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Pacifism as Pathology

Preface to the 2007 Edition of Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology  

This extraordinarily important book cuts to the heart of one of the central reasons movements to bring about social and environmental justice always fail. The fundamental question here is: is violence ever an acceptable tool to help bring about social change?

This is probably the most important question of our time, yet so often discussions around it fall into cliches and magical thinking: that somehow if we are merely good and nice enough people the State will stop using its violence to exploit us all. Would that this were true. But of course it is not.

This is a necessary book, a book that grows more necessary with each day that passes. Our backs really are against the wall. The dominant culture is killing the planet. Ninety percent of the large fish in the oceans are gone. Amazonian rainforests could enter permanent decline within the year. Every stream in the United States has been contaminated with carcinogens. This should not surprise us, since the breast milk of every mother on the planet — human and nonhuman—has been contaminated with carcinogens. Global warming is accelerating, with a very real possibility that it may render this planet essentially uninhabitable, and the response by those in power is to tell us that this way of life—this way of life that is killing the planet, that commits genocide against every indigenous culture it encounters, that degrades and impoverishes the vast majority of humans, indeed, that is based upon and requires each of these things—is not negotiable.

At the same time, the efforts of those of us fighting against the System are insufficient. Obviously, or we would not be losing. Rates of deforestation would not continue to accelerate, oceans would not continue to be murdered, indigenous peoples would not continue to be slaughtered or driven off their land.

What are we going to do? With all the world at stake, it is long past time we put all of our options on the table.

This is a necessary book, a book that grows more necessary with each day that passes.

In this book, Churchill makes clear that many of the claims of pacifism are often at odds with reality. For example, Gandhi is often used to illustrate a pacifist achieving his goal. But Gandhi’s success (such as it was: one can make the argument that the Indian people didn’t really win that revolution, but rather at this remove Coca-Cola and Microsoft have won, at least for now) came at the end of a hundred year struggle—often violent—for independence by the Indians. Further, many Indians consider Gandhi to have co-opted Indian rage against the British into something altogether much more manageable, something even the British did not so much fear.

Likewise, we can ask how much Martin Luther King Jr. could have accomplished were it not for African-Americans taking to the streets, sometimes with guns. This question is not often enough asked. Churchill points out some of the reasons for this failure of discourse.

Churchill doesn’t, of course, argue for blind, unthinking violence. He merely argues against blind, unthinking nonviolence.

And who, apart from dogmatic pacifists and those in power, could have a problem with that?

Those in power are insatiable. They will do anything—lie, cheat, steal, kill—to increase their power.

The System rewards this accumulation of power. It requires it. The System itself is insatiable. It requires growth. It requires the ever-increasing exploitation of resources, including human resources.

It will not stop because we ask nicely; else it would have stopped long ago when Indians and others of the indigenous asked nicely for members of this culture to stop stealing their land. It will not stop because it is the right thing to do, else it would never have started.

It will not stop so long as there is anything left for it to exploit. It cannot.

Welcome to the end of the world.

This book, more than any other, demystifies and deconstructs dogmatic pacifism: shows it for what it really is. That’s a crucial task, especially given the stranglehold dogmatic pacifism has on much of the so-called résistance especially in the United States, but more broadly the industrialized nations. As Churchill States early in this essay:

“Pacifism, the ideology of nonviolent political action, has become axiomatic and ail but universal among the more progressive elements of contemporary mainstream North America."

This stranglehold is especially unfortunate, given, as Churchill next States,

“Always, it promises that the harsh realities of State power can be transcended via good feelings and purity of purpose rather than by self-defense and resorting to combat. Pacifists, with seemingly endless repetition, pronounce that the negativity of the modem corporate-fascist State will atrophy through defection and neglect once there is a sufficiently positive social vision to take its place… Known in the Middle Ages as alchemy, such insistence on the repetition of insubstantial themes and failed experiments to obtain a desired result has long been consigned to the realm of fantasy, discarded by all but the most wishful or cynical (who use it to manipulate people).”

