Those opting for nonviolence meet opposition from the outset. So begins Judith Butler’s The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind (Verso, 2020), a book adapted from her 2018 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. She begins with the problem of violence in contemporary life, and the inequality with which violence affects certain kinds of people more than others. One primary cause for this inequality is that the US government and the liberal ethics from which it has taken its policies reserve the right to define violence and to wield this definition against minorities, such that violence is defended as a right of certain powers to preempt violence. There is, therefore, a problem of equality at the heart of nonviolence:
- (Non)violence always interpreted by powers (and tends to prioritize certain selves over others)
- Nonviolence is usually thought of as an individual moral issue (so conversations about it don’t usual entail reflection on systemic inequalities that affect the practice(s) of (non)violence)
The goal of nonviolence, then, is to sustain a livable world wherein all lives are defended, and all lives lost (even trans, queer, female, and black lives) are considered grievable. And this is necessarily a matter of social organization, not simply of individual moral choice. Contra liberal individualism, Butler insists that “…equal treatment is not possible outside of a social organization of life in which material resources, food distribution, housing, work, and infrastructure seek to achieve equal conditions of livability.” And so she selects four major presuppositions of liberal ethics to challenge:
1) Nonviolence is not just an individual moral choice
2) Nonviolence does not emerge from calm soul, but can be an expression of rage/aggression (cf. Ghandi, “soul force”, p 21)
3) “Nonviolence is an ideal that cannot always be honored in the practice”
4) Nonviolence is not an absolute principle, but an ongoing struggle that entails clarifying a great deal of ambiguity
Individualism, which lies at the heart of liberal ethics, and therefore, liberal thinking about (non)violence, comes to us from Enlightenment accounts of the human state of nature. For Butler, the Enlightenment is largely failed project, for it falsely asserts individuality (and therefore the primacy of individual morality) against vulnerability and radical dependency (wherein lived ethics are an organizational, legislative, cooperative, social matter). One need only closely examine aspects of liberal thought, such as the state of nature, to see how they begins to fail at answering questions of (non)violence. For example: why, Butler asks, is it a given that man in the state of nature should be a man at all, and an adult one at that? She admonishes her reader to follow Marx in rejecting the naturalness of liberal states of nature: “Let us not put ourselves in that fictitious primordial state” (31).
In reality, humans do not emerge as self-sufficient, male-gendered, adults, but rather as dependent infants, whose supposed self-sufficiency becomes all the more ridiculous if one examines the radical dependency inherent in all so-called selfhood. It is at the level of the social that we must recognize our radical interdependency, and therefore our need for true social equality to adequate address violence.
Among the primary aims of Butler’s discussion of nonviolence is to advocate for equal grievability of all lives: “It’s not just that we all have a right to mourn the dead, or that the dead have the right to be mourned—that is doubtless true, but… [Grievability] involves the conditional tense: those would are grievable would be mourned if their lives were lost; the ungrievable are those whose loss would leave no trace” (74–75). Minorities fall prey to being ungrievable easily, as the history of both the world and of the United States has shown. Fighting for equal grievability of all lives, and opting for an “egalitarian imaginary” (102), is among the first steps in ensuring that paternalistic powers do not destroy trans, queer, female, black, and other minority lives, bodies, and psyches.