234. A few thoughts about MLK’s non-violence

I found this interview with Martin Luther King, Jr. very helpful in critically exploring his pacifism or commitment to non-violence. There are two distinctions King makes which I found particularly illuminating and thought-provoking. The first is between non-violence and organized non-violence; the second is between non-violence and anarchy. Let me briefly explore each in turn.

(1) King responds to a set of questions from the interviewer and, in doing so, reveals that it is not non-violence alone but organized non-violence that is the defensible alternative to violence and war. This makes sense since we can easily imagine unorganized acts of peaceful resistance getting completely crushed by violence and thereby being both ineffective and self-defeating. But this inclusion of organization raises questions: what kind of organization? How much organization? How can we know if there is enough of a certain kind of organization? I suppose the inclusion of organization is, on the one hand, something very sensible and yet, on other hand, something which raises a lot of questions which need to be addressed. If there is a lack of clarity about organization then we may not be justified in claiming, as King does, that organized non-violence is always an alternative to violence. Still, we have many examples of such organization – from King’s own actions of course – and these can serve as guides for others. Indeed, Gene Sharp has articulated 198 forms of non-violence which can serve as modes of organization (see them here). And it is important to think about how current technology and social media play a role in the efficacy of non-violent activism as well (for a helpful article which explores this issue go here; for a Pew Research Center analysis go here). So perhaps King’s optimism about there always being an alternative to violence is not unfounded.

(2) The interviewer tries to trap King in a contradiction by pointing out how, on the one hand, King supported President Eisenhower’s decision to order the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock Arkansas to insure the safety of the “Little Rock Nine” as they entered the school and, on the other hand, King supports non-violence. How can he be committed to both? King responds by saying he is for non-violence but not anarchy. There must, he argues, be laws and the intelligent use of police or military force can and should be employed to make sure laws are effective. This is a plausible position since a law without force behind it is an ineffectual law and therefore no law at all. But does it get King out of the interviewer’s bind? It is unclear how it does and King doesn’t elaborate further. But I think we can help him by drawing a distinction between two types of force: force that is used to harm and destroy, which is violence, and force that is employed to protect and insure that law reigns which is not violent. If this distinction works, then we can say one can be both committed to non-violence and the legal use of force without contradiction.

For my post on MLK, natural law and social justice, go here.

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