Of course, those who say that this way of life is not negotiable — or those who say nothing, but who act as though this way of life is not negotiable — have it all wrong. They have confused dependent and independent variables: this way of life — any way of life — is and must be based upon a healthy landbase. Without a healthy landbase you have nothing. Those in power can dream ail they want about some grim technotopic capitalist dystopia — and we likewise can fantasize ail we want about some groovy ecosocialist utopia filled with free love and great music—but it doesn’t matter if you can’t breathe the air and can’t drink the water. Everything arises from your landbase: everything else is the dependent variable to the landbase’s independent variable. No landbase, no way of life. In fact, no landbase means no life.

It really is that simple.

Unfortunately, simpleness or complexity are not the point, and never have been. The problems we face are not and have never been cognitively challenging: rational problems for us to puzzle our way through. Indeed the problems we face are not rational at all, and to believe they are is part of the problem, because to believe they are is to believe they are amenable to rational solution: if we just think about it hard enough, and if we just make the case dearly and persuasively enough, we can convince (read: beg) those in power to stop the exploitative and destructive behavior that characterizes this culture, and for which they are extremely well-rewarded.

Well, try this on: would it have worked to set up meeting after meeting with Hitler in which you present to him all sorts of rational reasons why he shouldn’t order the extermination of the Jews or the invasion of the Soviet Union? People tried. It didn’t work. Sure, members of the German résistance held lots of meetings attempting to convince others to join them. But their purpose was not to recruit more people to try to talk Hitler into changing his behavior. Their purpose was to recruit these others to help remove Hitler and the Nazis from power.

Or try this on: contemporary report after contemporary report in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries shows steady streams of white settlers deserting to join the Indians. As J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur commented in his Letters from an American Farmer,

There must be in the Indians’ social bond something singularly captivating, and far superior to be boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans! There must be something very bewitching in their manners, something very indelible and marked by the very hands of Nature. For, take a young Indian lad, give him the best education you possibly can, load him with your bounty, with presents, nay with riches, yet he would secretly long for his native woods, which you would imagine he must have long since forgot; and on the first opportunity he can possibly find, you will see him voluntarily leave behind ail you have given him and return with inexpressible joy to lie on the mats of his fathers.

Here’s how Benjamin Franklin put it:

“No European who has tasted Savage life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.”

He also wrote,

When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return, and that this not natural [to them] merely as Indians, but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with an imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

These descriptions are common. Cadwallader Colden wrote in 1747 of whites captured by Indians,

No Arguments, no Intreaties, nor Tears of their Friends and Relations, could persuade many of them to leave their new Indian Friends and Acquaintance[s]; several of them that were by the Caressings of their Relations persuaded to come Home, in a little time grew tired of our Manner of living, and run [sic] away again to the Indians, and ended their Days with them. On the other Hand, Indian Children have been carefully educated among the English, cloathed and taught, yet, I think, there is not one Instance that any of these, after they had Liberty to go among their own People, and were come to Age, would remain with the English, but returned to their own Nations, and became as fond of the Indian Manner of Life as those that knew nothing of a civilized Manner of living.


At prisoner exchanges, Indians would run joyously back to their families, while white captives had to be bound hand and foot to not run back to their captors.

Faced with these desertions, faced with these other cultures holding something “far superior to be boasted of among us," one reasonable action would have been to simply accept the desertions. Another would have been to make one’s own way of life more like these others, to make one’s own culture so attractive the desertions would stop. Of course those are not the choices followed. The choice has been and continues to be to eliminate the options, to exterminate these indigenous others and to steal their land.

More of the nonrationality that characterizes this culture: right now the various world governments spend more money to subsidize the world’s commercial fishing fleets than the total value of the catch. Taxpayers the world over pay to vacuum the oceans.

And more: right now the U.S. spends well over a billion dollars a day on the military: that is, to kill people. A billion dollars could pay for five million Third-World children to attend school for a year. For what the US spends to kill people in five days, potable water could be provided to every human on the world who lacks it. Excluding land acquisition, the US government spends less on recovery efforts for all endangered species than it spends on the military in twelve hours.

