Edit: Okay, this is just to make clear that I totally love Idle No More, and this is in no way a critique of what they’re doing or how they do it. I’m also not all like YO LET’S ALL START A VIOLENT REVOLUTION RIGHT NOW FUCK YES. I’m a big proponent of non-violent methods of protest. But I think it’s important not to immediately shoot down other kinds. I’m just trying to make people think a little bit before making grand, sweeping statements from some imagined moral high-ground. Now, with that in mind…
“I believe violence is NEVER the answer,” a girl announces proudly from the front row of desks.
We’re sitting in our squishy, height-adjustable, swivelling office chairs in the new building on campus, discussing decolonization and resistance movements in our Indigenous Studies class. Each desk has several electrical outlets installed, conveniently placed for our laptops (mostly MacBooks) to stay charged during the three-hour lecture. It’s minus twenty degrees Celsius outside, but we all have our jackets off in this comfortably-heated room with double-glaze windows.
“Non-violent methods are more productive.”
We read an article by Frantz Fanon, “On Violence”, about the decolonization movements in Algeria. Decolonization will always be violent, he says. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. But nobody seems to agree with him.
Non-violent methods are more productive?
That’s easy for you to say. That’s easy for any of us to say, sitting in our expensive room on our expensive computers completing our expensive undergraduate degrees. We’re cosy. We’re comfortable. Violent resistance is a theoretical abstract that is just so wonderfully easy to dismiss.
Don’t we need to consider the fact that maybe we can so self-assuredly say that “violence is never the answer” because we’ve never been put in a position where actually, maybe violence is the only answer we have left? Maybe deciding that “violence is never the answer” is much more straight-forward when we’re not faced with immediate, actual, physical violence? Maybe, just maybe, sitting in a university classroom in Canada and deciding that violence is never the answer is a bit different from the conclusion you might come to if you were living the experience of being actively, violently colonized.
Canada WAS actively and violently colonized, and the colonization of Indigenous peoples is ongoing and still violent, albeit in usually more covert, indirect, non-physically violent ways. I’m not dismissing that. But the idea that violence is never the answer — coming to that conclusion so easily and assuredly — often comes from a place of privilege. The privilege of thinking of state-endorsed violence as an abstract concept. We’re not faced with imminent physical danger as we sit in our classroom.
And it’s not that there aren’t people living in those situations who don’t still think that violence is not the answer. It’s not that thinking that violence is not the answer is only EVER a privileged opinion. It’s not that it’s a less legitimate opinion. It’s that those of us who live comfortable lives need to stop to wonder why that’s such an easy conclusion for us to come to, why we so immediately dismiss anyone suggesting violent resistance as “wrong” or “irrational” or somehow “behind the times”.
We value non-violent methods of protest so highly, and we consider them so much better than violent methods. If someone says “yeah actually, violence is sometimes called for,” we consider ourselves much more progressive and liberal and just nicer people than them. They’re advocating people KILLING people!!!!!!! Aren’t they?? HOW COULD ANYONE ADVOCATE THAT. They must be right-wing psychos! Or extremists! Why would they not see that sitting down and talking out our problems is just so much more civilized?
Another of the activists whose work we’ve been reading for this class, Taiaiake Alfred, talks a lot about resisting the colonialist framework; he says that trying to work within the framework, to try to get the government to recognise Indigenous people’s rights, is completely futile. To work within the colonialist framework (“Aboriginalism”) basically lends that framework legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve. Trying to make a place for yourself in that framework helps to support it and ensure that it stays in place. So, Alfred suggests, to effectively decolonize, Indigenous people need to break away from that framework, create their own, to stop from depending on the colonial systems.
People in class didn’t argue with that. Taiaiake advocates for non-violent means of decolonization, and everyone likes that. Idle No More comes up in the discussion, of course, and people think that it’s great that the movement is non-violent because then the media has no ammo to discredit them. They have to be viewed as legitimate now!
