Violence and its erstwhile negation nonviolence operate with rhetorical power we often leave unexamined. We use the ascription of violence to describe acts of physical domination (the teacher violently removed the disruptive student from the class) as well as words of interpretive description (the critic committed hermeneutical violence as she evaluated the short story by a completely foreign standard). In like manner, nonviolence can describe modes of communication, actions of civil disruption, or passive acquiescence in the face of injustice.
Lai Tsz-him’s essay in Kwok Pui-lan and Francis Ching-wah Yip’s important volume Hong Kong Protests and Political Theology explores the escalating cycles of violence between the state and protesters in the 2019 Hong Kong uprisings, and situates understandings of violence and nonviolence within a much longer historical and cultural context. Lai’s careful empirical analysis gives pride of place to historical considerations and leaves the definition of (non)violence largely implicit. On his account, nonviolent protest involves street occupation, verbal appeals, ritualized expression of grievance, as well as other repertoires of social action. Violent protest, which has only emerged more recently in the Hong Kong protests, has included the use of Molotov cocktails, setting fire to buildings, and armed self-defense to resist police repression. A common sense understanding of (non)violence can be helpful in constructing an understanding of a protest movement, and Lai achieves a nuanced account. In the following response, however, I want to push a definitional query for, as Judith Butler has recently argued, “we can hardly be for or against something whose very definition eludes us, or that appears in contradictory ways for which we have no account” (136).
It is not always clear what we mean by violence or nonviolence, though, like pornography, we assume, we’ll know (non)violence when we see it. One of my favorite teaching exercises is to create in the classroom a “nonviolence sociogram” in which students spread themselves out in a spacial spectrum—one wall representing violence, the opposite wall representing nonviolence—in order to evaluate whether a series of ideas and practices are violent or nonviolent (throwing a brick at a police officer, shouting angrily at a child, wearing the indigenous dress of another culture, excluding certain identity groups from membership in an institution, police suppression of protest with tear gas). Inevitably, we find, these terms are more slippery than first appears as students occupy positions throughout the room. As I elicit why students have occupied various locations, we begin to see the carefully contextual reasoning and judgements that inform their conclusions. And more often than not, we have animated disagreements about why an idea or practice is better described as violent or nonviolent.
The descriptive problem unveils an evaluative one: to identify something as violent or nonviolent often evokes, or is preceded by, a normative judgment on the idea or practice as bad or good, wrong or right. In media coverage of social movement protest, to call a march violent or nonviolent is not simply descriptive, but tells the reader something about how she should come to judgement on the march. When journalists report that violent protesters took to the streets last night, we are already captured in the evaluative thrall of an imagination in which the state holds a legitimate monopoly on violence. Such a frame holds the violence of the state beyond our critique, while subjecting the militant action of protesters against property or repression to our harsh denouncement. As Hannah Arendt noted in 1969, citing Goerges Sorel from 1906, “the problems of violence still remain very obscure” (35).
Given this ascriptive and evaluative confusion, Lai has done us a service in exploring the uses of violence in the Hong Kong protests. Violence, and nonviolence, are always culturally embedded repertoires of social action, and Lai helpfully places each in a specific local history with transnational linkages. For example, the use of bomb and arson attacks in the 1967 Hong Kong riots associated these repertoires of protest with the Cultural Revolution of the mainland: “bomb and arson attacks became a symbol of pro-Communist dispositions and anti-social harmony” (76). Following these violent protests, however, Lai finds almost half a century of nonviolent protest. This period of (largely) nonviolent struggle was broken as police violently cracked down on the Umbrella Movement in 2014. As agents of the state increased repression against protests, protesters employed more militant actions; in February 2016 at Mong Kok, protesters threw bricks, bottles, and trash bins at police. For Lai, ascriptions of violence or nonviolence do cultural work in rendering legitimacy, authority, effectiveness, and militancy to the protesters, as well as the police.
In 2019, then, activists used molotov cocktails, vandalism, and other militant tactics to occupy public spaces. Lai suggests that an important part of the rise of these militant tactics was a sense among protesters that fifty years of so-called nonviolent action was ineffectual, and therefore in need of a change. Thus, new repertoires of collective action were justified with calls for “valiant and militant resistance” (78). Increasingly militant protest was met with increasingly repressive police action, generating what Lai identifies as a cycle of violence. Lai’s careful and contextual exploration of the use of violence demonstrates that violent (and nonviolent) repertoires of social action are culturally specific and have targeted communicative aims.
