Trinity College Dublin was abuzz with people queuing up to hear the renowned US feminist political philosopher Judith Butler Gender and Women’s Studies talk. The following night Butler spoke at the inaugural meeting of the 245th session of Trinity’s Historical Society. The title of the session was ‘The need for radical approaches to politics and oppression’, and Butler’s topic was non-violent resistance. I watched her talk online, being an admirer of Butler’s work on gender, frames of war and precarious life. I also admire her unstinting, brave support for the boycott of Israel, for which she has been vilified in the US and Germany.
Butler’s argument was that non-violent resistance – strikes, hunger strikes, demonstrations, protests, boycotts – occurs in a violent environment. She was asking why non violent civil disobedience is often interpreted as destructive acts of violence. Why – I might add in brackets – was the imprisonment of Tanaiste Joan Burton in her car in Jobstown considered a violent offence by the Irish state, which used political policing against the demonstrators? The answer, of course, is that non violence aims to find alternatives to the status quo, and is therefore a threat, particularly in the current era of militarised policing.
War, Butler reminded her audience, stems from an interdiction to defend one’s own group, and asked if there any exceptions to non violence. In other words, would I resort to violence when I, my children, my family or my nation, are attacked?
For Butler, war is ‘framed’ in the media so as to prevent us from recognising the people who are to be killed as living fully ‘grievable’ lives, like ours. Thus, she insisted, all exceptions to non violence are problematic because ‘our’ lives are not more precious than the lives of others. Butler was praising Syriza’s decision to remove police presence from demonstrations and remove police riot gear. Non violence, for her, is both ethical and tactical as a way of looking for ethical alternatives to violence and war.
When I first listened to the lecture, I admired Butler’s affirmation of life, all life, and her insistence we need to rethink non violence as an alternative to the hegemony of the state. But then I began thinking of the implications of her ideas for people under occupation or direct oppression.
Can we honestly say to the people of Gaza, say, that the only way forward is non violent resistance in the face of the Israeli assaults, the ongoing siege and low grade attacks by Israel, ten years after it pulled its settlers and troops from the Gaza strip, which is kept under siege? Can we honestly ask demonstrators against the ongoing occupation of the West Bank not to throw stones, an act considered violent by the Israeli military courts? Can we honestly say to demonstrators against police brutality against African Americans that they should remain ‘non violent’?
Butler’s stance against war and violence is admirable, but may I respectfully suggest that it’s easy to deplore all violent resistance when you are a privileged, white – albeit radical anti- war feminist activist – American? You may castigate me for it, but I believe that oppressed people and people under occupation have full rights to exercise an ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges’ which includes, among other things, the right to violent resistance to colonial and racial oppression.