More unreasonableness. Study after study reveals that within this culture one out of every four women is raped within her lifetime and another nineteen percent fend off rape attempts. The women I know say these figures are much higher, approaching unity. What does this say about the rationality or reasonableness of this culture? Rape is not reasonable or rational, no matter what stories rapists may tell themselves to justify it. Similarly, killing the planet is not reasonable or rational, no matter what stories people may tell themselves to justify it. Changing the climate is not reasonable or rational. Destroying ways of life that have been in place for thousands or tens of thousands of years is not reasonable or rational.

Or perhaps, from a certain perspective, these are ail rational. The psychiatrist R.D. Laing made the point that if you can understand people’s experience you can understand their behavior: people act according to their experience of the world. So far, so good. But what does it say about those in power that their experience of the world could lead them to ceaselessly seek for new others to exploit?

To answer that, let’s talk about psychopathology. A psychopath can be defined as one who willfully does damage without remorse: “Such individuals are impulsive, insensitive to other’s needs, and unable to anticipate the consequences of their behavior, to follow long-term goals, or to tolerate frustration. The psychopathic individual is characterized by absence of the guilt feelings and anxiety that normally accompany an antisocial act.” Dr. Robert Hare, who has long studied psychopaths, makes clear that “among the most devastating features of psychopathy are a callous disregard for the rights of others and a propensity for predatory and violent behaviors. Without remorse, psychopaths charm and exploit others for their own gain. They lack empathy and a sense of responsibility, and they manipulate, lie and con others with no regard for anyone’s feelings.”

Sound familiar?

One cannot solve abusive or psychopathological behavior though rational means, no matter how much it may be in abusers’ or psychopaths’ interest for us to believe so. (As author Lundy Bancroft has noted, "In one important way, an abusive man works like a magician. His tricks largely rely on getting you to look off in the wrong direction, distracting your attention so that you won’t notice where the real action is… He leads you into a convoluted maze, making your relationship with him a labyrinth of twists and turns. He wants you to puzzle over him, to try to figure him out, as though he were a wonderful but broken machine for which you need only to find and fix the malfunctioning parts to bring it roaring to its full potential. His desire, though he may not admit it even to himself, is that you wrack your brain in this way so that you won’t notice the patterns and logic of his behavior, the consciousness behind the craziness.” And does this Sound familiar, too?)

Grotesquely exploitative behavior is not something to be figured out. It is something to be stopped. Which brings us back to this book. I’ve often heard Ward describe the dominant culture as being like the fictional character Hannibal Lector from The Silence of the Lambs; refined, urbane, sophisticated, and a cannibalistic psychopath, "You’re locked in a room with this psychopath,” I ’ve heard Churchill say, “And you will be on the menu. The question is: what are you going to do about it?”

What are you going to do about it?

I have, in my life, been in a few relationships I would classify as emotionally abusive. It took me years to learn this very important lesson: you cannot argue with an abuser. You will always lose. In fact you’ve lost as soon as you begin (or more precisely as soon as you respond to their provocations). Why? Because they cheat. They lie. They control the framing conditions for any “debate”, and if you deviate from their script, they hurt you until you step back in line. (And of course we see this same thing on the larger scale.) If this happens often enough they no longer have to hurt you, since you no longer step out of line. And if this really happens long enough, you may come up with a philosophy or a religion that makes a virtue of you not stepping out of line. (And of course we see this same thing on the larger scale, too).

Another reason that you always lose when you argue with an abuser is that they excel at creating double binds. A double bind is a situation where if you choose option one you lose, if you choose option two you lose, and you can’t withdraw.

The only way out of a double blind is to smash it. It’s the only way. A double bind. One of the smartest things the Nazis did was make it so that at every step of the way it was in the Jews’ rational best interest to not resist. Many Jews had the hope—and this hope was cultivated by the Nazis—that if they played along, followed the rules laid down by those in power, that their lives would get no worse, that they would not be murdered. Would you rather get an ID card, or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? Would you rather go to a ghetto (reserve, reservation, whatever) or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? Would you rather get on a cattle car, or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? Would you rather get in the showers, or would you rather resist and possibly get killed?

