Activist Violence in Context

Not every protest is an attempt to persuade. Some activists are less interested in changing minds than in breaking wills. To this end, they employ the methods of coercion (as shown here, here, and here).

If you listen to the further left, they will tell you as much. For example, consider a 2014 piece published by Salon that proudly defended the physical harassment of Google employees. Direct action of this kind, Natasha Lennard argued, gets results:

Intimidation tactics targeting the employees of major corporations are nothing new and have a history of success: Indeed, animal rights activists achieved some major victories in securing the closure of animal testing facilities in the ’90s and early 2000s through the intimidation of key investors. This intimidation was deemed terrorism, but, hey, it worked.

Lennard was referring in part to the campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences (for background, see here, here, and here). This campaign was dismissed as an anomaly by some at the time. But looking back now, its ethos of “by any means necessary” no longer seems so unusual.

There are obvious risks to being less than peaceful, but the temptation should be easy to understand. After all, Lennard had a point about diversified tactics. A bit of violence can do something for a movement. When it works, it adds a hint of menace to activist demands. It implies a penalty for opposing their version of justice. In short, it puts the screws on their adversaries.

An act of protest should be defined by what it does to others. Seen in this context, violence by activists is a tool of political extortion. Most liberals already take this view, when the assailants are on the far right. We do not make facile excuses for white supremacists when they form a mob. We do not pretend that abortion clinic bombers are grievance bots, who are compelled to act by some “intolerable pressure.” We do not indulge the self-styled “patriot” militias, who would use any means necessary to achieve their ends. No, we hold them to account for their coercive actions. We should apply the same standard to their counterparts on the illiberal left.

The matter is one of democratic principle. This was ably explained by Sidney Hook, whose 1967 essay “Democracy and Social Protest: Neither Blind Obedience nor Uncivil Disobedience” is well worth revisiting today. Citizens in a free society, Hook argued, should be “free to disagree with a law but that so long as it remains in force they have a prima facie obligation to obey it.” The presumption should be against illegal acts of coercion. This is necessary, he said, to “escape the twin evils of tyranny and anarchy. Tyranny is avoided by virtue of the freedom and power of dissent to win the uncoerced consent of the community. Anarchy is avoided by reliance on due process, the recognition that there is a right way to correct a wrong, and a wrong way to secure a right.” Otherwise, liberal democracy would not be viable.

The freedom to protest is essential for democratic consent, and it must be protected from undue interference. There is also a place for civil disobedience, if the actions are public, deliberate, and non-violent. All of this Hook acknowledged. The problem, then and now, is not honest and peaceful dissent. It is the tendency among some liberals to fixate on one evil to the exclusion of another. Hook criticized “ritualistic liberals,” not because they rejected “the absolutism of law,” but because they demanded “something very close to the absolutism of individual conscience.”

Properly rejecting the view that the law, no matter how unjust, must be obeyed in all circumstances, they have taken the view that the law is to be obeyed only when the individual deems it just or when it does not outrage his [or her] conscience. Fantastic comparisons are made between those who do not act on the dictates of their conscience and those who accepted and obeyed Hitler’s laws. These comparisons completely disregard the systems of law involved, the presence of alternatives of action, the differences in the behavior commanded, in degrees of complicity of guilt, in the moral costs and personal consequences of compliance, and other relevant matters.

It is commendable to recognize the primacy of morality to law, but unless we recognize the centrality of intelligence to morality we stumble with blind self-righteousness into moral disaster. Because, Kant to the contrary notwithstanding, it is not wrong sometimes to lie to save a human life, because it is not wrong sometimes to kill in defense to save many more from being killed, it does not follow that the moral principles: “Do not lie!” “Do not kill!” are invalid. When more than one valid principle bears on a problem of moral experience, the very fact of their conflict means that not all of them can hold unqualifiedly. One of them must be denied. The point is that such negation or violation entails upon us the obligation of justifying it, and moral justification is a matter of reasons not of conscience. The burden of proof rests on the person violating the rules. Normally, we don’t have to justify telling the truth. We do have to justify not telling the truth. Similarly, with respect to the moral obligation of a democrat who breaches his political obligation to obey the laws of a democratic community. The resort to conscience is not enough. There must always be reasonable justification.

Grievance is not license. A sense of righteous indignation does not entitle activists to get their way, by hook or by crook.

A free society requires peace. It requires a way of living and arguing with political rivals without kicking them in the teeth. Those who would undermine this arrangement should not be mistaken for heroes. To romanticize or make excuses for activist violence would only encourage more of the same.