a serious conversation was in a bar, the second in jail. It seems both important and salient to mention that up front.

Why is that salient?

David Rovics concludes a wonderful song as follows:

As the movement grows

There will be hills and bends

But at the center of the struggle

Are your lovers and your friends

The more we hold each other up

The less we can be swayed

Here’s to love and solidarity

And a kiss behind the barricades.

I think this is an important point that can be easy to miss in Todd’s discussion. Todd focuses—as any discussion of nonviolence should—on nonviolent action. That is, the concern here is with a particular mode of confronting injustice, a mode that, in Todd’s way of developing it, incorporates a practical recognition of dignity in those one struggles against. One crucial reason for basing political resistance around a practical recognition of dignity is that it holds open the possibility for rebuilding after struggle, for constructing a more just and cooperative social structure once the oppressive target is dismantled, it can be a step on the way to restoration.

But I wonder if this does not underestimate the problem by locating it solely external to the nonviolent change-agent. Consider the Movement for Black Lives. This is a movement that confronts both active agential violence—police shootings, neo-Nazi hate crimes, alt-right provocations, etc.—and structural violence—mass incarceration, racially based poverty and inequality, etc. But the social phenomenon of White Supremacy is not limited to these. Each of us suffers from racist implicit biases—and here I do not mean only we white allies; the psychological deformations that result from living in a White Supremacist society affect everyone. Each of us has internalized habitual modes of engagement intra- and inter-racially that are a result of, and make our ways of life complicit in White Supremacy—and sexism, heterosexism, capitalism, imperialism, etc. Part of the point of struggle, that is, is to transform ourselves and the institutions that we live within—and that struggle is not directed only externally. A new just world will not arise simply by destroying the existing modes of oppression—as we have seen far too many times in the creation of oppressive post-revolutionary regimes. One mode of nonviolent action must be itself structural—not in the sense that it is action directed at structural injustice, but in the sense that it is action that builds structural justice, in each of our individual psychologies, and in the institutions that both result from and reinforce those psychologies.

And this goal—in the slogan of the IWW, “building the new world in the shell of the old”—can run counter to strategic goals of defeating oppression. In many cases, the most efficient way to tackle an unjust situation will not be one that builds new institutions, develops new capacities and new people. A cliché example of this might be as follows:

Suppose that we are confronted with a low-rent housing project which is neglected by absentee landlords leading to health risks, etc. In many cases, the most efficient way to deal with the immediate problem is to find a hotshot lefty lawyer willing to sue on behalf of the tenants. And this strategy will likely do real concrete good in the lives of the people who are economically oppressed. But it will do no more than change these particular conditions. Indeed, it might even do harm, insofar as it reinforces the idea that they can do nothing on their own and require outside saviors.

An alternative strategy is slower, more tedious, and more fraught: to organize the tenants into a collective, one led by members internal to the community, which can then occupy the building and go on rent strike. This strategy is riskier and slower, but holds more potential, because if it happens, it transforms not only the living conditions, but those living in them. They come into their power, see new possibilities for being and working together, become a political force.

I don’t imagine that Todd disagrees with this, but I think that the twin goals—internal and external transformation—introduce a serious complexity into our thinking about nonviolent change. How it makes sense to balance these is a deeply contextual matter. How much change we should aim for on either pole, which to prioritize, what possibilities there are for productive synthesis of the goals—all this will vary widely with situation. But it seems to me to be a dimension that should never be left out of our thinking.

This issue was fully internal to nonviolent theorizing. Both the lawyer strategy and the rent-strike strategy are nonviolent actions. So the question is how to prioritize distinct nonviolent priorities and distinct nonviolent means. But the second issue I want to raise concerns relations to violence. Todd and I have had some conversations in recent months around various tactics of anti-fascist movements. I think it is fair to say that he is more universally committed to nonviolence than I am. My own view is that while we should all have a very strong prima facie commitment to nonviolence as an organizing principle, this is defeasible. There will be situations in which nonviolent means are ineffective, violence potentially effective, and on balance, violence the morally superior expression of our commitment to justice and human dignity. (I think the history of black townships confronting Klan invasions gives us examples, as do the highly limited violence of the ANC and the Zapatistas.)

But I don’t want to argue for this here. For now, let’s stipulate that “we”—whomever exactly that is, but let’s say the group with whom we are working directly; with whom we strategize and build on a daily basis—are fully committed to only nonviolent action. But whatever our commitments, there is a relevant empirical fact that we are not alone, and that others working for similar goals will not be so committed. As Todd knows, no widespread movement has existed utterly free of violence. The ANC engaged in sabotage; Gandhi worked within the context of violent elements of the freedom struggle and many of his actions were effective precisely because the British feared an outbreak of widespread violence, SNCC coordinated with the Deacons. Today, as we mobilize against the Trump regime and its fascist mob, Antifa and Black Bloc mobilizations exist. We can no more responsibly ignore them than we can any other salient aspect of our political situation.

