Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy

By Stephen D'Arcy
Between the Lines, November 30, 2012, $24.95

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In this time of political action and global protest, what are the politics and ethics of militant resistance?

In Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for DemocracyStephen D’Arcy uses the vivid examples of the Quebec Student Strike to the Mohawk land defence at Kanesatake to the Black Blocs at summit protests and attempts to build off the words of Dr. Martin Luther King that “riot is the language of the unheard.”

In this excerpt, D’Arcy shapes his argument by discussing what is militancy, how is it important to democracy and when is it ethical to be militant.

Militancy as a Civic Virtue 

“What we must see,” Martin Luther King once insisted, “is that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Recourse to rioting, he suggested, is seldom a marker of irrationality or mob psychology. More often, it is an attempt by marginalized people to find their voice, to gain a hearing, to assert their refusal to be silenced or ignored.

King’s remark was as controversial as it was illuminating, yet he stopped short of depicting riots as defensible. He insisted only that they were understandable — a frustrated response to persistent injustice that made some sense in the face of long experience with intransigent elites and unresponsive systems of power. But his wording hints at the possibility of a stronger view: that these outbursts of rebellion might sometimes be defensible, even admirable, because they make it impossible to ignore the grievances of the exploited and the oppressed.

What if we, today, were to adopt this interpretation of riots? How might this idea transform our understanding and evaluation of these spontaneous revolts? And could this understanding be extended to other forms of confrontational protest and rebellion: to general strikes, sit-ins, road blockades and occupations, to the monkey wrenching saboteur, the black bloc street fighter or even the armed insurgent? Could these forms of militancy be regarded, in the same way, as languages of the unheard?

In pursuing these questions, there can be no better guide than King himself, whose writings and speeches are peppered with enthusiastic references to what he called “the marvellous new militancy” of the 1960s. This book borrows freely from the terminology that he uses when discussing confrontational protest. Key themes, especially in the opening chapters, emerge directly from engagement with his work: an account of the militant’s vocation as giving a voice to the voiceless; a definition of militancy as grievance-motivated, adversarial, and confrontational collective action; a typology of defiance, disruption, destruction, and armed force as four distinct styles of militancy; and finally, an insistence on the importance of distinguishing — although I diverge from his way of distinguishing — sound from unsound militancy.

But not everyone will join me in endorsing King’s judgment that “militant organization” is “indispensible … too ur struggle” for democracy and social justice. Indeed, militancy has many critics. Some are relatively easy to dismiss, for instance, the grim, law-and-order crackdown advocates, well described by King himself as being “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” Their weak attachment to the importance of social justice and public autonomy is reason enough for them to wring their hands when they see bold action against racism or poverty, colonialism or sexism. Other critics of militancy, however, are sincerely committed to the resolution of urgent grievances. Their concerns about using confrontational means to this end, therefore, cry out for a serious response. These are the many social justice advocates whose liberal attachments to notions of equality and democracy are genuine, and whose numbers swell the ranks of many popular demonstrations and social movement organizations.

Their concern — which I call the liberal objection — is that by resorting to forceful pressure, rather than consensus-building and reason-guided public discussion, the militant protester in effect reverts to force, rather than dialogue, and in this way breaks with the democratic ideal. Can militants offer a principled reply, or do they have to follow those advocates of militancy (notably, anarchist writer Peter Gelderloos) who disavow the claim to be on the side of democracy, thus seemingly conceding the liberal’s main point? 

I believe that a principled and convincing rebuttal to the liberal objection is available to militant protesters. And this is what I offer in this book: a normative standard, by appeal to which it can be shown when and on what basis militancy is a support, not a danger, to democratic norms.

In the response that I propose, I break with King in one crucial respect . Unlike King, I am unconvinced by one of the most popular standards of legitimacy for militant resistance, namely, the fixation on the difference between “violence” and “nonviolence.” Time and again, one hears that protesters went too far by resorting to violence, or that the people who indulge in violence are not really part of movements for social and environmental justice or for political and economic democracy. The violent protesters are said to be part of the problem, not the solution. The standard that I propose draws the line between justifiable and unjustifiable militancy at a different point: the crucial contrast is between democratic and undemocratic, not between violent and non-violent. 

The distinction between violence and nonviolence cannot be the basis for distinguishing justifiable from unjustifiable protest, because the very idea of “violence” always already presupposes some degree of unjustifiability. If I push a man to the ground to prevent him from stabbing a nearby child, I am using physical force. But am I committing an act of violence? Most of us would be reluctant to use the word in this way. In contrast, suppose that I push the same man to the ground in order to block him from accessing a building that I am picketing, in the context of a general strike. Here, many would be only too quick to reach for the word “violent”; others, still, would hesitate. Consider a third case: What if I push that same man to the ground to express my contempt for his religion? In this case, perhaps everyone would agree that this is a violent act. And yet, in all three cases I perform an act of the same type, namely, pushing a man to the ground. Why do we not describe all of these actions, or none of them, as violent? The answer is clear: we are reluctant to call any act violent if we regard it as admirable and morally sound. This is one reason why one hears so little talk of “violent self-defence.” Self-defence is considered morally acceptable, so we resist describing it as violent. 

