Can We Be Nonviolent

Last week, I attempted to present an understanding of what constitutes violence. I’m still not sure that I did a good job of this, but for now, we’ll work with the definition that I gave near the end of last week’s post: That violence goes beyond physical violence and is working in the civil wars of structural violence. These forms of violence can, together, be understood as any attack which harms a person, an animal or the planet. Throughout the rest of this piece, I plan to use the term “Zoe” (adopted from Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman) as a word for these three categories (persons, animals, planet) in its uniting of life. This week I hope to explore the possibility of nonviolence. It should be noted, that this is not a discussion of whether or not we should be non-violent, but rather whether we can actually be nonviolent.

In conversation, pacifism is often presented in a violence/non-violence dichotomy. I wish to suggest that this sort of view is reductionist, and doesn’t take a full account of the actual phenomena of violence in the world. I wish to return to the example from last week that is given by Terry Eagleton in Why Marx was Right. Unlike last week, this week I’ll actually provide the full example. Eagleton makes the following claim about pacifism:

“The only pacifist worth arguing with is one who rejects violence absolutely. And that means rejecting not just wars or [violent] revolutions, but refusing to tap an escaped murderer smartly over the skull, enough to stun but not kill him, when he is about to turn his machine gun on a classroom of small children. Anyone who was in a situation to do this and failed to do so would have a lot of explaining to do at the next meeting of the PTA” (Eagleton, Chapter 8, Why Marx was Right)

While I’m not sure that I completely agree with Eagleton’s dismissal of pacifism outright, I do think that this is an example that is worth exploring. It is worth exploring precisely because of Slavoj’s Zizek’s sentiment that “Sometimes doing nothing is the most violent thing to do”  (a sentiment humorously portrayed in this video). In the scenario granted by Eagleton, each of us is presented with an either/or. We can either use violence to stop the murderer, or we can do nothing and allow him to kill the children. Neither of these examples strikes me as inherently “non-violent”. In fact, attacking the murdered strikes me as much less violent than not acting. In this way, Zizek is right, performing a violent act is much less violent than not acting.

This is, of course, an extreme example. It is an example that we will most likely never find ourselves in, and its presentation as an either/or suggests that its scope is extremely limited. But, I think that we can expand the example to see how we face similar decisions within modern capitalist society. Last week we explored the structural violence that takes place in the world, and I used Lazzarato and Alliez’s article “To Our Enemies” to suggest that we are always already acting within a multiplicity of civil wars. This structural violence places us in the midst of a conflict where all of our actions are already imbued with violence. We can, of course, attempt to take measures that lead to the least amount of violence, but even then we are still performing violent actions.

I think that our goal should be to reduce violence against Zoe, but the unfortunate reality of a world with imbued violence is that any action we make already is violent against zoe. Timothy Morton gives the example in a number of his lectures where he says something along the lines of if we’re being ecologically kind to bunny rabbits, we’re not being so kind to bunny rabbit parasites (I’ll update if I find the actual quote). The act of being kind to one aspect of zoe, can be violent against another. A classic example of this would be the use of pesticides. By helping plants thrive, we perform violence against bugs that would typically eat those plants. This isn’t to say whether pesticides are good or bad, but only to recognize that in performing actions that intend to help, we are often violent in other ways.

So this leads me to the question about the possibility of non-violence. If the idea is to not perform violent action in any way, then non-violence strikes me as an impossibility. No matter the action performed, some violence will occur. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to be non-violent. I think that our ultimate goal should be to live in ways that are as ecologically peaceful as possible. This is to say that we should attempt to reduce violence against Zoe to the extent that we are capable.


Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx was Right. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2011.


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