But I’ll tell you something important: the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, including those who went on what they thought were suicide missions, had a higher rate of survival then those who went along. Never forget that.

The only way out of a double blind is to smash it. Never forget that either. I recently reconnected with an old friend. In the years since we last talked, he has, it ends up, become a pacifist. He said he thinks its possible to reach anyone if you can just make a convincing enough argument.

 “Ted Bundy?” I asked

“He’s dead” “Back when he was alive”

“Okay, i guess not.”

“Hitler?” Silence from my friend.

I said, “Gandhi tried. Wrote him a letter requesting he please stop. Was evidently surprised when Hitler didn’t listen to him.”

 “I still think,” he said, “that in most cases you can come to some sort of agreement with people.”

“Sure,” I responded. “Most people. But what if someone wants what you’ve got, and will do anything to take it?” I was thinking of the words of the Oglala man Red Cloud, who spoke of the insatiability and abusiveness of members of the dominant culture: “They made us many promises, more then i can remember. But they only kept one. They promised to take our land and they took it.”

My friend said, “But whats worth fighting for? Can’t we just leave?” I thought of many things worth fighting for: bodily integrity (my own and that of those i love), my landbase, the lives and dignity of those i love. I thought of the mother bear who charged me not one week ago, because she thought i was threatening her baby. I thought of the mother horses, cows, dogs, cats, hawks, eagles, chickens, geese, mice who have in my life attacked me because they thought I’d harm their little ones. I thought: If a mother mouse is willing to take on someone eight thousand times her size, what the hell is wrong with us? I said “what if they want everything on the planet? The planet is finite, you know. Ultimately you can’t just run away.”

My friend wasn’t such a good pacifist after all, for he said, “I guess at some point you got to fight back.” In a recent interview, Ward Churchill was asked, “What do you think those in oppositional circles need to do to really affect change?”

I have a friend, a former prisoner, who is very smart, and who says that dogmatic pacifists are the most selfish people he knows, because they place their moral purity — or to be more precise, their self-conception of moral purity — above stopping injustice. That’s a problem.

The question becomes; what do you want? I know what I want. I want to live in a world with more wild salmon every year than the year before, a world with more migratory songbirds every year than the year before, a world with more ancient forests every year than the year before, a world with less dioxin in each mother’s breast milk every year than the year before, a world with wild tigers and grizzly bears and great apes and marlins and swordfish. I want to live on a livable planet.

And I will do whatever it takes to get there. I have heard Ward answer this question, too. What he wants is for the dominant culture to stop killing Indian children. And he has said he will do whatever it takes to get there.

It’s all the same struggle.

Neither Ward nor I are arguing against people being peaceful. Nor is either one of us arguing against those who choose to personally pursue social change through peaceful means. We need it all. We need people filing lawsuits, and we need people working at battered women’s shelters. We need people working on permaculture. We need educators. We need writers. We need healers. But we also need warriors, those who are willing and ready to fight back. That’s the good thing about everything being so fucked up: no matter where you look there is great work to be done.

There is a difference, however, between being personally peaceful and being a pacifist. The sort of pathological pacifism Ward’s writing about, that “ideology of nonviolent political action” which “has become axiomatic and all but universal among the more progressive elements of contemporary mainstream North America,” is not merely a personal choice or proclivity, but rather an obsession, a monomania, a brittle religion or cult that like other brittle obsessions can brook no heresy. Not only are pacifists of this sort unwilling to fight back — which of course is their prerogative- and not only are they unwilling to consider fighting back- which is still their prerogative- but far more harmfully they cannot allow anyone else to consider fighting back either. All-too-often they do everything in their power to silence anyone who commits blasphemy by fighting back or even speaking of it.

Their first line of defense is often to simply shout down the offender. This has happened to me many times, and if you’ve spoken of fighting back I’m sure its happened to you, too. The shouts — or chants, really — come from the pacifist canon. Like any other fundamentalist religion, dogmatic pacifism has its articles of faith. And like many articles of faith, these don’t really hold up to scrutiny. But once again like any other fundamentalist religion, whether or not the articles of faith correspond to physical reality matters not the slightest to the religions true believers, nor to their enthusiasm, nor to their aggressiveness. Rebut an article of faith- rhetorically smash it to bits- and they’ll simply say it again and again as though you never said a word.