All this is to say that a central question of most nonviolent movements must be how we relate to violent potential allies. One approach is to insist on our nonviolent discipline and refuse to engage at all. In some cases, this is surely the right way to go. But I very much doubt that it is generally. In the early 2000s global justice movement, I facilitated numerous discussions between elements employing Black Bloc tactics, legal protestors, and nonviolent civil disobedients. We worked together well, respected one another as comrades, and put together actions designed to maximize the effectiveness of each tactic while protecting the integrity of different tactics. During the 2017 Trump inauguration protests, there was a little-reported moment in which anarchists attacked and ran off a group of neo-Nazis who were attacking a nonviolent protest and action by BLM-DC. Without that intervention, BLM-DC would have been drawn into their own violent confrontation, or been forced to drop their action. And given the realities of police treatment of black protestors, no level of discipline by BLM members would have made this go well. But the sudden attack by a large group of club-wielding anarchists oddly defused the situation. The Nazis simply ran away, and the day went on as planned.

Could there have been other tactics? Sure. But I mention these two examples simply to put the issue on the table. Given a commitment to nonviolence, how do we think about our engagement with groups who are genuinely in solidarity with our aims but not so committed. Do we work with Redneck Revolt? With Black community defense organizations? With Zapatista communities? With queer “bash-back” formations? And how do we think through the issues involved in this engagement? Doesn’t respect for dignity require that we respect our allies’—especially those core communities that we aim to work in solidarity with—right to make these tactical decisions? But how does that respect cohere with the recognition of dignity in those we oppose.

I’ll stop there and see what Todd has to say.

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    Todd May


    May Response to Lance

    The two questions Mark poses to me are difficult ones. Moreover, they are questions that could only be posed by someone who has spent long years in the trenches of political organizing. As a general matter, there are times when wisdom is a matter of having the right answers in difficult situations; but at other times it is a matter simply of coming up with the right questions. The questions Mark poses to me are of the latter sort.

    Regarding the first one, I will not attempt to respond to it but instead to make it even more complicated. I suspect that Mark knows that there is no general answer to that question. But sometimes seeing the nuances can help to answer it more adequately in specific situations. First, however, let me dispose of an easy answer to the question. One might be tempted to say here that, in the scenario Mark depicts, whether to use a lawyer or instead seek to organize the tenants depends on which will be more likely to solve the problem, i.e., the neglect of adequate housing.

    This answer betrays three misunderstandings. The first one is that, before one acts in a situation as complex as this, one rarely knows which will be more effective. However, let’s suppose that we know that the landlord’s actions will be more effective in the short term. This leaves unaddressed a second problem. Might it be the case that empowering the tenants could lead to a more effective long-term solution. While it might take longer to address the immediate problem, a landlord might be more likely to hesitate to continue his or her housing neglect in the face of a well-organized opposition. There are complicated stakes here. On the one hand, this might wind up sacrificing the interests of people who need adequate housing now and are more likely to get it with legal intervention. On the other hand, organizing might prove helpful for folks down the road, protecting their interests through the power of organizing.

    But there is another misunderstanding the glib answer betrays. Organizing with people is empowering for them in ways that go beyond concrete victories. Struggling with others can offer a sense of community, a feeling of independence and autonomy, a proof to oneself of one’s own agency, that relying on an outsider to take up the struggle does not. This, I think, is the deepest point Mark is driving at with his example. The anarchist Colin Ward describes a situation in post-WWII Britain in which some folks who needed housing started squatting on land abandoned by the government. (If I recall correctly it was an abandoned military base.) At first the British government opposed the squatting, but then it decided to move others in. Those who were the original inhabitants became known as the goats, those moved in by the government as the sheep. This is because the goats continued to build the community, sensing their own agency and the effects it could have. The sheep, by contrast, were more passive and depressed. They did not see themselves as having the bond to the community that the goats had.

    What should be recognized in all this is that often there are incommensurable values at play in different approaches to social change. Mark designates them as internal and external, but I am sure he would be happy to agree that there are often overlapping and conflicting values at stake in different approaches to political values. The task, in any given situation, is to recognize those values and the (possible) different effects of different approaches as clearly as one can and then proceed from there.

    The other question Mark raises concerns the relation of nonviolence to violence, one that is often pressing and that, as he notes, appears currently in the relation of nonviolent protestors to groups who act more violently but share a set of political values. He notes that I am more committed to nonviolence than he is. This may be true, but my opposition to much—although not all—of what such groups do is not primarily that they are violent, but that they are ineffective. There is a phenomenon that I call “the politics of self-expression,” in which participants seem to care less about the effects of their intervention than with expressing themselves through it. For example, the day of President Trump’s inauguration, there were tens of thousands of people on the street protesting against him. There was also a much smaller group of protests who threw bricks through windows and set garbage pails on fire. As anyone could have guessed, they received all the press attention and the large demonstration received almost none. This, to my mind, was little other than a betrayal of the progressive movement by those who sought personal attention or who were willfully self-deceived about the effects of their action. (None of this, by the way, should be taken as a defense of the outrageous legal charges they face, which are utterly indefensible and characteristic of a regime more committed to vengeance than justice.)

    To my mind, it is rarely the case in the United States that violent opposition contributes to effective progressive political change. This is not to say that there are no moments when having violent self-defense is useful. In the case Mark cites as well as at moments in Charlottesville, violent protestors protected nonviolent protestors. (How often violent protestors provoke the violence they then defended against is a more complicated question.) However, I think it is incumbent on those who are considering violent protest to ask themselves in a serious way whether their actions are actually going to have a positive political effect. My suspicion is that in most cases the answer will be in the negative. As an example I will refer to the Milo Yiannopoulos talks I mentioned in my response to Pfeifer.

