A philosophy for our age of outrage

Nonviolent resistance could help confront righteous indignation and show us a path beyond the polarised present.

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One of the great ironies of our age is how righteous indignation has undermined moral decency. Filled with a sense of justice, people feel entitled to dismiss, coerce, marginalise, silence, threaten and even commit violence against those who disagree with them. Righteousness has become a common part of our political climate – so much so that its effects are easy to miss.

The Republicans are masters of indignation. In my home state of South Carolina, Senator Lindsey Graham has vowed to open an investigation into whether Department of Justice officials and the FBI engaged in an “administrative coup” when they informally discussed whether it would be appropriate to apply the 25th Amendment to depose President Trump after he dismissed former FBI head James Comey. He used the same tactic to try to investigate the release of the Trump-Russia dossier. During confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, Graham made an indignant outburst against his fellow Judiciary Committee members.

Graham is one example among many in the Republican Party. Defeating the political other is paramount; it excuses all the indecent acts Republicans may use to achieve their victory. Indeed, President Trump’s characterisation of Robert Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt” and his other egregious behaviors are often accompanied by his appeal to the justness of his cause.

But righteous indignation is not merely the purview of the right. The no-platforming movement on college campuses is indicative of moral indignation. Adherents of the Antifa movement find themselves endorsing acts of intimidation and violence they would otherwise not think acceptable political behavior. This movement justifies its contravention of the usual norms of moral decency by pointing to the singular circumstances of fascism in which we allegedly find ourselves.

So where does this leave us? The situation is more complicated than we might think. It is tempting to suggest that we need to listen to our adversaries, to hear what they have to say, and to engage in reasoned debate. And there is some truth to this. But there is also truth to another idea that reveals the naivety of “let’s listen and discuss more.” There are forces in the world that are not interested in debating the merits of an issue. Those forces are engaged in practices that undermine our political system and our ability to live among one another.

Today, racism, sexism, and exploitation of both people and the environment are rampant, and under the current U.S. administration they are either tacitly or openly supported. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt noted in How Democracies Die, our politics has abandoned norms of self-restraint and mutual forbearance in favour of an ethic of pure victory. This victory ethic is justified by appeals to the righteousness of a particular party’s cause.

The question facing us today is not only how to get along with those we disagree with, but also how to resist the egregious violations of decency without engaging in indecency oneself. In short: how do we preserve the norms of decency while resisting those for whom such norms are meaningless?

There is an entire philosophical tradition that we can draw upon in order to meet this challenge. The tradition is that of nonviolent resistance. It is a way of thinking about our relationship with others and acting on the ideas that emerged in two contexts of asymmetrical power: British rule in India, and Jim Crow in the U.S. If we think creatively about the resources within this tradition, we may use them to fight the righteous indignation that gives license to moral indecency in our current political context.

Central to nonviolent resistance is the idea that everyone has a life to live, and that this must be respected. But respecting the lives of our adversaries does not require us to acquiesce to their desires. In fact, contrary to what Gandhi sometimes wrote, nonviolence can be coercive. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was nothing if not economically coercive; the refusal to buy British salt during the Indian Independence Movement was both economically and morally coercive. In each case, the aims of those in power were frustrated. Yet those who imposed sanctions did not prevent their opponents from living their lives.  

This raises the question: how can nonviolence be coercive while preserving moral decency? First, in acting nonviolently, there are certain things we simply cannot do to our adversaries. The righteousness of our cause is not entirely permissive; resistance must respect the adversary’s life, if not his or her views or activities. So, exerting pressure with self-restraint allows us to preserve our moral decency while fighting for a cause.

Second, nonviolence involves a form of mutual forbearance. Mutual forbearance is found in Gandhi’s idea that nobody has the entire truth. “Ahimsa [roughly, nonviolence] and Truth,” Gandhi wrote, “are so intertwined that it is practically impossible to disentangle and separate them. They are like two sides of a coin… Who can say, which is the obverse, and which is the reverse? Nevertheless, ahimsa is always the means; Truth is the end…If we take care of the means, we are bound to reach the end sooner or later.”

We must, in other words, always be open to the idea that our adversaries may hold a measure of truth. This requires humility when imposing sanctions on them, and this humility enables us to maintain our moral decency when acting nonviolently.

As I see it, campaigning nonviolently against some of the more egregious contemporary political activities cuts to the core of the irony I cited at the outset. When we act nonviolently, we reveal the contrast between the uprightness of our position and the moral indecency that our adversaries engage in. Specifically, we show respect for the life of our opponent via self-restraint and mutual forbearance, and in doing so highlight the indecency of their behavior.   

Antifa supporters might object that nonviolence cannot work against the current fascistic tendencies of today’s right wing. This may be true at the margins, where self-defence is necessary, but it is a profound historical error to think that the current conditions in the U.S. are worse than they were in India under the British or in the American South during Jim Crow.

The recent campaign against the caging of children of families seeking asylum in the U.S. is an excellent example of nonviolent resistance at work. The education of the public about caging, the offer of legal support, the demonstrations, the illegal placing of vessels of water in the desert for refugees to drink, and the empathy that protesters exhibited undermined those who sought to defend such practices. Such resistance can morally shame those who are capable of being shamed. And for those who are not, it can mobilise a public to morally isolate them.

I do not mean to argue here that all resistance must be nonviolent. Rather, my aim is to show that nonviolence ought to be a key form of resistance in our current political moment. It offers the greatest hope of moving from our polarised era towards a future in which we can still live in societies characterised by diverse opinions and ways of life. 

We need not become like our opponents in order to defeat them. Let us offer through our resistance the model of a better world.

Todd May is Class of 1941 Memorial Professor of the Humanities at Clemson University. He is the author of Nonviolent Resistance: A Philosophical Introduction.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Aaron is assistant professor of philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.