We often hear stupid statements. I know I’ve made some myself. I suppose the only way to be absolutely sure of not making a stupid statement is to say nothing – not even thinking carefully before speaking is probably going to be enough protection for the length of one’s whole life. Besides, thinking carefully beforehand is not always appropriate. But we can — and should — avoid repeating the stupid statements of others and making them often.
It’s no surprise that a recent statement by a Government Minister got me thinking along these lines – politicians as a group are particularly prone to making stupid statements. By “stupid’ in this case I mean contradicting logic or common sense, although the intended effect may be carefully considered and cunning.
The Minister in question, Charlie Flanagan, was quoted in a number of newspaper reports as having said, in reference to a recent eviction case in Roscommon, that “violence is never justified”. Nothing unusual in that, you might think and that does show how inoculated we have become by stupid statements.
Charlie Flanagan is Minister for Justice of the Irish Government. As such, the courts, police and prison service come under his oversight. The police force of the Irish State contains, according to the appropriate Wikipedia entry, 10,459 Garda officers. All of these officers are, it is reasonable to assume, trained in the use of their batons, pepper-spray, handcuffs and physical restraint. Some – and it does seem to be more and more of them – are also carrying firearms. In other words, Charlie Flanagan oversees a force of nearly 10,460 people who are trained to use violence and on many occasions expected to use it – and yet he says that “violence is never justified.”
Yes, I know – he didn’t mean the Gardaí in general, or the prison officers who are also trained to use force, or the judiciary who send people to be incarcerated. He didn’t mean the thugs who were using violence to evict people either. Or the specific Gardaí who supervised the violence being used on the evicted and by their presence prevented defence or retaliation.
In system-politician-speak, “violence” is never what the State does and hardly ever what the capitalists do, it is invariably what the victims of the system do to protect themselves or in retaliation. And true to form, Flanagan was referring to the punishment meted out to those eviction gang thugs. So, a statement with cunning intent, to make one action, the violent eviction of people from their home an alright one, and another, the retaliation towards the thugs and repossession of the home, the only one that is “violent”. It makes perfect sense in the way that those who run the system see it and in the way, by perversion of the meaning of words, they want us to see it too.
But in strictly logical terms, what Flanagan said was nonsense. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of nonsense we hear repeated again and again.
And something like it, through constant repetition, becomes almost common sense. Look at the statement that “Violence never solved anything”: another stupid statement which gets a lot of airtime and mass media repetition with a lot of currency – particularly but not exclusively among the liberal sections of the middle class.
If someone other than a teacher decides to bully you in school and you decide to make it hard for him or her, by responding to violence with violence, in most cases the bully will leave you alone and probably go looking for an easier pick-upon. In that case violence has indeed solved something – at least for you. Of course, it is possible (though not usual) that the situation will escalate from there and the liberal middle class person will tell you that you should report it to the teachers, your parents, etc. What they are expecting is that pressure will be brought upon the bully either directly or indirectly by heavier forces than yours alone. And what lies behind those heavier forces? Ultimately? Violence. It may be the best way to go at times but ultimately it is not non-violent – it is relying for effectiveness on the capacity for violence of others.
Of course, it is possible that the bully may be dissuaded through logic and therapy but that is not often going to happen in our society for a number of reasons.
OK, so you grow up and somebody one night comes to beat you up and take your wallet or purse but you put up a good resistance and either stretch him out on the ground or he runs off. Seems to me that violence did solve that situation.
Taking a more macro look at situations of violence, most people would agree that nations have a right to self-determination. Yet that right has been obstructed and repressed many, many times in history. To take Europe alone, the current nation-states of Poland, Hungary, Czech, Slovakia, Croatia, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, Norway and Finland have all been faced with violence and had to respond with violence in order to achieve their independence. Ireland had to do similarly and was partially successful, while a number of other nations remain suppressed despite upheavals and stirrings.
While it may be true that some of those conflicts had questionable results it does not refute the general rule that nations under domination of another state are ultimately controlled by violence and that violence has had to be used many times in response. Nor is the case refuted by territorial share-outs among powers, such as some of the treaties between big powers – the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI, for example, authorised the English and French to plunder the Ruhr Valley and was one of the German grievances that helped the Nazis to gain control and begin world expansion. Other treaties have regularly led to violence too, either in states or peoples trying to re-negotiate or negate them, or in suppression of those rebellious forces by the states benefiting from the treaties.
Let us suppose that we are subject to an invasion by a foreign state – that is not too difficult for the Irish to imagine and most European countries experienced it during WWII as did, earlier and later, most of the nations of Latin America, Africa and Asia. The invading force uses violence, of course and they use it more effectively than our defence forces do. Violence worked – in this case for the invading forces. It solved the issue for them – how to overcome our defence forces and occupy our territory for whatever reason they set out to do so.
If we want to resolve the issue to our advantage – to end the invasion and occupation – we would not be able to do so peacefully. That is not a choice the invader will permit us. Our resistance would sooner or later be met with violence by the occupier, whether wholesale in massacres, internment, bans, ’emergency’ laws, curfews etc — or by more selective violence, arrests of leaders and activists, torture, jailing or even executions. And often by a combination of the wholesale and the selective repression.
To rid ourselves of the invader we would have to employ violence too, violence in resistance. It would of course be necessary to combine it with many other tactics – sabotage (violence against things), insurgent propaganda, cartoons, graffiti, song, humour, sarcasm and irony, boycott, demonstrations, pickets, subversion of the enemy’s forces ….. but violence would have to be part of it. There is no nation that freed itself from the domination of a state which was at the time capable of violently suppressing it, without the insurgent nation having had to resort to revolutionary violence.
Returning for a moment to our middle-class liberals, let us imagine the home or business of one is subject to an attempted burglary or robbery. The victim will feel justified in the use of violence in defence of his or her property or home. He or she may choose not to employ that violence themselves – or be unable to — but in that case will certainly turn to the police to employ it on their behalves: “Use cunning to find them and violence to subdue them, bring them to trial by force and punish them by jail. And keep them there for a long time, using violence if necessary.” The middle-class liberal whose business has been robbed or home violated will in most cases not hesitate to, if not use those actual words, to fully imply them by calling for “justice”. However, commenting on the course of a worker’s strike or protest demonstration, he or she will undoubtedly lecture the perceived offenders that “Violence solves nothing.”