The Violence of Nonviolence:
Toward an Ethics of Protest

Scholars, activists, and observers have long relied on a violent/nonviolent dichotomy to make ethical judgments about protest, whereby “violent” means “unethical” and “nonviolent” means “ethical.” This categorical distinction is convenient, but its use raises difficult analytical questions. Are tactics like hunger strikes violent or nonviolent? Can we untangle these categories from false assumptions about gender, race, and other social categories? Does this dichotomy allow us to overlook the structural violence that “nonviolent” protestors often ignore, perpetuate, and rely upon? Does it wrongly dismiss so-called “violent” actions, like property destruction, that are not aimed at doing bodily harm to others and whose participants might offer useful claims and critiques?

This research project, for which Dr. Mitcho has an advance book contract with SUNY Press, proposes an alternative to reliance on the violent/nonviolent dichotomy not by endorsing violence or arguing that it is unimportant, but by shifting our focus to the ontological claims protestors advance. The book will use case studies from the history of U.S. women’s protest from the post-Civil War era to the post-9/11 era to illustrate this approach (from women’s suffragists and temperance activists to women of the Weather Underground and the Black Panther Party, and finally to groups like CODEPINK and Mama Grizzlies). The alternative paradigm presented in the book values protest actions that accurately account for three ontological factors—human ambiguity, vulnerability, and relationality—and that also take into account the greater context in which activists act: an environment of uneven power relations.

In this project, Dr. Mitcho critiques notions many female U.S. protestors have relied upon that are tied to gendered notions of (non)violence based in a violent/nonviolent ethical dichotomy—women’s categorical vulnerability, the unambiguous relationship between political agency and nonviolence, and women’s enhanced aptitude for relationality. She also highlights useful claims from women’s protest movements that have historically been dismissed, including a contingent of women in the Weather Underground Organization and female members of the Black Panther Party.

Dr. Mitcho's interdisciplinary approach to this project helps her contribute to an ongoing conversation with social movement scholars, gender theorists, ethicists, and historians about the relationships between (non)violence, ethics, gender, race, and social change. Using a new paradigm grounded in ambiguity, vulnerability, and relationality amid uneven power relations, this project aims to tackle some of the same ethical questions that concern those who rely on a violent/nonviolent dichotomy while also advocating for the importance of additional ethical concerns and demonstrating what we might be missing by leaning too heavily on this dichotomy.

Source for thumbnail photograph: John Martinez Pavliga