Fighting Clean and Fighting Dirty: How to Handle Disagreement

One of the issues that comes out from a lot of the articles and discussions following the murder of George Tiller is that of ‘fighting clean’, by which I mean: obviously people disagree over many things, but while we might have begrudged our opponents the right to organise or agitate, them killing someone ‘breaks the rules’, ‘goes too far’, or is in some related way unacceptable. The idea at issue is that even passionate disagreements should happen within a shared framework of what is and is not an appropriate way to deal with those disagreements.

(Similar issues came up a while back on this blog over Che Guevara T-shirts: given that was willing to have people shot for the defense of his revolution, including potentially your conservative hack friends, is wearing his face just an expression of an opinion, or does it ‘go too far’? What about a conservative wearing Pinochet’s face?)

This parallels the issue of ‘rules of war': even when disagreement progresses to the level of outright violent conflict (whether a national war, or a punch-up in the street), there are still ‘rules’, still a difference between ‘fighting clean’ and ‘fighting dirty’. Even if you’re punching someone, you don’t also punch their child; even when you’re shooting at people, you don’t mutilate their corpses. Or whatever.

Now this idea is one that is both very desirable and useful, but also very difficult. It’s desirable for at least three reasons:

1) It embodies the idea that we can still value the other person even if we dislike or disagree with them: ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’, or ‘hate the belief, love the believer’. In military terms it differentiates war with other humans from the extermination of ‘vermin’.

2) It is socially useful in a society where major disagreement exist, that whatever conflict they produce should be minimised, so that we can avoid small civil wars without universal agreement on everything.

3) It helps to maintain the distinction between a certain idea and acting out its full consequences, which helps to give each individual the ‘inner space’ to ‘try on’ different ideas, to consider or adopt various alternative positions, without becoming each time immediately a ‘soldier’ in the cause of one idea or another, desperate to fight their ‘enemies’ and maintain the friendship of their ‘allies’.

Denying that gap between holding a belief and acting on it means saying things like “even trying to discuss the question of X in a neutral way is a betrayal and a sign of disrespect to all the brave people who have struggled in the name of Y!” or “Why are you even considering the question of X? You’re not a Z are you?”

So that’s why it would be nice to have this sort of ‘shared framework’. But there are also major problems that make it difficult to acheive.

The  main problem is that it requires us to divide ideas into the more important shared ones and the less important disagreements. But it’s not clear that this can be done without the disagreements either being more important than, or substantively the same as, the shared ‘rules’.

So for example let’s take one very simple possibly rule: resolve disputes only with words and agitation, not with violence. Now this is a very very good rule of thumb, and it works very well on most issues (it rules out drugs laws, for example, or forcible conversions, or riots over cartoons). BUT in a world with systematic ongoing violence, it doesn’t really make sense just on its own. If what me and someone else disagree about is precisely whether there are millions of violent murders going on constantly, then it would be perverse to stick to this simple rule, because it means standing by while others are slaughtered.

So what can we do? How can we secure the benefits of a shared framework, while dealing with the fact that sometimes, the issue disagreed about is more considered more important than those benefits?

It might be worth just running through some possible ‘rules’, particularly on the issue of violence, to lay out the ground.

1) No restrictions on violence at all: if it’s useful, actively aim to kill as many civilians as possible. This is the stance taken, it would seem, by many Islamist terrorists, illustrated in the US’s biggest ever terrorist event, the attacks on the World Trade Centre.

2) No ‘strict’ restrictions: you can kill people however much and in whatever way you want, but ‘try’ to minimise the numbers (the ‘collateral damage’) where possible. This is the stance taken, it would seem, by most governments, most notably my own. It was also apparently taken by Timothy McVeigh, in the Oklahoma city bombings, the US’s second biggest ever terrorist event.

3) