Peace is Not Without Reason

Although there may be times when some form of violence must be used to satisfy some utilitarian sense of peace, it is rarely applicable to contemporary examples of violence.

A Taiwanese protest organizer urges protesters through a megaphone not to strike back at the police. Mid-sentence, he is struck with a police baton. Grimacing in pain, he promptly jumps down from his pedestal and starts throwing punches at the officer.

I was told this story by my uncle, who attended the protest against Martial Law in Taiwan in the 1980s. Although we always laugh at its irony, it is a perfect illustration that, even for an advocate and part-time practitioner of nonviolence, everyone is susceptible to the maddening effects of anger. Anger that results in a breakout of violence appeals to a person on a more primitive level. Therefore, practitioners of nonviolence have to consciously combat this natural instinct for the sake of their moral values.

But while this aspect of nonviolence is praised, the uncompromising, absolutist position against violence is open to criticism. Many argue that accepting any belief without compromise is dangerous, even if that belief is in nonviolence. As Professor William R. Marty writes, violence, not as a byproduct of passion, but as a means of achieving a goal, can be justified under certain circumstances, and “a rigid adherence to nonviolence [does] not make sense in terms of other values expressed by defenders of nonviolence” (Marty 4).

The argument is made that such a broad ideal as an absolutist position against violence is bound to contradict some notion of peace in utilitarian terms. That is, a dogmatic belief in nonviolence may hinder the ultimate goal of peace. Many who argue along this line relate it to one of several instances in which requests for the federal government to intervene, presumably with force, to protect nonviolent civil rights demonstrators from violent white mobs where denied.

This does uncover an inconsistency in an absolutist position against violence. Without use of reason, such a belief can trip over itself in achieving the ultimate goal of peace. However, this should not be used as an attack against the moral righteousness of nonviolence as a whole. The claim that a “rigid adherence to nonviolence” can lead to a moral paradox is verifiable. The application of this paradox to denounce the validity of nonviolent methods is not.

In this argument lies the warrant that the civil rights demonstrators are innocent, and that to sacrifice their wellbeing is wrong. If the assertion is that, in practicing nonviolence, the federal government sacrificed the innocent, then we must also recognize that the civil rights demonstrators are regarded as innocent because of their practice of nonviolence. The peaceful values that are perceived to be compromised by the federal government’s nonviolence are only perceived as such because of the peaceful values upheld by the demonstrators’ nonviolence, and while this paradox is used to attack the validity of nonviolence, the strength is lost in the analysis of the paradox.

It should be noted that much of the strength of this argument against nonviolence relies on the definitions of the terms used. It attempts to use the flaws found in adhering indefinitely to nonviolence to denounce nonviolence altogether, therefore overgeneralizing the term “nonviolence.” Under closer inspection, this rigid adherence, as used to describe the federal government’s inaction, is better described as passivity and neglect for the wellbeing of the true practitioners of nonviolence. It is only because the action of nonviolence is defined by its lack of violent actions that the government’s inaction can be mistaken for an act of nonviolence. While they did in fact avoid the use of violence, the inaction of the government can hardly be described as a peaceful move.

This does not make their point any less valid; in fact, it is exactly their point. It does, however, make clear that the argument is merely a matter of semantics. Both the peaceful protests of the demonstrators and the inaction of the government technically fall under the definition of “nonviolent” in that both of them avoided the use of violence. Only one, however, advocated peace. Only one can be correctly described an act of nonviolence.

It should also be noted that there is a distinct difference between the use of force and violence, both semanticallymorally. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the pivotal advocates of nonviolence in the U.S., makes note of this difference in his defense of the “intelligent use of police force” to protect moves to desegregate schools in the South, stating that he is a pacifist, not an anarchist (King 215). In the case of the federal government, the use of force to pacify a body of people is possible without violence simply because of the power gap between the two parties. Though this seems at odds with some core American values, it is true that the use of force, in this instance, the government against a body of people, avoids violence and maintains peace. This is not to say that the use of violence is more effective in keeping peace; it is to say that force, when used correctly, can be an agent of nonviolence.

Therefore, I would argue that while an absolute avoidance of any force is impractical, the justification for the use of force is wrongly applied in many circumstances to justify the use of violence. Furthermore, the justification for the use of violence is often wrongly applied in many circumstances still. Although there may be times when some form of violence must be used to satisfy some utilitarian sense of peace, it is rarely applicable to contemporary examples of violence.

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Who Is Their God?” The Nation, Nov. 13, 1962: 209-11. Print.

Marty, William. “Nonviolence, Violence, and Reason,” Journal of Politics 33.1 (1971): 3-24.


Leon Li was born in Syracuse New York to a Taiwanese family, currently lives in Bloomington Illinois with his family. He will attend University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this fall as a freshman.

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