Violence and social change

I didn’t think I had anything to say on the murder of Dr. George Tiller, but one issue that has come up repeatedly is whether pro-lifers are being hypocritical in condemning the murder. After all, the reasoning goes, didn’t Tiller’s murderer simply take the pro-life reasoning to its logical conclusion?

Here’s something I wrote all the way back in 2004, drawing a comparison between radical animal rights activists who use violence and pro-lifers who do the same:

One of the interesting things about adopting a moral stance that is out of the mainstream is that it potentially puts you in a state of radical opposition to nearly everyone around you. For someone who takes the strong animal rights position, there are grave and systematic injustices being perpetrated on animals throughout our society. And the vast majority of people you know probably couldn’t care less! This is troubling in itself and inevitably raises the question of what actions, if any, one should take to rectify those injustices.

Compare the case of anti-abortionists/pro-lifers. Many of them believe that there are literally millions of innocent human beings being murdered, routinely and legally. How does that color their views of those who approve of abortion? How do they view the society that permits such a horror? What is the appropriate response?

The vast majority of animal rightists and right-to-lifers have (rightly) eschewed violence as a means of change and have renounced those fringe elements who do resort to violence. But can we say that it’s always wrong to use violence against a grave injustice, even if it is legally sanctioned? Most of us would say that violent resistance would have been an appropriate response to, say, the policies of Nazi Germany. So, from the point of view of the animal rightist/pro-lifer, why wouldn’t violence be justified as a response to the slaughter of millions of animals/unborn children? Isn’t the protection of the innocent one of the few noble uses of violence?

Well, hard cases make bad law, as they say. I think a big part of the answer has to be that this ain’t Nazi Germany, bud! For anyone who perceives a serious injustice, there are legal and non-violent channels for expressing that protest. Violence, even in the service of a good cause, should always be a last resort. Private violence strikes as the very heart of the rule of law that makes civilized life possible, so it should be undertaken, if ever, only under the gravest of circumstances when all other options have been exhausted.

Secondly, even if violence could prevent an immediate act of injustice, it won’t result in any lasting justice unless the underlying conditions exist to support it. In the case of our hypothetical vigilantes, the protection of animals/fetuses will not be secured in the long run without a broad consensus that they should be protected. Otherwise, once the vigilante is caught or killed, society will continue to go on its merry way (if anything, the vigilante’s cause will only have been discredited).

So, I think animal rightists and pro-lifers are right to insist that persuasion must be the primary means they use to change the world. A commitment to peaceful methods of social change is, in all but the most extreme cases, both morally and pragmatically superior.

What this doesn’t address is whether certain kinds of radical rhetoric may encourage people–like George Tiller’s killer–to resort to violence. While each person is (other things being equal) surely responsible for their own actions, I don’t think those who use inflammatory rhetoric can be completely absolved from responsibility either. At the very least they need to make it clear–and not just when an incident occurs–that they oppose the use of violence to effect social change.

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