Violence as political speech
 
 

The imposition of Donald Trump on America has deepened the divisions among the various tribes of this nation — Republicans and Democrats, the establishment and the ordinary people, the coasts and flyover states, among many others. To date, the weapons in the conflict have been ballots and rhetoric primarily, but the shooting of Republican members of Congress and the running down of protestors in Charlottesville are warnings that things might get much worse.

But what is the line between acceptable political acts and violence that goes beyond the pale? The United States, after all, exists because some of us were willing to start a rebellion and to carry it out, despite the costs. We needed a war to correct one of our great bad acts, the civil war that ended slavery. We refused to go along with Prohibition, at times requiring breaking the law, and we fought in a world war to stop fascist dreams of empire.

While there are pacifists who believe that force is always wrong, most people hold a middle position, saying that at times, the use of weapons in support of the good is not only praiseworthy but obligatory.

In modern usage, the word, violence, is often treated as a synonym for physical force, but the roots offer us some means of clarifying the limits of acceptable political acts. Violence and violate share the same origin. The concept was understood to mean an act out of one’s place. This could mean things like theft and murder, but it also would be used in reference to a peasant asserting rights that the nobility refused to acknowledge.

It is thus nothing new to hear members of the established elites complaining about the uppity demands of ordinary people. That’s easy to understand. We have a natural tendency to support our own groups. What makes no sense is the willingness of so many in this country to speak out in favor of those who regard themselves as our betters.

Consider the outrage expressed over NFL players who are kneeling during the performance of the national anthem before their games. We are told that these athletes are showing disrespect for the military.

And yet this claim fails to survive analysis. What do our warriors fight for? If they are defending the rights that we like to think are the essence of America, then protest is included in that, and what the athletes are doing is an expression thereof. If, by contrast, our military is acting on behalf of corporate interests, be they the desire to have easy access to oil or to sell the government more and more bombs, the violence is not being committed by those who choose not to celebrate such things.

If as a nation we decide that protest is an act of violence — in other words, if we say that the people have no business asserting their own interests and defying the will of the powerful — we’d better prepare for much more violence, violence in the contemporary sense.

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