    What I have tried to do here is not so much to answer Mark’s questions as to nuance them in ways that might prove helpful to those who confront them in specific situations.

Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson


The Politics of Naming Nonviolence

On November 2, 2017, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, founders of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, accepted the Sydney Peace Prize, an annual award that recognizes peacemakers who “demand justice for everyone, encourage empathy, and advocate nonviolence” (“Sydney Peace Prize”). A month earlier, documents obtained by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Color of Change through a FOIA request with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, revealed government surveillance of BLM protests based on a presumption of violence (Vohra, “Documents”). These two instances reflect conflicting perceptions of BLM. While the movement and its supporters affirm its anti-violent motivations and commitment to nonviolent direct action (Simmons and Kaleem “Founder of Black Lives Matter”), its detractors describe it as a violent movement that is on a par with the “terrorism” of the “racist alt-right” (Judge, “State Senator”), engages in anti-white propaganda, and seeks to incite a race war (Phippen, “Lawsuit”).

How are we to make sense of these conflicting descriptions of the BLM movement?

It is tempting to suggest that we are dealing with competing accounts that cannot both be true and then try to establish which of them accurately captures what BLM really is. To do so, we might appeal to definitions of violence or nonviolence in order to determine which best describes BLM’s practices. Consider, for this purpose, Todd May’s account of nonviolence as a particular type of political action that can be distinguished from other types of political action by virtue of the means it deploys to achieve its ends. More specifically, for May, nonviolence is characterized by a rejection of the use of such forms of violence that undermine the dignity of persons. Drawing on a broadly Kantian tradition of thought, May defines violations of dignity as a failure to treat others with respect for their ability to “conduct a human life, a life of meaningful projects free from threat of death or imposed impoverishment” (162). Nonviolence thus emerges as a type of political action that “challenges or resists a current political, economic, or social arrangement while respecting the dignity . . . of its participants, adversaries, and others” (59) by recognizing all as persons whose ability to live without existential threat ought to be respected equally. For May, then, nonviolent resistance is committed to values of dignity and equality in its effort for social and political change. Importantly, this commitment does not depend on the beliefs or intentions of practitioners of nonviolent resistance, but on their practices. Nonviolence, in short, is a matter of what is actually done. As May notes, “as long as those campaigns are conducted in accordance with the norms dictated by nonviolence, the dignity and equality of adversaries will be preserved, in fact if not in desire” (163). In sum, nonviolence on May’s account describes those practices of resistance to social conditions that, as a matter of fact, affirm the equal ability of all persons to lead a human life free from injury.

With this definition in hand, we might, then, try to determine whether BLM’s practices are nonviolent in the sense that they respect the equality and dignity of all persons. Instead of pursuing this line of inquiry, however, I want to shift focus to the interests in engaging in such a project in the first place. What, I want to ask, is at stake in attempts to adjudicate conflicting assessments of movements like BLM?

To begin to examine this question, consider Robert Paul Wolff’s classic 1969 paper “On Violence,” which addresses the political interests driving the rhetoric of violence and nonviolence during the Civil Rights Movement. Wolff argues that the concepts of violence and nonviolence are confused because they rely on an untenable distinction between legitimate and illegitimate political authority. For Wolff, violence can broadly be defined as the “illegitimate or unauthorized use of force to effect decisions against the will or desire of others” (“On Violence,” 606), where illegitimate uses of force are those prohibited by a legitimate political authority. Wolff, however, rejects the idea of legitimate political authority based on a Kantian version of philosophical anarchism. It suffices to note for my purposes here that on Wolff’s account, there is no legitimate political authority because every political authority requires obedience, which is a violation of every human being’s duty to be autonomous. If violence is the illegitimate use of force, the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate force requires a legitimate political authority, and no political authority is legitimate, then it follows that the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate uses of force cannot be maintained. For if violence is the illegitimate use of force, then the political use of violence is either never justified or, if it were justified, it would no longer be violence. Moreover, if violence is the illegitimate use of force and if all political authority is illegitimate, then all political acts are acts of violence. As Wolf argues,

Once the concept of violence is seen to rest on an unfounded distinction between legitimate and illegitimate political authority, the question of the appropriateness of violence simply dissolves. It is mere superstition to describe a policeman’s beating of a helpless suspect as “an excessive use of force” while characterizing an attack by a crowd on the policeman as “a resort to violence.” The implication of such a distinction is that the policeman, as the duly appointed representative of a legitimate government, has a right to use physical force, although no right to use “excessive” force, whereas the crowd of private citizens has no right at all to use even moderate physical force. (608–9)

On Wolff’s view, then, it is impossible to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate practices of resistance and to defend illegitimate, i.e., violent, resistance as a last resort. The flip side of this claim is that there can be no principled argument for nonviolent resistance. For nonviolence either depends on the presupposition of legitimate political authority, which Wolff rejects, or it is a reflection of a morally suspect “subjective queasiness having no moral rationale” (610). With regard to the lunch counter sit-ins May cites as an exemplar of nonviolent resistance, for instance, Wolff argues that they are not only more likely to harm the restaurant owner’s livelihood than “a mere beating in a dark alley” (610). What is worse, they leave “the dirty work to the bank that forecloses on the mortgage or the policeman who carries out the eviction” (610). For Wolff, then, what counts as violence in any given case depends on the interests at stake and the means available to different groups in pursuing them. Attributions of violence are shaped by conflicting views about whose interests should be protected, and by what means, as well as by our habitual assumptions about the kinds of force that appear acceptable. Thus, “the dispute over violence and nonviolence in contemporary American politics is ideological rhetoric designed either to halt change and justify the existing distribution of power and privilege or to slow change and justify some features of the existing distribution of power and privilege or else to hasten change and justify a total redistribution of power and privilege” (602).

