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article imageOp-Ed: The Morality of Violence—Reflecting on Toronto

By Sean O'Flynn-Magee     Jul 1, 2010 in Politics
These days will probably become known as the Toronto Riots, locally the G20 Riots (Toronto doesn’t lend itself to rhyme, so catchier names like the Battle in Seattle are out).
Folk will remember the chaos and panic that gripped the city. Different sides will argue about whether the police went too far in doing their duty or whether peaceful protesters could/should have avoided Black Bloc tarnish. A few sharp cookies will wonder how protesters managed to set police cars on fire (and in good view of news cameras) in a city under lock-down. The rest will acknowledge the peoples’ right of protest but will unanimously condemn anything beyond the narrow scope of law and order.
It’s too easy to dismiss violence as the destructive antics of arrogant, nihilistic, anarchist trouble-makers with no morals and nothing to live for. As soon as Stephan Harper used the word ‘thug’ it reappeared en masse throughout every major media publication and quickly became the referential norm. And discussion has consequently been limited to how violence is unacceptable, and derails the noble role of peaceful protest. Nobody dares to suggest that violence might be not only an acceptable choice but a necessary one.
This won’t be an easy discussion to have. North Americans are ideologically opposed to violence, viewing it as crass and barbaric. But they tend also to have very selective eyesight. For instance, the damage wrought by a small number of protesters on Torontonian businesses is considered violent, whereas the massive, heavily-armed police presence and lock-down throughout the city is not. This puzzling distinction is by no means intuitive but is a necessary part of our cultural programming.
A Violent Culture?
Ours is a culture, according to philosopher Slavoj Zizek, of invisible yet underlying violence. Essentially, violent acts are either not considered violent or are taboo. North Americans are taught to reject violence despite that both Canada and the United States were founded, even premised on violence, the forced removal (genocide, maybe?) of the pre-existing indigenous populations of North America. We learn that violence is bad at the same time that our material security is guaranteed by military exploits and our domestic conduct regulated by the euphemized law enforcement.
So of course it is uncomfortable, maybe even abhorrent, to consider that violence might be an acceptable means of protest. Violence, after all is wrong, right? If we, as citizens were to engage in violent resistance, surely anarchy and chaos would reign, wouldn’t they? That’s just common sense...isn’t it? Common sense, however, didn’t just fall out of the sky. For our entire lives, we have been educated and sedated into denying violence precisely because it limits potential resistance to the dominant power structure. And yet those same dominant powers regularly enact violence; it’s just as any first-year PoliSci student knows: a defining quality of a state is that is has a “monopoly on the use of force.”
Our cultural myth is that some forms of violence are acceptable while others are not. But again, there’s nothing intuitive about this. Evaluating violence--labeling it as good or bad--is done by those who control the discourse (just as history is written by the winners). Hence, it is legitimate to launch a 46-nation invasion of Afghanistan, a sovereign nation, but illegitimate for the local militia, Taliban or otherwise, to resist invading forces (that’s why Omar Khadr is still languishing in Guantanamo). Hence, it’s in the interests of security to arm Toronto Police with automatic rifles, helicopters and sound canons but a threat to security when university students are found in possession of a weapons cache (ie. bricks, sticks and stones...although police naturally attempted to hyperbolize these seizures ).
The most startling contradiction is that while our society is propped up, even propelled forward, by violence, violent resistance to the dominant power cannot be justified. Apologists and dissidents shake their heads in unison to such tired cliches as “violence begets violence” and “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” If we want a better society, people reason, it cannot come from violence which would compromise the purity of change.
Therefore, when it is not dismissed as “wrong,” violence is often criticized as being “ineffective” or “counter-productive.” But this is only because of the indoctrination of the popular imagination against violence. The militant campaign waged in South Africa by the ANC against the Apartheid government was incredibly popular and successful. So were various Republican movements at different times in (Northern) Ireland. As was the overthrowing of Batista in Cuba. In many circumstances, in fact, violence is just what the popular imagination demands.
It is a testament to the thought control exercised by Western ‘liberal democracies’ that individuals--exploited and oppressed though they are--reject violence as excessive, illegitimate and uncivilized. Dominant interests well understand the danger that violence, in the hands of the subjugated majority, poses to the continuation of their privileged minority, and so have waged a long and successful PR campaign against violence. Their own use of violence, although sometimes debated in the details, is never fundamentally questioned. The professional standing armies and police forces are a reminder of a violence that although unmentioned is always there.
Violence is not black-and-white. It is intrinsic to the human experience and a most honest means of expression. “To chastise it outright,” says Zizek, “to condemn it as ‘bad’, is an ideological operation par excellence, a mystification which collaborates in rendering invisible the fundamental forms of social violence.” To dismiss violence without qualification is to submit to the dominant power, to allow it to continue unopposed by abandoning one of the most valuable tools in combating injustice. In other words, as long as violence is unacceptable for the citizen but the modus operandi of the state, change is impossible.
But we can move beyond violence, people will clamour, because of our saviour, democracy. Through democracy, we can exercise dissent and offer challenges to the status quo without resorting to brutality. And this might be so in fantasy, but in reality the political freedoms we are told we have are illusory, and the solace we take from “living in a democracy” is just another layer of the ideological programing that encourages us to reject violence.