There’s something underlying this discussion that doesn’t come up, and it bothers me, but I don’t say anything because I can’t quite think of how to articulate the feeling of yuck. But as the conversation goes on, the idea starts to form and by the end of class I am uncomfortable and I can identify why that is.
The professor asks a question that brings my issue into sharp focus.
“Who defines violence?”
“The colonizer.” We all know the answer. Gosh, we’re so self-aware. But nobody takes this further, nobody applies this to the assumptions and claims that we’ve all been making throughout the three hours of class. Non-violent means of resistance are always better. Violence is never the answer. Is it a coincidence that all of us, brought up in the West, in a colonialist school system, in colonized countries, unanimously agree that violence is never the answer? Why do we all agree?
Maybe because that is exactly what we are taught. By the colonial system. The colonial system that gets to define even the meaning of violence. The colonial system gets to decide what counts as violence, who’s a terrorist. But not only that; it also gets to decide that “violence is never the answer”. Because why would a colonialist system want anyone to think otherwise? Non-violent means of resistance can be a lot easier for a colonialist state to ignore. Do I think that non-violent means are NEVER effective? No, of course not. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason we’re all taught that violent resistance groups are wrong and bad and irrational and taking things too far.
We learn about Martin Luther King Jr. and “I have a dream”. We’re taught that Nelson Mandela and Gandhi are peace-loving, non-violent leaders of protest movements. Look, they are good! They are just, and their movements are successful! They are how protest leaders and movements Should Be!
Martin Luther King Jr. made many more speeches than just that one. How many of them have you read or heard? A lot of them were just as — if not more — stirring, inspiring, and effective… and also a lot less white-colonialist-friendly. A lot less “non-violent”. Same goes for Mandela and Gandhi. There were also protest movements that were explicitly violent, or a lot less dedicated to being non-violent, that we are taught are BAD BAD BAD, WRONG. TERRIBLE. Maybe we’re only learning about certain resistance leaders, and very particular parts of their histories and opinions, for a reason.
Maybe the colonialist state is choosing how we define and think of “good” resistance and “bad” resistance.
As I said, people in my class like Idle No More because they are non-violent and thus can’t have their acts misrepresented by the media. So people acknowledge that the media has an agenda, that when a resistance movement can be discredited, it will.
But nobody points out that the whole idea that a protest movement MUST BE NON-VIOLENT to be considered legitimate, is in itself a colonialist system’s means of discrediting a portion of resistance movements. Somebody pipes up and says that being non-violent means that the colonizer will be more likely to listen. Hence why violent resistance movements are unproductive.
Maybe those who advocate violent resistance don’t care about being misrepresented by the media. Maybe they don’t care about the colonizer being more likely to listen. Maybe that’s because so far, the colonial system has come up with an awfully large number of reasons not to listen. The media, as extension of the colonialist system, will always be able to find ways to discredit a resistance that is inconvenient. So maybe working within the colonial framework of non-violent-is-the-only-way-to-go is futile. Because the colonial system is defining how people are even allowed to resist it. We’ll only listen to you if you say it nicely. No shouting! Stop being so aggressive! Maybe we’ll start listening if you’re more polite! Say please! Say thank you! Say “sir”! It means the colonizers get to move the goalposts and forever decide that your resistance efforts aren’t legitimate enough. Aren’t civilized. And so they don’t have to listen to you.
So maybe those who advocate violent means of resistance are fed up with that and are choosing to ignore the framework that non-violent = good, legitimate, worth listening to and violent = bad and irrational.
After all that, it might sound kind of contradictory of me to say that I’m NOT arguing that violent resistance is the better or only way to go. I am just questioning the assumption that the opposite is always the case. Think about the major social revolutions that have occurred; there was a lot of non-violent protest. I have a dream, and all that. But, alongside it, there was ALSO a lot of violent protest going on. Maybe instead of looking at it as the violent resistance being wrong and unnecessary and it was the non-violent portion of the resistance that won people all those rights and recognition under the law, maybe it was both at once. Perhaps both methods of resistance are necessary to achieve decolonization?