In “Resistance can be violent,” (Commentary, May 24, Online) Davide Mastracci argues that the violent tactics employed by tuition hike protesters are “commendable.” Here, I want to push back against that idea by drawing a distinction between situations where political violence is ethically justifiable and where it is not. In particular, political violence is admissible only where no potential for meaningful dialogue exists.
Intuitively, there are some situations where political violence is morally acceptable. Indeed, if I find myself under the oppressive hand of a totalitarian regime, it seems as if the only recourse I have is to engage in violent insurrection. However, Canada is, thankfully, not a totalitarian state. Specifically, it differs in two key ways from oppressive regimes that may justifiably be opposed with violence. First, we have legally enshrined Charter rights – like freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly – that guarantee space to debate political issues. Second, we have elections that transform the fruits of those discussions into policy.
These mechanisms are by no means perfect. Indeed, though we have the right to talk to each other about politics, many people rarely do so in good faith. Moreover, elections are at best blunt instruments for shaping policy, given their infrequency and the limited scope of options they present the voter. All in all, the extent to which meaningful political dialogue happens and has an impact on policy is often exaggerated.
However, due to the way our institutions are set up, the potential for meaningful dialogue still exists. We’re fortunate enough to have a choice between using dialogue and using violence to advance our political aims. Given this choice, the only ethically justifiable option is the use of dialogue. To engage in acts of political violence when the potential for dialogue still exists is unspeakably arrogant. It says: “I am so sure that my political position is right that I’m willing to preclude any further dialogue with you in order to have it realized.”
Two things may be noted about this attitude. First, violence, by its nature, ends discussion. In some cases, it leaves people physically incapable of speaking. In others, it leaves them too afraid to speak. Most commonly, it leaves them under the impression that the person committing the violent act is someone who is incapable of being reasoned with. Whatever the mechanism, there can be no meaningful dialogue with someone who is violent.
Second, the idea that a political position can be obviously right is demonstrably false. Political questions are not simple questions of means, solvable by formulas or empirical studies. They concern nothing less than our ends in life. These are questions that people have been thinking about for thousands of years. As such, they’re unlikely to be settled any time soon. In the meantime, the best thing we can do is to keep talking about them. Of course, this can only happen if people don’t violently end the discussion.
Brian Gracie is a U3 Political Science and Economics Student. He can be reached at email@example.com.