Wolff’s argument points to a dynamic that scholars of violence call “the politics of naming” (see Bhatia, Terrorism; Mamdani, “Politics of Naming”; Nadarajah and Sriskandarajah, “Liberation Struggle or Terrorism?”; Thaler, Critical Theory). As Michael Bhatia explains, terms like violence and nonviolence are taken to be “objective representations of fact” that express the true essence of an action or movement (“Fighting Words,” 8). Yet, terms like violence and nonviolence do not pick out natural kinds that exist in the world independently of human cognition and actions. Instead, they are victories in disputes about what these words mean and how they should be used. Attributions of violence and nonviolence are thus not simply acts of description, but judgments about what these terms mean and whether they apply to a particular action or phenomenon (see Thaler, Critical Theory). Crucially, once a particular interpretation is established through an act of naming, “the process by which the name was selected generally disappears and a series of normative associations, motives and characteristics are attached to the named subject. By naming, this subject becomes known in a manner which may permit certain forms of inquiry and engagement, while forbidding or excluding others” (Bhatia, “Fighting Words,” 8). Acts of naming, in other words, conceal the interests of those who name and present their particular perspective as objective and universal. They are, in short, operations of power.

The strength of Wolff’s argument, then, is that it draws attention to the interests at stake in attributions of violence and nonviolence as well as the implicit presuppositions that govern our understanding and use of these terms. What we call a movement and its participants is not just a matter of objective description, but an act of judgment that has consequences for how we respond. As we saw earlier, for example, characterizing BLM as a nonviolent movement allows for its being awarded with a peace prize, while calling it violent enables increased state surveillance and repression. Scholars who want to understand violence and nonviolence ought, therefore, attend to the importance of how we frame practices of resistance as well as to the conditions that make some framings possible while precluding others. Indeed, May emphasizes that “the word violence is often used not just descriptively but also normatively. That is to say, it is used not only to describe certain behavior but also to offer implicit or explicit condemnation of it” (May, Nonviolent Resistance, 34). Presumably, the same can be said about the word nonviolence. What, then, are the politics of naming nonviolence, and what might be some of the unacknowledged assumptions that make attributions of nonviolence possible, meaningful, and desirable?



Bhatia, Michael. “Fighting Words: Naming Terrorists, Bandits, Rebels and Other Violent Actors.” Third World Quarterly 26 (2005) 5–22.

———, ed. Terrorism and the Politics of Naming. Abingdon: Routledge, 2008.

Hatewatch Staff. “Larry Klayman Files Two Lawsuits Accusing Black Defendants of Pushing Race War.” Southern Poverty Law Center (blog), February 7, 2017.

Judge, Monique. “State Senator in NC Calls Black Lives Matter a ‘Violent, Racist Movement’ Comparable to White Supremacists.” The Root, August 15, 2017.

Mamdani, Mahmood. “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency.” London Review of Books, March 8, 2007.

May, Todd. Nonviolent Resistance: A Philosophical Introduction. London: Polity, 2015.

Nadarajah, Suthaharan, and Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah. “Liberation Struggle or Terrorism? The Politics of Naming the LTTE.” Third World Quarterly 26 (2005) 87–100.

Phippen, J. Weston. “A Lawsuit Accuses Black Lives Matter of Inciting a ‘War on Police.’” Atlantic, November 8, 2016.

Simmons, Ann M., and Jaweed Kaleem. “A Founder of Black Lives Matter Answers a Question on Many Minds: Where Did It Go?” Los Angeles Times, August 25, 2017.

“Sydney Peace Prize.” Sydney Peace Foundation.

Thaler, Mathias. Critical Theory and the Engaged Imagination. New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming 2018.

Vohra, Sweta. “Documents Show US Monitoring of Black Lives Matter.” AlJazeera, November 28, 2017.

Wolff, Robert Paul. “On Violence.” Journal of Philosophy 66 (1969) 601–16.

  • Avatar

    Todd May


    May Response to Erlenbusch-Anderson

    In her contribution to this discussion, Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson turns from issues facing nonviolent theory and action and toward the issue of naming something as nonviolent. She borrows from Robert Paul Wolff’s discussion of legitimate and illegitimate violence in order to insist that the term nonviolence is not simply descriptive but also normative, and politically normative at that.

    I would like to turn directly to the issue itself, because it seems to me that Wolff’s own treatment of the issue is fundamentally confused. For instance, his argument against the lunch counter sit-ins as not nonviolent—i.e., that they harm the owner more than a beating would—is not an argument against the idea of nonviolence but rather an argument (and, I believe, a not very good one) that the distinction doesn’t apply in this case. Moreover, the argument as such presupposes the very distinction between violence and nonviolence he seeks to undermine.