Scholars of peace studies and political theory have attempted to offer definitions of violence. For example, Johan Galtung famously defined violence saying that it, “is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realization” (168). Galtung’s aim in the definition was to move beyond a common sense understanding of direct violence (one person hitting another person) to an understanding of structural violence (policies, laws, economic practices, and more that prevent human flourishing). Interestingly for the Hong Kong protests, Galtung’s definition generates the question of whether the militant street actions that held police at bay is rightly called violence at all. Is property damage violence? How we define the term will matter for how we evaluate such tactics. And, moreover, how might we describe and evaluate the extradition law: was this a form of structural violence? The state ought not evade our evaluation and critique of nonviolence. In fact, it is often the greatest purveyor of violence through openly legal means, as Walter Benjamin famously argued in his “Critique of Violence.”
Hannah Arendt helpfully distinguished violence from force, authority, and power in her essay On Violence. She defined power as the capacity to act and concert, and argued that where power exists violence is unnecessary. “Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance” (56). Both the police and the people have a certain power: a capacity to act in concert. Arendt’s purpose, in part, was to disrupt the Weberian assumption that the state operates with a legitimate monopoly on violence. In the case of the Hong Kong protests, the state did operate with violence, but such violence revealed its lack of power. As the protesters took up more militant tactics, Arendt’s defintions provoke a question of whether such tactics were a sign of the strength of the protest movement, or an admission of weakness?
As difficult as it is to define violence, nonviolence can be even more bedeviling. The non- in nonviolence seems to indicate a negation of violence, but, if we don’t have a handle on violence, how can we define its negation? Stellan Vinthagen has defined nonviolence, simply, as standing against violence without violence. Elsewhere I have argued that we might understand nonviolence as a tradition of moral praxis: “it draws upon venerable precedents and exemplars; it gathers around common presumptions about what it means to be human, what are the attributes of a good life, and how to organize our common life; it performs dispositions and improvises repertoires of political action; and in these ways it holds an argument extended across time.” As a tradition of moral praxis, nonviolence is culturally embedded and draws upon various precedents. Because violence is always a cultural performance, repertoires of nonviolence cannot be identified by some trans-historical ontology. Rather, standing against violence without violence draws on repertoires that share family resemblances even as they are deployed in ever new contexts.
While the definitional problems are interesting, resolving them won’t get us where we want to go. Rather, greater theoretical clarity opens into the need for culturally attuned practical reasoning about the meaning of tactics and their suitedness for pursuing movement aims, and this is where Lai has made a signal contribution. Evaluating the use of violence and nonviolence requires cultural awareness and this is the kind of awareness that Lai offers in his own exploration of the Hong Kong protests. Lai explores the use of anonymity, vandalism, vigilantism, and self-defense within the protest movements. He suggests that protesters deployed the just war tradition, particularly notions of last resort and discrimination, to discipline and justify their use of violence. In evaluating the use of violence, Lai argues that 1) the effect of the interaction between police and protesters led to ever increasing violence, even if strategically used; 2) violence and nonviolence are often used in tandem (as in the Black freedom struggle in the US); and 3) we need more historical distance in order to judge the effectiveness of such tactics.
To these perceptive observations, I would merely add that what is needed is what Sean Chabot has called movement phronesis, or what I have developed as practical reasoning, about the goods at stake in protest and the appropriate methods to pursue those goods. Using this Aristotelian definition of practical reasoning could lead to a diremption from the specific cultural embeddedness of means and ends, yet this need not be so. Practical reasoning is a deeply contextual exercise, one that must balance demands of faithfulness and effectiveness with other norms of a given community. Lai’s work offers a promissory note on this kind of analysis as he suggests that “it may still be too early to conclude the (in)effectiveness of using violence in the protests.” But, such judgments are best developed close to the ground where movement actors improvise and develop cultural scripts in struggles for collective determination and justice. As Butler has argued, “violence is always interpreted” (14). Lai offers a grounded interpretive analysis that will serve both scholars and activists deliberating about the meaning and justification of militant repertoires of social change.