“Violence is Never the Answer” is a complex phrase, one for which I shall show has no clear position of acceptability. Is it true? Is it needlessly idealistic? There might be exceptions, but do those exceptions reveal something greater? And how does the phrase relate to social organization? I implore the reader to not read this with the assumption of being convinced of a position.
First, let’s examine the intent with the phrase. It is meant to declare that violence isn’t the answer, but it also implies that there are other answers. It doesn’t promise they will be easier, or better, or even necessarily possible, but that those other answers are at least morally right, whereas violence is morally wrong. The core assumption is that violence is immoral, and further, that no scenario nor call to action can be solved with violence morally. Even if we expand the explicit words to a more flexible meaning, it is still taking a hardline stance on the matter.
In support of this phrase, one may equate not using violence to meaning a more equitable solution can be created, and that society is better off expending resources to find a philosophically better outcome. The “philosophical outcome” doesn’t need to be utilitarian, but it is easiest to imagine it that way. By constantly advocating for a non-violent solution, and enforcing that standard, means that disputes are resolved constructively, say through the court of law. This ensures people need not expend resources constantly preparing themselves for the worst: their life at stake because of a dispute.
Because what cost would you allow if it meant you at least got to live? It seems easy to imagine that if violence were an acceptable means for resolution, people may act more erratically and emotionally to preserve literally everything. In short, adding violence as a possibility indirectly penalizes all other valid solutions. By removing violence completely by making it morally impossible, alternatives are not only better looking, but may be “cheaper” or more possible.
Of course, there are always exceptions. Even though the phrase itself warrants none, its proponents claim that some situations are in fact so dire and would be so implausible to resolve through other means, that violence must be used. The argument typically boils down to resolving it with violence is not as immoral as allowing the situation to continue. The most frequent exception cited is WWII. And, so, we see the most obvious, and very real, scenario where this phrase is weakened in favor of reality. This isn’t to say that the phrase was invalid, but the word “Never” is fundamentally weakened.
But, let’s instead take this phrase to its ultimate goal: An Egalitarian society where violence is never used (or used so rarely as to be stunning to the whole world). The phrase is automatic, and the assumption is that people are basically unable to comprehend violence at all. Games, music, movies, books, etc. all lack violence because it isn’t a realistic or compelling element. It lacks context for how it would work or what it means or what it would look like. Besides, why would you want to show elements which are never used, and no one has ever done?
We suddenly see this society is not only morally incapable of violence, but legitimately consciously stunted towards the idea.
However, a society can’t just suddenly not have violence, there must have been some period where it existed. This must mean there is a definition of it somewhere, and when people consider all their options, they must know that some set of options are in fact violent and therefore can’t be used. This means the idea of violence can’t be eliminated. And if we can’t eliminate it, this means some people must consider the option. This phrase is meant to remind them it isn’t valid. But what happens if someone does use a violent option? Something must be done about the individual which exercised the impossible, right? But, what action could be taken?
If we put the individual in jail, holding them against their will, and enforcing upon them a limited area to exist, how could that be done in a non-violent manner? If the person resists, how could you constrict them further? As any one individual is increasingly violent, one must respond with an equal or greater action to constrain them.
I think I have cheated you, reader, because I did not define violence! There are all kinds of definitions, but the most commonly and simply used is “force over another to cause harm.” Force is ambiguous, so is harm. If we only consider violence to mean physical harm then I think many would be unhappy if that meant I could terrorize someone verbally, or intimidate them, or otherwise just cause mental anguish. Even if I could be completely guaranteed my physical safety, which is an absurd notion, is my mental anguish worth nothing?
Obviously, this is an untenable position. Otherwise people in our egalitarian society could just yell, insult, and threaten violence. Even if everyone knows no one would do it, would you believe that? It happened in the past, and on super rare occasions you hear stories of violence happening. I think rather obviously this society would be apprehensive about such actions.
And what of Force? Do we just mean a firm hand, or a gun? What about restricting certain rights or ideas? Are all those things not “force” upon another? Well, I think that is stretching it too far, because then we must say that unless a person can do anything, they are being violently forced around. Clearly, that can’t be true, either. But it seems reasonable that force might mean more than just reaction, it might also mean an explicit set of things that state you can’t do it.
For that matter, the phrase itself forces all individuals to resolve things in a manner other than violence, at the least!
If we return to our scenario of jailing the violent individual, someone else in the society had to decide that force was needed to constrict the violent individual, and then forcibly keep them confined to an area with walls and restrictions.
And so our Egalitarian society is in fact one which uses force itself.
This is a contradiction! How can a society have absolutely no violence if it must define what violence is and must consider it, and even in cases where “exceptions” are made for violent individuals, the society itself must leverage some form of violence for itself?
Max Weber captures this idea beautifully with a simple definition of what a Nation is: the sole monopoly of violence. The Nation is the only one that is morally allowed to exert force to maintain itself and its people. Which means the phrase, “Violence is Never the Answer” would be morally opposed to the formation of a Nation, because Nations are established entirely based on when to use violence and why.
I think it would be unfair to the proponents of the phrase if I said they are somehow opposed to Nations. Perhaps they might argue the Nation is the embodiment of the exception to the phrase. “Violence is Never the Answer”, unless it was pre-agreed upon as an acceptable solution to a pre-determined set of scenarios for which violence is both expected and necessary. Violence was negotiated in hopes of establishing a society devoid of illegal uses of violence.
But the problem, of course, is that Nations aren’t the sole owner of violence. Others can exercise it, and the Nation either decides that was or wasn’t valid. For that matter, by believing that a Nation is the only one capable of exerting violence, is to imply the Nation is the only one capable of defining what constitutes non-violence.
And that is a big problem. If the Nation can decide what you did wasn’t sufficiently non-violent, you can be made vulnerable. “Good people” decry violence, but so can “bad people”. Those in positions of power of the Nation can use their monopoly to invalidate your own actions. Phrases such as “this isn’t the time or place for that”, “this isn’t a valid protest”, or “no amount of violence is ever acceptable” are trying to invalidate your actions as somehow being violent and therefore a threat to the Nation’s monopoly on violence.
The Nation must ensure it holds its monopoly on violence, and sometimes, the Nation can overstep its bounds in such a way as to confuse resistance to the Nation as a form of violence only it can grant permission to do.
When the Nation is in the business of overtly overseeing all actions exclusively through a lens of violence, it supposes itself to live in some Egalitarian society where violence never happens, and is never acceptable. It also imagines itself as in the sole position to make moral decisions on violence. But, Nations are made of people, and those people give life to the Nation, even if unequally. For the Nation to be the only one to define morality is to deprive its very citizens of the same.
And so we see the greater contradiction: Nations, while holding the exclusive use of legal violence, do not morally hold the only use of violence. But by limiting yourself to never considering violence as a possible action, the Nation can arbitrarily define your actions as violent, and necessarily prevent you from ever acting against it.
You yourself will become your greatest enemy, constraining yourself, all the while believing you are doing it faithfully in the service of the Nation, and all the while believing you are doing the morally right thing.