    So what are we to make of the claim that calling an action, campaign, or movement nonviolent is a political act? Let’s first address the issue of whether it’s a normative act. Here, the answer is, of course it is. It is normative because most of us believe that, all things equal, nonviolence is better than violence. That strikes me as an obviously good thing to believe, but it is a normative belief. Having said this, however, we should also note that the fact that it is normative does not preclude its having two other elements: a descriptive content and, related, criteria for assessment. This also seems manifest. To call someone’s behavior “rude,” for instance, is to make a normative claim about their behavior. However, one can offer a description of rude behavior that would distinguish it, say, from polite behavior (the fact that this description is culturally bound does nothing to undermine it—norms like rudeness are not universal, after all), and then use that description to determine whether the behavior in question is or is not rude.

    One might want to insist here, though, that a normative label is harder or more fraught to apply, precisely because it is normative. I agree that some labels, nonviolence among them, may be more fraught to apply, but this is not because of some deep contrast between what are called normative or descriptive labels and what are called, in Erlenbusch-Anderson’s terms, natural kinds. She says that “terms like violence and nonviolence do not pick out natural kinds that exist in the world independently of human cognition and actions.” However, while the natural kinds may exist independent of human cognition and action, the act of naming them does not. This is not only because naming is an act, but also because the name itself can have normative implications. Take “gold,” for instance. The label picks out a natural kind, but it also ascribes a certain value to it, a worth-possessing aspect, that is embedded entirely in a set of human practices.

    Normativity runs deep in language use, and in many different ways. So the fact that naming an act or campaign or movement as nonviolent is, in part, a normative act should not be troubling for anyone, and the fact that naming an act or campaign nonviolent further involves, all things equal, a sort of political endorsement—particularly when contrasted with violence—also does not make it a special object of investigation.

    With this in mind, let’s turn to the question Erlenbusch-Anderson cites at the outset, of whether BLM is a nonviolent movement. Of course, movements are rarely if ever entirely nonviolent, regardless of the definition of nonviolence one uses, so the question really is one of whether BLM is largely or fundamentally nonviolent. In my book I say that nonviolence respects the dignity of others and particularly of the adversary, and that to respect the dignity of others is to respect that others need “to engage in projects and relationships that unfold over time; to be aware of one’s death in a way that affects how one sees the arc of one’s life; to have biological needs like food, shelter, and sleep; to have basic psychological needs like care and a sense of attachment to one’s surroundings.” Nonviolence, even when it is coercive, does not violate the dignity of others in this sense.

    The question, then, of whether BLM is fundamentally nonviolent is, in my view, a question of whether it respects the dignity of others. This is a question that may be fraught to answer, in part because of the difficulty of assessing whether a movement as complex as BLM meets the criterion of dignity I have laid out. But complexity is not the same thing as arbitrariness. There are things that can be said in its favor and things that can be said against. Further, one can discuss those things, assess them, and perhaps arrive at an answer. In the case of BLM, I believe that answer will clearly be that it is fundamentally nonviolent. And, given their history, the FBI’s and DHS’s claim to the contrary gives absolutely no reason to believe otherwise.

    I have an underlying worry regarding Erlenbusch-Anderson’s approach to the politics of naming. It is not one she herself displays—I believe she is too disciplined a thinker for it. But it is one that, if we are not careful, will rise to the surface. My worry is that such perspectives tread very close to an epistemic relativism. I have long worried about the epistemic relativism displayed in parts of the recent Continental tradition of philosophy, a worry that has, unfortunately, received justification in our current era of President Trump and “alternative facts.” Those of us who struggle in progressive movements should be deeply attached to truth rather than, as too often happens, to a relativism that in the end always favors those in power. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari once commented that “it is not the slumber of reason that engenders monsters, but vigilant and insomniac rationality.” Those who theorize from a progressive position should recognize that comment as profoundly and dangerously misguided.



Ambiguous Disavowal

Todd May on Nonviolence and Its Others

In his 2015 book, Nonviolent Resistance: A Philosophical Introduction, Todd May works to extend his previous work on post-structuralist thought, anarchism, identity, and justice into a thorough philosophical elucidation of nonviolent direct action. I write as someone who has been deeply influenced by May’s previous work: both by his excellent exposition of French post-structuralist thought, and for how he has drawn this thought into connection with the political tradition of anarchism, particular in his formulation of post-structuralist anarchism, and his more recent work on Jacques Rancière. However, as a critical scholar of nonviolence (see Nonviolence Ain’t What It Used to Be: Unarmed Insurrection and the Rhetoric of Resistance), I am disappointed to find that May’s book on nonviolence shows the same oversights which habitually surface in related works. While it may not be surprising that May falls prey to common oversights, I worry that these faults dangerously miscomprehend movements in their current context, and even facilitate the counterinsurgency approaches of those seeking to undercut and disrupt movements in our time.

As May sets out to provide an unprecedented elaboration of the philosophical basis of nonviolent resistance, he resists defining what exactly constitutes “nonviolence,” and what makes the “violence” that nonviolence proponents reject. Different forms of nonviolence, he admits, are “not reducible to one another and they are not derived from a single formula” (72). Similarly, the opposite of nonviolence is not able to be defined, as “the term violence is used in many ways and capturing those ways in a tidy definition may be a quixotic endeavor” (29–30). Instead, the only consistency to be discerned throughout nonviolent practices is one of intention: “Our goal . . . is not to offer an account of all violence, but only the violence that nonviolence seeks to avoid” (53). I will expand below about why this intention of disavowal is insufficient, and indeed hazardous, under present social conditions.