The implications are both obvious and important. To ask, Is violence acceptable? is already a mistake. In effect, it amounts to asking, Is unacceptable force acceptable? Instead, we should pose questions that are far less loaded, and for this reason far more interesting: Is it acceptable to participate in a riot? When, if ever, is it defensible to use or threaten to use armed force? What about arson attacks against unoccupied buildings? Can black bloc street-fighting tactics ever be justified, and if so, under what conditions? 

These questions are more challenging. It is easy to declare, in a rather self-satisfied way, that all violence is unacceptable. But as long as this is only a covert way of saying that it is unacceptable to use unacceptable force, it tells us nothing. If one were to say that it is wrong to push a man to the ground to prevent him from stabbing a child, this would at least qualify as a substantive position on a controversial question. On the other hand, it would show ar ather shocking undervaluation of the importance of protecting children from physical attacks. As a practical matter, almost everyone who claims to oppose all violence would in fact support the use of physical force to repel a child’s attacker. We should, therefore, regard sweeping pronouncements against all violence with a suspicious eye. For the most part, these declarations are a way of hiding the difficult questions behind a veil of superficial moral certainty. In this book, I aim to address real questions with direct, if sometimes controversial, answers that are grounded in a principled position about what makes confrontational protest — in very many cases — defensible as an aid to democracy.

I call my articulation of such a position “the democratic standard.”Its aim is to vindicate the conviction that, for the most part, militant protest is good for democracy. The democratic standard has two parts. First, it offers an interpretation of the democratic ideal, which equates democracy with public autonomy, that is, the self-governance of people through inclusive, reason-guided public discussion. Second, it proposes a set of four principles of soundness, which jointly spell out when and on what basis it is consistent with the democratic ideal to set aside discussion and apply forceful pressure through adversarial, confrontational protest.

In developing this standard, I have drawn together two strands of my own background. On the one hand, I am a long-time social activist, shaped by my participation in grassroots social movements, including the Occupy movement and other experiences of popular resistance. These experiences have helped me to appreciate the importance of assembly democracy and the building of grassroots social power outside of and often in direct opposition to the institutions of the official political process. On the other hand, I am an academic political philosopher, specializing in normative democratic theory. The conception of democracy proposed in this book, which I call autonomous democracy, is a kind of anticapitalist radicalization of a view that has gained wide acceptance among democratic theorists today, “deliberative democracy.” This is the view that democratic legitimacy is a function not so much of voting (or of preference-counting generally), but of “voice,” the capacity to raise one’s concerns in a public forum and to have these concerns addressed through a deliberative process that gravitates toward consensus. 

The assembly democracy of the activists and the deliberative democracy of the philosophers converge on the view that a political community or social structure should be recognized as democratic to the extent that it proceeds on the basis of the self-governance of people through inclusive processes of reason-guided public discussion. In my variant of this conception of democracy, it is especially important that the authority of these discussion processes should be neither usurped by unaccountable elites nor overridden by institutions or systems of power. If intransigent elites or unresponsive institutions ignore the decisions that emerge from such discussion, thereby denying voice to many people, then democracy is fatally undermined. Democracy, according to this view, is a process of hearing stakeholders and resolving conflict through inclusive and empowered processes of collective decision-making. 

Nevertheless, reality will routinely disappoint expectations founded upon this idealized conception. In practice, we can be quite sure that intransigent elites and unresponsive institutions will repeatedly stand in the way of democracy as dialogue. Politicians will often brazenly disregard public opinion, declaring that there is no alternative but to impose an unpopular but business-friendly tax policy. Corporations will often act out of shameless indifference to the public interest, appealing to the higher authority of market forces as if this were a sufficient justification for their contempt for social justice. 

And this is why democratic theory needs a standard for discerning when militancy is appropriate. When, precisely out of respect for the ideal of self-governance through reason-guided public discussion, is it justified to take action on a different basis: not as partners in a deliberative process converging toward consensus, but as adversaries locked in struggle, fighting to defeat a corporation that is unmoved by the force of the better argument or a politician who refuses to listen to reason? It is this sort of guidance that the democratic standard is designed to offer: guidance about when and on what basis one might sometimes be entitled, or even obligated, to adopt a course of militant resistance, when reason-guided discussion alone is helpless in the face of unreasonable power. 

At the heart of the democratic standard lies a set of four principles. These criteria can be used to determine when militancy is consistent with democracy, and what kinds of militancy are consistent with democracy in specific contexts. The principles are explained in detail in chapter three, but for now, I will confine myself to bluntly stating them: 

1. Opportunity Principle: Militancy should create new opportunities to resolve substantive and pressing grievances, when attempts to do so through reason-guided public discussion are thwarted by intransigent elites or unresponsive institutions.

2. Agency Principle: Militancy should encourage the most directly affected people to take the lead in securing the resolution of their own grievances.

3. Autonomy Principle: Militancy should enhance the power of people to govern themselves through inclusive, reason-guided public discussion. 

4. Accountability Principle: Militancy should limit itself to acts that can be defended publicly, plausibly, and in good faith as duly sensitive to the democratic values of common decency and the common good.

Together with the underlying democratic ideal from which they are derived, these principles make up the democratic standard that is applied to controversial cases of militancy in this book. 

Stephen D’Arcy is an associate professor of philosophy at Huron University College, Western University. A long-time social activist and protest organizer, he teaches and writes about democratic theory and practical ethics.