Articles of faith. They tell us that by wanting to fight back, we are being dualistic, separating the world into us and them. “If someone wins,” they say, “then someone has to lose. If we’re all creative enough we can find ways so all of us win." Tell that to the marlins, the tiger salamanders, the orangutans. Ifs easy to speak of everyone winning when you make yourself blind to the suffering of those you exploit and those you allow to be exploited. There are already winners and there are already losers, and expediently ignored in all this talk of everyone winning is that the world is already losing. Further ignored is that when the world loses, we all lose. And also expediently ignored is that you cannot make peace with a culture that is trying to devour you. War has long-since been declared and is being waged against the world, and a refusal to acknowledge this war does not mean it’s not happening.

They tell us that love conquers all, and that to even speak of fighting back is to not sufficiently love. If we just love our enemies enough, we can sway them by the power of that love. They tell us that love implies pacifism. But love does not imply pacifism, and I think mother grizzly bears will back me up on this one, as will all the other mothers I mentioned earlier.

They tell us you can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. I can’t tell you how many people have said this to me. I can, however, tell you with reasonable certainly that none of these people have ever read the essay from which the line comes: “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House,” By Audrey Lorde (certainly no pacifist herself). The essay has noting to do with pacifism, but with the exclusion of marginalized voices from discourse ostensibly having to do with social change. If any of these pacifists had read her essay, they would have undoubtedly been horrified, because she is, reasonably enough, suggesting a multivaried approach to the multivarious problems we face.

It has always seemed clear to me that violent and nonviolent approaches to social change are complementary. No one i know who advocates the possibility of armed resistance to the dominant cultures degradation and exploitation rejects nonviolent resistance. Many of us routinely participate in the nonviolent resistance and support those for whom this is their only mode of opposition. Who is it that says we should not use the master’s tools? Often it is Christians, Buddhists, or other adherents of civilized religions. It is routinely people who wish us to vote our way to justice or shop our way to sustainability. But civilized religions are tools used by the master as surely as is violence. So is voting. So is shopping. If we cannot use the tools used by the master, what tools, precisely, can we use? How about writing? No, sorry. Writing has long been a tool used by the master. So I guess we can’t use that. Well, how about discourse in general? Yes, those in power own the means of industrial discourse production, and those in power misuse discourse. Does that mean they own all discourse and we can never us it? Of Course not. they also own the means of industrial religion production, and they misuse religions. Does that mean they own all religion and we can never use it? Of course not. They own the means of industrial violent production, and they misuse violence. Does that mean they own all violence and we can never use it? Of course not.

But I have yet another problem with the statement that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, which is that it’s a terrible metaphor. It just doesn’t work. The first and most necessary condition for a metaphor is that it makes sense in the real world. This doesn’t. You can use a hammer to build a house, and you can use a hammer to take it down. It doesn’t matter whose hammer it is. There are other problems with the pacifist use of this phrase. One is with the pacifist idea that force is solely the dominion of those in power. It’s certainly true that the master uses the tool of violence, but that doesn’t mean he owns it. Those in power have effectively convinced us they own land, which is to say they’ve convinced us to give up our inalienable right to access our own landbases. They’ve effectively convinced us they own conflict [resolution methods (which they call laws), which is to say they’ve convinced us to give up our inalienable right to resolve our own conflicts (which they call taking the law into your own hands).] There are no master’s tools. There is a person who believes himself a master. There is a house he claims is his. There are tools he claims as well. And there are those who still believe he is the master.

