The Virtues of Nonviolence

In response to my point that the Netanyahu government won’t make concessions on settlements because it likes settlements, Jon Chait counters that Palestinians don’t want moderate goals either.

Maybe yes maybe no. But he cites as evidence for that fact the Palestinains’ failure to adopt the tactics of non-violent resistance that western liberals are always urging on them.

I don’t think that argument really washes for a number of reasons, the most broadly relevant of which is probably the people across the board systematically overrate the political efficacy of violence. The basic psychological mechanism is pretty easy to understand. When you feel that injury’s been done to you, you tend to want two things. On the one hand, you want to take action to prevent further injury. On the other hand, you want to see the malefactor punished. In the real world, there are often very sharp tensions between these objectives. If African-Americans had spent the 1950s mounting a campaign of violence against southern law enforcement and political officials, you can easily understand viewing that as a justifiable response to past and continuing wrongdoing. But in practice, such a course would have been hugely counterproductive to the goal of garnering political support among northern whites for meaningful civil rights legislation. A campaign of non-violent resistance is one sense more “moderate,” but under the circumstances it was probably actually harder to pull off and certainly more effective.

I think the general moral of the story is that non-violence is a tactic whose potency people pretty systematically underrate. When the force being resisted is one you also sympathize with, it gets easy to see that non-violence would work better. But when the force being resisted is one you’re both frightened of and embittered against, the tendency is to be blind to this.


Over the years I’ve come to adopt a pretty extremist view on this, and I think I’m even prepared to accept the reductio ad Hitler case. Had it been feasible to coordinate the population of Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc. into a mass campaign of non-violent resistance to German occupation I think that would have brought even Hitler down. The problem there is essentially about how difficult it is to sustain collective action rather than about the need to fight evil with violence.