Book Review – The Dignity of Clarity Review of Todd May’s Nonviolent Resistance: a Philosophical Introduction

Tristan Husby

While at a peace conference in 2013, I heard an antiwar activist express dissatisfaction with an ethics course he had once taken at a community college. Enrolling in the class hoping to find some resources to advance his peace work, he was surprised when the professor announced that the guiding thread of the class would be the examination of how different thinkers responded to the problem of justifying murder. The activist left the class cynical of the utility of philosophy in understanding nonviolence. Hopefully that man will get his hands on Todd May’s book. Although May does not present a moral defense of nonviolence, he does undertake the difficult task of explaining philosophically why nonviolence works and what kind of moral value nonviolent action has. May also sets himself the additional challenge of presenting all of his arguments in clear and crisp prose that, for the most part, lacks philosophical jargon.

Those who are familiar with May’s other work will expect such a style from him. Although a serious reader of thinkers often mocked for their writing style, (May’s previous books include titles such as Reconsidering Difference: Nancy, Derrida, Levinas, and Deleuze and Between Genealogy and Epistemology: Psychology, Politics, and Knowledge in the Thought of Michel Foucault), May himself puts a high value on his work’s accessibility to lay-readers. As such, it is perhaps not surprising that he currently writes for The Stone, the New York Times’ philosophy section. However, May is no mere exegete of the poststructualist prophets: his arguments about how nonviolent action articulates the values of dignity and equality are very much his own work.

These philosophical arguments are needed because, as May points out, there is currently a dearth of philosophy on nonviolence. This lacuna is curious, since in the past forty years there has a been a rise of journals and academic departments dedicated to Peace Studies, an interdisciplinary field that makes use of methods from the social sciences to research such issues as nonviolence, social movements and the establishment of peace. May frequently references this research, both to establish key definitions, such as what exactly is violence, as well as for case studies of successful and unsuccessful nonviolent campaigns. The emphasis on campaigns is purposeful; while May is interested in how nonviolence intersects with the ethics and morality of relationships between individuals, this book is focused on the philosophy of the politics of nonviolence.

May signals, but does not state, this political orientation in Chapter One. The book opens with an overview of the Singing Revolution, that is, the Estonian resistance to the USSR. He then moves onto the Filipino struggle to oust the dictator Marcos, the Egyptian struggle to oust the dictator Mubarak, and concludes with Occupy Wall Street’s struggle against economic inequality in the United States. Unfortunately, narrative history is not May’s forte. Rather than serving as an effective hook to spur me to wonder about the power of nonviolent action, I was confused as to where all the philosophy was that May had promised me in the preface. But what this opening does do is shift to the beginning of his book case studies which he reuses as evidence in his later philosophical arguments on nonviolence.

In Chapter Two, May turns to the problem of the definition of nonviolence. Being a logical person, he begins with the question of what nonviolence is negating, namely, violence. Since attempting to define violence in a manner that would satisfy philosophers would require a whole book unto itself, May wisely steers a different course. He admits that the word “violence” performs so many functions that an inclusive definition reaches beyond the book’s scope even as he affirms that it is only with a clear conception of political violence that we understand what it is that nonviolence rejects. Given May’s commitment to clear writing, it is perhaps not surprising that Chapter Two is the longest in the book: he tackles questions such as the intentionality of violence, property destruction, the difference between violence and coercion, violence towards animals and the usefulness of terms such as psychological and structural violence. He also does the reader the service of seeking to use historical rather than hypothetical examples as frequently as possible, a stylistic choice which helps break up the abstract writing about definitions. May eschews easy answers to the examples that he poses, sometimes defending the morality of violence in a number of cases and attacking overly broad definitions of violence by Peace Studies scholars.

In Chapter Three, May sets himself the impressive goal of proving that “Nonviolence is often a better means not only in its moral aspect but also in its political consequences.” Since this position is a combination of philosophy and political science, May engages with a range of thinkers and scholars in both of those fields. The beginning of the chapter includes an overview of Gandhi’s thought on nonviolence, which May shows is the result of Gandhi combining his religious views with his political experience. But while respectful, May points to examples in the case studies from Chapter One to show that nonviolent campaigns can succeed in ways not predicted by Gandhi’s theories. In doing so he leans rather heavily on the recent comparative work of political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. In their 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works, Chenoweth and Stephan compare hundreds of nonviolent and violent campaigns for national liberation, regime changes and succession, and conclude that in those particular types of campaigns, nonviolent movements were more likely to succeed than violent ones. While summarizing this literature is important to support his political claims about the efficiency of nonviolence, I found myself wishing that May had taken the time to analyze Chenoweth and Stephan’s term ‘civil resistance’. In Chapter Three, May performs a thoughtful and delightful analysis of the slogan “We are the ninety-nine percent” and how it connects to the tactics of the Occupy Wall Street movement. May is clearly aware of the power of words and how words can shape and direct political action. What then are the consequences of Chenoweth and Stephan describing nonviolence as ‘civil resistance’?

Chapters Four and Five are on the two values that May identifies as nonviolence enacting: dignity and equality. May notes that that these values are frequently discussed as belonging to different spheres, dignity to ethics and equality to political philosophy, but as someone who takes poststructuralism seriously, he refuses to let this division restrain his philosophizing. He harvests from an array of thinkers, not just philosophers such as Kant and Rancière but also the intellectual historian Michael Rosen, in order to philosophize dignity and equality in a way that is, in his words, from “the bottom-up”. This approach allows him to reflect on issues such as why nonviolent action can be effective when its practitioners only choose nonviolence out of consequentialist calculations. In doing so, May presents a number of persuasive arguments about how the power of nonviolence is connected to how nonviolent actors start from the assumption of their own dignity rather than having to earn it by pleasing their oppressors. But May’s best writing is reserved for his arguments about equality and nonviolence, which are so graceful and subtle that I won’t try to summarize them here. Instead, simply know that in Chapter Five, May uses Rancière’s thoughts on democracy to politicize Kant’s categorical imperative before finishing by noting that Gandhi was already saying the same thing, if you were to just read him from the proper angle.

In Chapter Six, May concludes his book by drawing lessons from Occupy Wall Street for future struggles against neoliberalism. On the one hand, this framing very much makes nonviolence a question about future struggles rather than past ones. On the other hand, since May does not engage with the question of neoliberalism earlier, in this concluding chapter, he hurriedly introduces new ideas, specifically what he means by neoliberalism and how it conflicts with the values of dignity and equality that he discusses in Chapters Four and Five. To be clear, May’s arguments about the immorality of neoliberalism are compelling, and while he ultimately stands by the assertion that nonviolence offers the most effective tools to confront this unjust system, he is also forthright about how uniting to confront an economic system will require innovation rather than romantic imitations of previous struggles. May’s final rallying cry makes clear that while the book is framed as introductory, it is nonetheless not for everyone. May writes for those who are willing to endure the friction of attempting to make the world a more equal and dignified place for all.


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