But there are others who do not buy into this delusion. There are those of us who see a man, a house, and tools. No more and no less. Pacifists endlessly repeat that it’s much easier to make war than to make peace. The first twenty times i heard this I didn’t understand it at all: whether war or peace is harder is irrelevant. Its easier to catch a fly with your bare hand than with your mouth, but does that mean it’s somehow better or more moral to do the latter? It’s easier to take out a dam with a sledgehammer than a toothpick, but doing the latter wouldn’t make me a better person. An action’s difficulty is entirely independent of its quality or morality. If all they’re saying, by the way, is that oftentimes creativity can make violence unnecessary, i wish they would just say that. I would have no problem with that, so long as we emphasize the word oftentimes. Another item in the canon is Gandhi’s line: “We want freedom for our country, but not at the expense or exploitation of others.” I’ve also had this line crammed down my throat more times than I want to consider — Often paraphrased as “You keep saying that in this struggle for the planet you want to win, but if someone wins, doesn’t that mean someone has to lose, and isn’t that just perpetuating the same old dominator mindset?” And I’ve always found it both intellectually dishonest and poorly thought-out.

A man tries to rape a woman. She runs away. Her freedom from being raped just came at his expense: he wasn’t able to rape her. Does this mean she exploited him? Of course not. Now let’s do this again. He tries to rape her. She can’t get away. She tries to stop him nonviolently. It doesn’t work. She pulls a gun and shoots him in the head. Obviously her freedom from being raped came at the expense of his life. Did she exploit him? Of course not. It comes down to a basic truism: defensive rights always trump offensive rights. My right to freedom always trumps your right to exploit me, and if you do try to exploit me, i have the right to stop you, even at the expense of you. Anybody’s freedom from being exploited will always come at the expense of the oppressor’s ability to exploit.

The freedom of salmon (and rivers) to survive will come at the expense of those who profit from dams. The freedom of ancient redwood forests to survive will come at the expense of Charles Hurwitz’s bank account. The freedom of the world to survive global warming will come at the expense of those whose lifestyles are based on the burning of oil. It is magical thinking to pretend otherwise. Pacifists tell us that the ends never justify the means. This is a statement of values disguised as a statement of morals. A person who says ends don’t justify means is simply saying: I value process more than outcome. Someone who says ends do justify means is merely saying: I value outcome more than process. Looked at this way, it becomes absurd to make absolute statements about it. There are some ends that justify some means, and there are some ends that do not. Similarly, the same means may be justified by some people for some ends and not justified by or for others (I would, for example, kill someone who attempted to kill those I love, and I would not kill someone who tried to cut me off on the interstate). It is my joy, responsibility, and honor as a sentient being to make those distinctions, and I pity those who do not consider themselves worthy or capable of making them themselves, and who must rely on slogans instead to guide their actions.

Pacifists tell us that violence only begets violence. This is manifestly not true. Violence can beget many things. Violence can beget submission, as when a master beats a slave (some slaves will eventually fight back, in which case this violence will beget more violence; but some slaves will submit for the rest of their lives, as we see; and some will even create a religion or spirituality that attempts to make a virtue of their submission, as we also see; some will write a-nd others repeat that their freedom must not come at the expense of others; some will speak of the need to love their oppressors; and some will say that the meek shall inherit what’s left of the earth). Violence can beget material wealth, as when a robber or a capitalist (insofar as we can make a meaningful distinction) steals from someone. Violence can beget violence, as when someone attacks someone who fights back. Violence can beget a cessation of violence, as when someone fights off or kills an assailant (it’s utterly nonsensical as well as insulting to say that a woman who kills a rapist is begetting more violence).

Pacifists tell us, “We must be the change we want to see.” This ultimately meaningless statement manifests the magical thinking and narcissism we’ve come to expect from dogmatic pacifists. I can change myself all i want, and if dams still stand, salmon still die. If global warming proceeds apace, birds still starve. If factory trawlers still run, oceans still suffer. If factory farms still pollute, dead zones still grow. If vivisection labs still remain, animals are still tortured. They tell us that if you use violence against exploiters, you become like they are. This cliche is, once again, absurd, with no relation to the real world. It is based on the flawed notion that all violence is the same. It is obscene to suggest that a woman who kills a man attempting to rape her becomes like a rapist. It is obscene to suggest that by fighting back Tecumseh became like those who were stealing his people’s land. It is obscene to suggest that the Jews who fought back against their exterminators at Auschwitz/Birkenau, Treblinka, and Sobibor became like the Nazis. It is obscene to suggest that a tiger who kills a human at a zoo becomes like one of her captors.