By any criterion, our democratic experiment is a failure. It has not succeeded in creating an even remotely equal society (the logical outcome of any power structure government by the majority). It has not done away with war. It has failed to balance humanity’s role with(in) the ecosystem.
Yes, we vote...but for a caste of politicians who differ only in their party affiliation, who are identical in their adherence to the status quo agenda. Yet a powerful doublethink--one which assures us that this is democracy despite all the evidence to the contrary--works in the public mind, and people continue to vote, to watch the debates, to campaign for Liberals, Democrats, Conservatives and Republicans, to thoughtlessly endorse the system.
Legitimate resistance tends to be absorbed by the system (take Greenpeace, for instance, or labor unions, both of which essentially devolved from radical activity to political lobbying) and diluted so it is palatable to the hegemony. The truth is that protest is no longer an act of resistance. It is accepted, at times even encouraged, by dominant powers, so long as it is regulated. Thus there are legal and illegal protests, dissent is confined at major events to free speech zones (protest pens), police flank marches, like wardens herding prisoners.
Democracy, in a proper sense, is premised upon discussion. However, in today’s dystopian future, instead of legitimate debate, we are force-fed sensation and spectacle. An election, supposedly a political act, has become a sad cliche in which automatons grudgingly go through the participatory motions. The mass media, apparently the bastion of free speech, fabricates divisive arguments within a narrow range of acceptable content, and promotes fickle celebrity worship to literally captivate audiences. Protest is encouraged, regulated and ignored, having no effect on political or socioeconomic decision-making. For all the talk of change, things are more and more the same. And the parade of democracy (or rather, the charade) marches on.
Back in Toronto
Obviously, there was nothing democratic about what happened in Toronto. The G8/G20, a cabal of state and business leaders that has usurped the leadership role of the United Nations without including most nations, met secretly behind locked doors and security fences, relying on the media to redirect the public’s attention to a few burning cars rather than the decisions being made (not least that now that stimulus packages have been handed out, deficits must be reduced meaning that wealth redistribution, in the form of public spending, will decrease--see Britain's latest budget). This is hardly a surprise because although citizens were kept outside the secured perimeter, unelected World Bank and IMF officials were welcomed within.
Meanwhile, Toronto residents had their freedoms torn away in order to guarantee ‘order.’ Police were handed an open wallet with which they managed to outspend even their gluttonous counterparts in Vancouver, amassing nearly a billion dollars in obedience enforcement tools. Comfortably outfitted, they proceeded to harass citizens, using extraordinary powers (granted without legislative debate) to stop, search and arrest at will. Several journalists were threatened with rape. Peaceful demonstrations were attacked.
Mysteriously, police cars were abandoned in the path of several protesters, long enough to be set alight, recorded, and disseminated as the most memorable pictures of the G20, an ominous reminder for any who might question the need for security expense in the future. Remember that this is the same country where police agents provocateur were used to stir up violence in Quebec in 2007. The spectre of citizen violence plays to popular fears and justifies response. The perverted logic is that more police cars are needed to prevent the burning of police cars. As New York Times journalist Chris Hedges says, “when anarchic violence begins to disrupt the mechanism of governance, the power elite will use these acts, however, minor, as an excuse to employ disproportionate and ruthless amounts of force against real and suspected agitators.” In such straits, how does one challenge the dominant powers?
Uncommon Sense
Many Canadians responded with shock and anger to the brief outbursts of violence enacted upon Toronto streets. Some condemned the acts as pointless, meaningless, senseless. In truth, these outbursts were anything but. That protesters would resort to attacking a Starbucks--a symbolic, if ultimately ineffectual gesture--should be seen not as nihilism but as evidence of the protesters’ profound discontent, their frustration, their lack of meaningful participation in their society, very similar to the banlieue riots in France in 2005.
What appear to be random acts of violence are actually attempts to express anger that has no obvious outlet. It is no coincidence that clashes of this sort emerge every time shrouded organizations like the WTO or Gx come to town nor that attacks are often directed at faceless corporations. What citizens in the West are slowly starting to realize is that their participation in society is effectively limited to working and consuming, in other words, to stimulating the economy. Given the pyramidal structure of capitalist activity, this means that the majority of citizens, the vast majority, spend the bulk of their time for the benefit of a small group of elites. That is eerily similar to a once thought-to-be-discarded system: feudalism. Political office is reserved for the few vetted by the power structure and deemed acceptable. Free speech exists but only to a point. Content is relatively uncensored but access to an audience is severely limited. Mainstream media is composed of stories from within a narrow band of acceptable content (simplistically: Conservatives versus Liberals, never anarchists versus fascists). Going beyond what is acceptable to the mainstream political establishment does not lead to imprisonment or other crass punishments but to dismissal, as irrelevant or extreme. In other words, you can say what you want, just not loud enough for anybody to hear it (this piece won’t be appearing in any national papers, will it?).
Faced with this reality, and yes, ladies and gents, this is reality, what is one to do? The obvious, easy option is to look the other way, find something distracting online and forget. The alternative is much harder. Chris Hedges is explicit: “Acts of resistance are moral acts. They begin because people of conscience understand the moral imperative to challenge systems of abuse and despotism.” There are many forms of resistance, only one of which is violence. Violence may not be the right choice for any given situation but in the face of systemic violence and repression it must be held within the resister's arsenal. Fire must be fought with fire; it’s at least plausible that violence must be met with violence.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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