When is it justified to ask whether violence is justified?

I was thinking of writing a post called “When is violence justified?”, but then I decided to write this post instead.

Here's the ideal case: Joan is thinking of doing something violent. However, that violence is bad. You ask whether it's justified, and Joan realizes it's bad and decides not to do it.

But that's not the only thing that happens when you ask the question.

  • If you ask in public, other people make their own decisions about whether Joan's violence is justified. This can be good, if they are well-informed and make the right decision. But it can also be bad. A lot of people will jump from “Joan made a bad choice” to “Joan is a bad person who deserves less help”. They might even want to punish Joan, even though punishment is also violence and might also be unjustified.

    This is less of a worry if you ask Joan privately, rather than in public. But it's not totally gone, either. If Joan decides that the violence was unjustified, ze might mistreat other people who do similar violence in the future.
  • A lot of people have unhealthy moral beliefs about their own actions, too. Joan might feel excessively bad, or even punish zemself, if ze thinks ze's done something bad. This can be especially harmful if Joan decides the violence is bad but then does it anyway (which can happen for a lot of different reasons).
  • Maybe Joan makes the wrong decision. Maybe the violence was necessary to prevent a greater evil, but you talked zem out of it. Or maybe it was a bad idea, but talking about it made zem get attached to the idea of doing it. I'm not too worried about these cases, because it's generally easier to make the right decision if you talk about it than if you don't. But if neither of you has all the facts, it's not so good. If you ask for a justification too early, Joan will come up with one based on zir current knowledge. Then ze might think ze's found the right answer, and be less receptive to learning new facts that might change the answer.
  • By asking the question, you imply that Joan's violence is an important thing to worry about. Like any other statement, this implied one – “Joan's violence is an important concern” – can be correct, incorrect, or misleading.

Let me elaborate on that last one. If you talk about something in public1, a lot of your audience won't know the facts of the situation at first. So they'll learn about it from what you say. If the first thing you talk about is Joan's violence, then the story they'll hear is “that situation where Joan was violent”.

I mean, let's say Joan was a black bloc protester protecting people from police brutality. And let's say Joan did also do at least one thing that was violent in a bad way, and you want to critique it. Now you have a choice. You can save your critique for later – for a smaller audience who knows the full context and has a way to act on it. Or you can share it immediately. But I guarantee that if you share it with your audience of 100,000, or 200, or even 20, there will be at least one person who did not know that the police were the ones who did most of the violence at that protest. And that person will now believe that Joan was the one who did most of the violence.

Maybe your critique is important! But is it important enough? Does your critique do enough good to justify misleading some people like this? Worse yet, are you sure that you know the facts of the situation? Or is there a chance that you have already been misled in the same way? Perhaps by people just as well-intentioned as you are?

When you question an act of violence, you're not just deciding whether that violence was good. You're also deciding which violence should get attention. And you're deciding which things will be called violence in the first place. And that issue – which things will be called violence – is just as important, but implicit. People call it violence if a schoolyard bully threatens to punch somebody. But what do they call it when the government forces children to go to school with bullies, by threatening them with much greater force? People call it violence if a protester breaks a window. What do they call it when a city modifies park benches so that homeless people can't sleep on them? What do they call arrests? What do they call prisons? I recently saw someone say, “violence is never acceptable unless there's an imminent danger to someone's life”, while talking about an antifascist punching a fascist. But somehow, I've never seen someone say that in response to, say, a police officer arresting someone for shoplifting.

In this post, I'm not trying to convince you which of those forms of violence are justified. I just want to show you that it's your choice which violence to put up for critique. And that choice may help or harm people just as much as your conclusions do.

– Eli

  1. Including semi-public spaces like a club meeting or your Facebook friends list. back
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