Pacifists tell us that violence never accomplishes anything. This argument, even more than any of the others, reveals how completely, desperately, and arrogantly out of touch many dogmatic pacifists are with physical, emotional, and spiritual reality. If violence accomplishes nothing, how do these people believe the civilized conquered the North and South America and Africa, and before these Europe, and before that the Middle East, and since then the rest of the world? The indigenous did not and do not hand over their land because they recognize they’re faced with a better culture run by better people. The land was (and is) seized and the people living there were (and are) slaughtered, terrorized, beaten into submission. The tens of millions of Africans killed in the slave trade would be surprised to learn their slavery was not the result of widespread violence. The same is true for the millions of women burned as witches in Europe. The same is true for the billions of passenger pigeons slaughtered to serve the economic system. The millions of prisoners stuck in gulags here in the US and elsewhere would be astounded to discover they can walk away anytime they want, that they are not in fact held there by force.

Do the pacifists who say this really believe that people all across the world hand over their resources to the wealthy because they enjoy being impoverished, enjoy seeing their lands and their lives stolen- sorry, i guess under this formulation they’re not stolen but received gracefully as gifts--by those they evidently must perceive [them selves] as more deserving? Do they believe women submit to rape just for the hell of it, and not because of the use or threat of violence? One reason violence is used so often by those in power is because it works. It works dreadfully well. And it can work for liberation as well as subjugation.

To say that violence never accomplishes anything not only degrades the suffering of those harmed by violence but it also devalues the triumphs of those who have fought their way out of abusive or exploitative situations. Abused women or children have killed their abusers, and become free of his abuse. And there have been many indigenous and other armed struggles for liberation that have succeeded for shorter or longer periods. In order to maintain their fantasies, dogmatic pacifists must ignore the harmful and helpful efficacy of violence. When endlessly repeating their canon (at high volume) doesn’t suffice to shut up those with the temerity to suggest fighting back, the next move by pacifists is often to claim the moral high ground, as though refusing to fight back—as though continuing one’s servitude—is somehow more worthy or more to be admired and emulated—gosh, whom does that serve? — than acting effectively through whatever means are necessary to dismantle or destroy the oppression.

When that doesn’t work, the next gambit is to ignore all other parts of your analysis and to endlessly repeat distorted versions 0f the parts they find most objectionable. I wrote an 891-page book called Endgame, which is an in-depth analysis of the fact that the dominant culture is inherently unsustainable—it’s killing the planet—and is based on violence. I ask what we’re going to do about it. The reviews have fallen into two stark camps: non- pacifists for the most part love the book, and pacifists, of course, hate it. I’ve considered putting out another version of Endgame called Endgame for Pacifists. It will consist of 890 blank pages, with one page in the middle containing the text: “Sometimes it’s okay to fight back.” Because those are the only words they seem to have read anyway: their true belief blinded them to everything else in the book.

When distorting the message doesn’t work, the next step is often to disparage the blasphemers, call them terrorists; people who’ve lost compassion; people acting out their anger, provocateurs; people who are no better than those they are fighting. Pacifists will often say anything to not acknowledge that some people see a necessity to fight back.

When name-calling doesn’t work, pacifists move on to silence you in other ways. Given that this is an introduction to a book by Ward Churchill, I don’t think I need to give details on the effects Ward’s militancy has had on his career. And not all of the opposition to his positions has come from the direct agents of those in power. Some has come from pacifists, from those who would at least ostensibly be his allies in the struggle, but who, too, act as agents of those in power. All of this closed-mindedness—this intolerance for any tactics save their own (one pacifist in his review of Endgame wrote “Give me Gandhi or give me death!")—is harmful in many ways. First, it decreases the possibility of effective synergy between various forms of resistance. Second, it creates the illusion that we really are accomplishing something while the world continues to be destroyed. Third, it wastes valuable time that we do not have. Fourth, it positively helps those in power.

