Law in Contemporary Society
One of the class discussions that has given me most cause for thought concerns the legitimacy of John Brown's violence in opposing clearly unjust slavery. For many, the impact of the story came from someone who felt compelled to do whatever was necessary to stand up against injustice. I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, and I still don't know (nor will i ever know) what I would have done in his situation. But I remain uneasy with holding up Brown as a model due to his zealous and seemingly unquestioning belief in the need for violence to achieve the ends he sees as necessary for justice.

Rather than spend more time debating with myself whether or not violence could be valuable in any situation, I've tried to turn my energy towards the more productive pursuit of understanding alternative non-violent ways of combating oppression that if effectively utilized can avoid the need to make such a decision in the first place.

As such, I thought i'd share this link to a list of methods of non-violent action, in case anyone else is interested. They are taken from Gene Sharp's The Politics of Nonviolent Action Vol. 2.

-- RohanGrey - 24 May 2012

Interesting post, Rohan. I often contemplate the question of what the best method is to combat oppression. One of the key distinctions in my mind, apart from violent/non-violent, is the distinction between working within the system of oppression and rejecting the system altogether. Of course, these two distinctions overlap in a substantial way, but I do not think they are 100% co-extensive. That is, there are some people, Gandhi comes to mind, who believed that non-participation was critical to meaningful reform, but should be conducted in a non-violent fashion. For example, instead of fighting within the system of the salt industry to increase Indian control, Gandhi thought that non-use of British salt was a preferable alternative. That being said, it is hard to say anything meaningful about either of these distinctions when we abstract away the facts of the situation.

Another related issue I think is important is the risk of co-option that comes with any movement. I visited Occupy Wall Street twice last year, and each time I came away with the uncomfortable feeling that it almost seemed as though the banks wanted the protest to continue so that society would feel as if something was being done, when in reality, the protests did little to change the system. This is great for the banks since, if people feel as if something is being done, then efforts won't be taken to find real solutions. In effect then, there is a risk that Occupy Wall Street made things worse. But on the other hand, bankers attempting to change bank policy from within might also risk co-option since people at the top can pull strings and pervert any attempt at reform into a further entrenchment of the status quo. This relates to the distinctions discussed above -- perhaps the better choice is the one that lowers the risk of co-option. But maybe in either case, co-option is inevitable. I don't know, I don't have a solution. But it's troubling.

-- PrashantRai - 25 May 2012

Hi Prashant,

The reformist vs. revolutionary debate is well hashed out in many places, and as you say is hard to evaluate outside of context-specific situations (is attending columbia law but refusing to play the grading game fighting within the system, or is revolutionary compared to getting the grades and fighting the system as a law partner?). But I find the violence vs non-violence distinction slightly more interesting, particularly in our media age where one person choosing to set themselves on fire can achieve far greater social impact than a guerilla group with guns. On the other hand, depending on your view of responsibility, one may be seen as contributing to violence by the mere act of remaining silent when it is committed by the system of which one is a part, so the distinction probably falls at some point there as well.

I also share your concern about co-option, although am perhaps less concerned about OWS being net bad than you. I'm not sure about the idea that the lower risk of co-option path is always better, even if such a thing were possible to evaluate. Someone has to run for president in our current system, despite it having huge risks (certainties?) of co-option to a large degree. If everyone who was truly committed to avoiding the risk of co-option avoided such positions, then until there was a sufficiently critical mass to replace the existing system, the only people left running for such positions would be those who would be far more comfortable with co-option, or at the least ignorant of its occurrence.


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r4 - 22 Jan 2013 - 18:16:59 - IanSullivan
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