A Non-Violent Conversation About Violence

ahimsaAhimsa is a term a lot of vegans know and love. Derived from sanskrit, it’s a term that means “compassion” and “not to injure.” I’m all for compassion and not injuring others, which is, like, totally the reason I’m vegan (it’s not because I want to fit in). But is violence ever okay? This question looms especially in the midst of the Baltimore Uprising, during which some (sooome) protesters acted violently. Some police acted violently, too. Violence is on a lot of our minds.

So, I sat down (at separate computers – thanks, Google Docs!) with my friend Allison over at The Book Wheel to discuss. This discussion is purely philosophical and does not necessarily represent our views. In other words, I think we both like to debate, so we may have played devil’s advocate a bit. We raise some controversial issues that you might agree with, or you might disagree with and actually leave me a comment. Win, win, right? Here’s our chat.

Allison: When it comes to violence, most people want to issue a blanket statement that violence is never okay. But that gets me thinking – what about self defense? Is it okay to defend yourself from a violent attacker by retaliating in kind, or is walking away always the right answer? What if walking away isn’t possible without the loss of your own life? What then?

I put some feelers out on Facebook about this and the overwhelming majority of responses said that anyone who abuses a child deserves a violent retaliation because they can’t defend themselves. That got me thinking- what about the disabled? Or the elderly? Or animals? Where do they fall into the grand scheme of things (they are all presumably unable to defend themselves)? And if violent retaliation is morally acceptable in some circumstances, where do we draw the line? Or maybe there isn’t a hardline – maybe it’s all subjective? This is where things start to get murky when it comes to blanket statements against violence.

Lisa: Traditionally, I think of self defense as an act of violence that is necessary – or at least perceived as necessary – to get oneself (or someone else who can’t defend themselves) out of a dangerous situation. I had a conversation today that got me wondering if there’s a statute of limitations on that. In other words, couldn’t it be argued that black men are exercising self defense – on a larger scale – against the police?

Allison: That’s a great question. The justice system has systematically incarcerated minorities at a disproportionate rate, which brings self-defense into play. With that being said, while I don’t support rioting and much prefer peaceful protesting, I do recognize that the dynamics that set into motion these types of events are very real. I also recognize that as a white woman, I’ve had it pretty easy.

Historically, riots have, in part, resulted in change by raising awareness. Then again, so have peaceful protests, so it’s hard to put a finger on what exactly effected the most change (although I’m sure there’s some study out there that answers this question). That said, a lot of it has to do with groupthink, which brings things to a whole new level. If more people are peaceful then you may have more peaceful demonstrations, but when more people are violent, it encourages more violence. Social media certainly doesn’t help. As we saw in Ferguson, many of the most violent protesters weren’t from the area.

Lisa: As you said, it’s hard to know what will and won’t affect change when many tactics are being employed simultaneously. As someone who works in the field of animal advocacy, this is something I think about a lot. There is some research about effective advocacy and persuasion, but not enough – and it’s all kind of muddy and dependent on the issue at hand, the timing, the people, and more.

However, and this is a big “however,” I don’t think it’s right for people outside the movement, outside the oppressed group, to tell the people inside it how to advocate for themselves. As a white person who has never experienced racism and has privilege coming out of her bum-bum, I have no place telling black men they’re advocating for themselves wrong. If someone kicked my beloved dog even once, there would be no talking me down from unleashing hell on Earth. The American criminal justice system has been, metaphorically and sometimes not, kicking black men for decades.

Allison: Agreed – don’t mess with my dogs! I think you raise a really great point. It’s not up to the people outside of a disenfranchised group to tell them how to feel. Obviously, there are lines (and laws) that I’d prefer people didn’t cross (I’m looking at you, rioters who lose a football game), but that’s my opinion based on where I stand. There’s a saying in the policy world that you have to meet people where they are, and I think that applies in almost every aspect of life. I can read as many books as I want and talk to as many people as I can, but I’ll still never truly understand it. I think it’s important for everyone to realize that the way they see the world is largely shaped by how they were raised and what they have been subjected to, so it’s all relative.

Lisa: Totally. When I think about my own experience with police, there is no fear, no worry, no feeling like they’re my adversaries. I mean, yeah, I don’t like getting tickets for speeding, but no cop – or authority whatsoever – has ever tried to harass me. This informs my current perspective and biases, so I mostly see a world where police are here to protect me and others from safety. But when I listen to the lived experiences of black people – especially men – that is not the case for them. And only having experienced my own experiences (duh), I can’t judge or assume or dictate others’. All I can do is listen to other people’s perspectives, err on the side of believing them, and read, read, read. I bet you like that answer, you book blogger, you.

Allison: I do! I actually have had a pretty terrible experience with a police officer. Of course, in this case it had to do with him knowing the woman involved in the fender-bender (he actually informed me that he was not sleeping with her, because, you know, that’s appropriate….) and nothing to do with race. BUT, the anger that teeny injustice stirred in me, while a big deal to me at the time, pales in comparison to injustices with regard to race, gender, etc. Since we started writing this post, the State Attorney has brought forth charges against all of the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death, which goes to show that the anger was not misplaced.

You: Yes, we want you to be part of this conversation. What do you think? Is violence ever justified? What are the parameters of self defense? Did you learn to never kick my dog because I’ll slay you?

How can these questions and ideas be applied to vegan eating and activism? I see a lot of parallels, but this is your time to type. Be kind. The goal is to have a thoughtful discussion.

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