Ward Churchill puts it well:

“There is not a petition campaign that you can construct that is going to cause the power and the status quo to dissipate. There is not a legal action that you can take; you can’t go into the court of the conqueror and have the conqueror announce the conquest illegitimate and told to be repealed; you cannot vote in an alternative, you cannot hold a prayer vigil, you cannot burn the right scented candle at the prayer vigil, you cannot have the right folk song, you cannot have the right fashion statement, you cannot adopt a different diet, build a better bike path. You have to say it squarely: the fact that this power, this force, this entity, this monstrosity called the state maintains itself by physical force, and can be countered only in terms that it itself dictates and therefore understands.


“It will not be a painless process, but, hey, newsflash: It’s not a process that is painless now. If you feel a relative absence of pain, that is testimony only to your position of privilege within the Statist structure. Those who are on the receiving end , whether they are in Iraq, they are in Palestine, they are in Haiti, they are in American Indian reserves inside the United States, whether they are in the migrant stream or the inner city, those who are ‘othered’ and of color, in particular but poor more generally, known the difference between the painlessness of acquiescence on the one hand and the painfulness of maintaining the existing order on the other. Ultimately, there is no alternative that has found itself in reform there is only an alternative that founds itself — not in that fanciful word of revolution- but in the devolution, that is to say the dismantlement of Empire from the Inside out.”

I’m really angry that I have spent so much time over the past few years deconstructing pacifist arguments that don’t make any sense anyway. I’m angry that I’ve written so many books showing conclusions that should be pretty damn obvious. Newsflash: this culture is killing the planet. Newsflash: this culture is based on violence. Newsflash: this culture is psychopathological. Newsflash: this entire culture requires our disconnection from each other and especially from our landbases. Newsflash: this entire culture inculcates us into irresponsibility and would not survive were we to gain even a shred of responsibility.

A while ago I received this email from a friend:

“There are so many people who fear making decisions and taking responsibility. Kids are trained and adults are encouraged not to make decisions and take responsibility. Or more accurately they are trained to engage only in false choices. Whenever I think about the culture and all the horrors it perpetrates and we allow, and whenever i consider our typical response to being faced with difficult choices, it seems clear to me that everything in the culture leads us to ‘choose’ rigid, controlled, unresponsive ‘responses’ over fluidity, real choice, and personal responsibility for and to those choices. Every time. Every single time.


A pacifist eliminates choice and responsibility by labeling great swaths of possibility off limits for action and even for discussion. ‘See how pure I am for making no wrong choices?’ they can say, while in reality facing no choices at all. And of course they actually are making choices. Choosing inaction—or ineffective action—in the face of exploitation or abuse is about as impure an action as anyone can conceptualize. But these ineffective actions can provide the illusion of effectiveness: no matter what else can be said about pacifism, even with the gigantic problems we face, pacifism and other responses that do not threaten the larger concentration camp status quo are certainly achievable. That's something, I guess. But it ail reminds me of those who go to therapists to create the illusion that they’re doing something, rather than the few who actually work to face their fears and patterns and take an active role in transformation.


“Pacifism is a toxic mimic of love, isn’t it? Because it actually has nothing to do with loving another. Could it be said that toxic mimics are toxic in part because they ignore responsibility, they ignore relationship, they ignore presence, they substitute control for fluidity and choice? Toxic mimics are of course products and causes of insanity. Could it be said that a lack of responsibility, relationship, and presence, and the substitution of control for fluidity and choice are causes and products of insanity?"

This is a necessary book, a book that grows more necessary with each day that passes. Read it. And when you’re done, do something about it.

Download PDF of original document: Pacifisim as Pathology


Derrick Jensen is the prize-winning author of A Language Older Than Words, Listening to the Land, Strangely Like War, Welcome to the Machine, Walking on Water, "The Culture of Make Believe and Endgame, that question and critique civilization as an entire social system, exploring its inherent values, hidden premises, and modern links to supremacism, oppression, and genocide, as well as corporate, domestic, and worldwide ecological abuse.


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