Definitional difficulties are hardly unique to May’s work. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, whose work May draws on throughout, are widely credited as having objectively proven the strategic supremacy of nonviolence through their book-length study of data sets on a large number of conflicts. The authors lay out their definition of violence by stating that “violent tactics include bombings, shootings, kidnappings, physical sabotage such as the destruction of infrastructure, and other types of physical harm of people and property” (Chenoweth and Stephan, 13). However, only a few pages later, the authors mention that the Correlates of War database, which they rely on for the bulk of their analysis, “requires all combatant groups to be armed and have sustained a thousand battle deaths during the course of the conflict, suggesting that the conflict is necessarily violent” (16). The stark disjunction between their nominal definition—which would include the sorts of public property destruction and physical confrontations with police so typical of recent protests—and their functional one—which describes only high-intensity, large-scale lethal violence between states or armed factions—goes unremarked.

May repeats precisely this definitional coup, substituting descriptions of armed warfare for unarmed violent situations, more aptly termed riots. At one point, nonviolence is initially defined in opposition to the sort of violence evident in both football and in military force (26). Nonviolence is then counterposed to “military intervention,” as those who “do not have access to military weapons” (70). Later, it is identified with “the distinction between those who possess and those who don’t possess guns” (104). Are guns really the common factor in violence that nonviolence rejects? May then counterposes nonviolence to vengeance, as in the Civil Rights sit-ins, when nonviolence was understood as the “refusal to retaliate” (24), and in his later claim that any resistance not termed nonviolence is subject to the “cycles of violence” (78) of endless retribution—as if anything outside nonviolence is necessarily carried out in retribution, and invites it. At one point, May even asserts that “particularly when the adversary is well armed, a campaign of violence is likely to be futile” (148). Though May does not spell out this apparently obvious argument, the implication is that any activity outside the terms of nonviolence is necessarily seeking to out-compete the State in parity of arms—an absurd and ahistorical claim.

Throughout his book, May repeats another common analytical misstep, by emphasizing how effective actions have been “mostly nonviolent.” The “bulk of the [1999 Seattle WTO] demonstrations was, in fact, nonviolent” (173), and both Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST) and the factory occupation movement in Argentina were “largely nonviolent challenges” (173). May clarifies that violence can occur within nonviolent campaigns—“just as a swallow does not make a summer, a shove or a threat does not turn a nonviolent campaign into a violent one” (37). However, we are not told how much violence might prevent a campaign or movement from identifying as nonviolent. The point is further muddied as May acknowledges that some forcible destruction of property might not actually be violent, again without showing how we might tell the difference between violent and nonviolent arson, for example.

How, then, can we know when a movement is essentially nonviolent despite marginally violent phenomenon? George Lakey in his 1973 Strategy for a Living Revolution, faces a similar dilemma as he argues how the May 1968 uprising in Paris was mostly nonviolent. After several nights of pitched street battles between students and police, much wider sectors of society joined in the protests, and police were powerless to contain them; as a result, these latter phases of the protests were “nonviolent,” not characterized by clashes. What Lakey’s framing ignores is the way in which the initial violent clashes were essential in initiating the open challenge to the De Gaulle regime, and that the courage and rage demonstrated by the students opened the space for the wider movement, in a way that less confrontational approaches had not. May makes a very similar move when discussing the Egyptian Revolution: he acknowledged that “the occupation of Tahrir Square did not begin entirely nonviolently,” involving clashes with police and a number of Molotov cocktails, but explains that this was simply the result of a lack of protest discipline, and that the protests were essentially nonviolent. (See “Solidarity Statement from Cairo,” which disputes at length just the characterizations of the Tahrir uprisings as nonviolent;

In 2012, I interviewed Tarek Shalaby, an Egyptian activist and blogger centrally involved throughout the Tahrir revolution. Shalaby explained how daytimes during the uprising were defined by large public gatherings in the square, in which participants of all sorts gathered together in an atmosphere of ecstatic conviviality. Nighttime, in turn, was given to heated clashes, in which youth clashed with police, breaking through police lines and destroying party headquarters, police stations, and other symbols of authoritarian rule. The significance of such acts under a police state ruled by ubiquitous fear and widespread torture cannot be overestimated. Just as night gives way to day, the widespread public presence of different types of people was absolutely necessary to show how “the people want the downfall of the regime”; and as day gives way to night, the nighttime clashes were just as necessary to show the regime’s vulnerability, and the courageous, impassioned conviction of the youth in the streets. They were different, complementary moments of a single process, explained Shalaby. Even if the phases of the demonstrations can be so neatly distinguished in description, they can hardly be argued to be ontologically or functionally discrete. May repeatedly acknowledges that “nonviolent resistance and struggle marched step by step alongside the violence that seems to have overshadowed it” (22). What if this co-incidence was not a coincidence, but rather a sign of interdependence and complementarity?

In his own definition, May defines nonviolence as an activity that challenges arrangements of power while respecting the dignity of participants. However moving this formation, May defines nonviolence by what he wants it to do, rather than any consistent demonstration of what it is or does in the world. Tragically, what he never proves is that this formation has any connection to anything else termed “nonviolence,” and that violent acts such as clashes with police or property destruction, might not fit just as well within this definition. Can’t non-nonviolent activities also challenge power while asserting dignity? When Angela Davis explains the movement’s resort to arms in Black Power Mixtape, is she not both speaking of challenging power, and of respecting human dignity? In the midst of an armed campaign by Uruguay’s Tupamaros in which they were robbing a series of banks, surveys revealed that they enjoyed high support among bank employees (Labrousse, 118); isn’t this a sign that they practiced violent expropriation while respecting the dignity of all participants? When the youth of Greece or the residents of Baltimore refused to accept that police possess the capacity to dispose of young lives with impunity, and burned down a great deal of property to punctuate their enunciation, weren’t they asserting the dignity of participants—even the deeper potential dignity of their adversaries? Or perhaps armed self-defense, bank robberies, and riots are somehow exemplary of nonviolence?

The importance of May’s inconsistency is revealed in application. May is writing in the context just after the Occupy movement, and during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. Nonviolence was a topic of extremely heated debate in these movements, particularly in the former; however, the presence or use of military force or guns, let alone “matching arms” with the state, or retributive violence, was in no way ever in question. Instead, what was (and is) very much under debate, were clashes with police, and acts of property destruction during protests—what are generally termed “riots.” This is not unique to our times; as riot historian Paul Gilje has exhaustively demonstrated, riots have been an indispensible means in American history for marginalized peoples to exert leverage. Gilje catalogues over 4,000 riots in US history. By contrast, armed confrontations with the state have been exceedingly rare. Why, then, are guns, military force, endless cycles of retributive murder, and parity of arms with the state somehow the only alternative to nonviolence?

Nonviolence throughout its history—and across the “principled vs. strategic” nonviolence difference which May describes—has always subsisted on the habit of claiming a false equivalence between riot and war. It is as if nonviolence adherents are always talking about warfare, but in practice are complaining about riots. William Lloyd Garrison did so regarding enslaving states and the Jacobins, Tolstoy did so with the Czar’s police and the revolutionaries, as did Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in perhaps a less direct or consistent fashion.

The unfortunate implications of this dubious equivalence are not far behind. Following Kurt Schock, May claims that nonviolence “is a type of activity that is at once political and bottom-up . . . in contrast to most noninstitutional violent political change (terrorism would be an exception here) in that the latter often seeks top-down change by taking over the political levers in order to effect change rather than, as with nonviolence, undermining their ability to operate effectively” (108). Is most counterhegemonic political violence under debate by nonviolence proponents actually seeking to seize control of the state? Aren’t riots—much more common events than May’s odd mention of terrorism—precisely an attempt to undermine the ability of political authority to operate effectively, among other things?

Common to the assertions of the “riot = war” equivalence are those typifying any performance of political violence as characterized by the same toxic masculinity which armies foster among soldiers, or more recently, common clichés about “white anarchist dudes with father issues.” In fact, those who resort to riot generally do so out of lack of privilege, without access to less risky means of leverage. What of the near synonymousness of “suffragette” with “rioter” a century ago? What of the 1966 Compton Cafeteria and 1969 Stonewall riots, which set the Gay Liberation movement into life? What of the fact that every single riot after World War II has been a response to police brutality and murder of youth of color? May is dismissive in his passing mention of Occupy Oakland, without acknowledging that it provided a striking counterexample to what he describes as the predominantly white, middle-class demographic of Occupy Wall Street in New York. While Oakland was marked by some actions of property destruction, by far and above the greatest displays of not-nonviolent action were constant clashes with police—prefiguring, by two years, the Ferguson uprising. According to participants I interviewed, it was precisely the decision of Oakland’s General Assembly to not accept police presence in the Occupy camp which made it a relatively safe space for Black youth, and created arguably the country’s most under-appreciated social movement in decades. The fact that May refers to violence in Oakland (and Cairo) as merely symptomatic of a lack of discipline and training in nonviolence is concerning; May should recognize such talk as essentially technocratic cover or escape from what is actually an essentially political disagreement.

As an additional concern, it should be noted that the practice of moral and political “jiu-jitsu” which May urges in such moments are flatly useless for those whose suffering and death are accepted and routine. The fact that routine police murder of Black youth is not shocking is exactly what necessitated the Ferguson and Black Lives Matter uprisings. To insist that people in this position should simply suffer more to win over their opponent’s or the public’s sympathy is to miss the whole point.

In some way, May’s central error is one shared with nonviolence proponents at large: he neglects to distinguish violent interference with the performance of office—what Bourdieu called “disturbing the liturgical conditions of misrecognition” (Bourdieu, 113)—from seeking to inflict injury or death on the body performing that office. On page 68, May makes the claim that toppling a dictator’s statue is not intended to humiliate the dictator. Of course, toppling a dictator’s statue is meant exactly to humiliate him, but only to humiliate his social office as a dictator, not to humiliate his human body. In the 2008 youth riots in Greece, after police arbitrarily executed fifteen-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in an anarchist neighborhood in Athens, rioters inflicted gargantuan damage on property, burning down and smashing nearly every ATM, bank, police station, and other symbols of authority across the entire country, and heated clashes with police occurred in every city. However, not a single serious injury of police was reported (foreseeably due, no doubt, to the armor and safety gear they employed in the battles). The protests in Ferguson, which sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, involved, at times, arson, smashing, and looting of local businesses, as well as battles, including even molotovs, with police. Again, no serious police injuries were reported. In my work, I conjecture that such public performances of non-injurious violence are a way of calling values into question: Why are you more shocked at this smashed storefront or burning auto shop than the summary execution by police of another youth of color? Why is pushing against, insulting, or refusing to comply with an officer a criminal act, while video proof of arbitrary murder by that same officer would not even deserve a trial? Public acts of property destruction and clashes with police function as a means of forcing comparisons of values, between routine, unremarkable violence, and shocking, exceptional—even if trivial—sorts, as a way to spark conversation on topics generally unspeakable. Significantly, instances of lethal or injurious violence risk making such comparisons less effective, in much the way nonviolence scholars seek to argue. However, non-lethal or non-injurious violence, such as is vastly prevalent in riots, may do the opposite: it can assert the value of life.

Finally, returning at last to May’s definition of nonviolence by its intention to disavow violence, it is paradoxically in this disavowal from palpable and immediate proximity of violence that nonviolence, throughout its history, has drawn its power. Classical nonviolent direct actions certainly have possessed a unique power, but that power was drawn from disowning a necessarily palpable and immediate possibility of violence. In moments such as late neoliberalism, when social disruptive capacities have been so managed that demonstrations can happen without any implicit threat of riot; when business unions can call for pre-negotiated strikes with no threat of disruptive work stoppage, and when occupations can be politely handed over to non-governmental agencies with vested interests in managing polite relations with their funders and authorities, nonviolent action often becomes not worth the name, precisely because the palpability and immediacy of violent potential has been lost.

May’s social vision, in common with his other valuable works, is one worthy of admiration. In this political moment of rampant dehumanization, we should always hesitate to participate in any further devaluation of life, and should do all we can to fight for the dignity and equality of all. We would be hard pressed to find evidence of equality under current arrangements, but we can take on the project which begins by presupposing the inherent worth of every life, and begin to model what a world based on these values might look like in the way we build relationships—even within conflict—with those around us. However, in a moment when we are told free speech means granting fascists a platform to organize murder, when we are told that corporate windows and walls possess more value than Black lives, when we are told that police are a priori heroes deserving of unconditional deference—in such a moment, we should hesitate to accept ethical categories offered to us by those in power. Nonviolence has proven to be the central means by which “good protesters” are distinguished from “bad protesters” in the current model of counterinsurgency (Williams et al.), and as such, those of us who seek to combine social movement scholarship with advocacy for justice must face down such categories with a concerted critical engagement.



The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975. Film. Directed by Goran Olsson. Sveriges Television, 2011.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Chenoweth, Erica, and Maria J. Stephan. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Labrousse, Alain. The Tupamaros. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1973.

May, Todd. Nonviolent Resistance: A Philosophical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity, 2015.

Meckfessel, Shon. Nonviolence Ain’t What It Used to Be: Unarmed Insurrection and the Rhetoric of Resistance. Edinburgh: AK Press, 2016.

Williams, Kristian, et al. Life during Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency. Edinburgh: AK Press, 2013.

  • Avatar

    Todd May


    May Response to Meckfessel

     My responses to the previous three essays have been longer, pressing the word limit I was asked to respect. This response, by contrast, will be quite short. The reason for this is simple. Meckfessel bases his essay on a sloppy reading of the book. Let me just outline a few places where his reading neglects the words that were on the page.

    1. He says that “he resists defining what exactly constitutes ‘nonviolence,’ and what makes the ‘violence’ that nonviolence proponents reject.” The point of introducing the idea of dignity, whose definition on p. 51 in the text (not referred to by Meckfessel) and brought into my previous responses on this thread, is that it helps to precisely define the violence that nonviolence seeks to avoid. Later in his essay, Meckfessel accuses me of using different definitions of nonviolence when in fact I am discussing different instances of it.
    2. Meckfessel says that I neglect the distinction between riots and war, especially when riots are destructive of property rather than people. On pp. 67–69 I discuss destruction of property, which I take to be a difficult issue in the theory of nonviolence and not immediately to be placed under the category of violence to be avoided by nonviolent action. Again, that discussion is neglected.
    3. He asserts that many of the events I cite, Tahrir Square in particular, involved violence. I recognized that in the book, as he himself admits. His suggestion—raised as a question rather than offered as an argument—is, “What if this co-incidence was not a coincidence, but rather a sign of interdependence and complementarity?” A rhetorical question is not an argument.
    4. Meckfessel asserts that “the practice of moral and political ‘jiujitsu’ which May urges in such moments are flatly useless for those whose suffering and death are accepted and routine.” In the book I argue that moral jiu-jitsu is only one form of nonviolence, the specifically Gandhian form, and then go on to say that if that were the only form of nonviolence, “then very few campaigns would actually be nonviolent” (82), and from there proceed for the next twenty-some pages to discuss different dynamics of nonviolence.
    5. He seems to assume that I oppose all forms of violence. Pacifism is nowhere endorsed in the text, and for two good reasons. First, I am not a pacifist. Second, the point of the book is not to defend a pacifist position but rather first and foremost to lay out in philosophical terms the character of nonviolent resistance and secondarily to discuss some of its strategies and effectiveness.

    In philosophy there is an unfortunate tradition (thankfully beginning to fade from the scene) of approaching a book or a public talk with the sole intention of finding something to disagree with in the author’s remarks. This intention often leads not only to an unsympathetic reading (or hearing), but in fact to a reading that does not actually read. Meckfessel’s essay is an exemplary case of this.

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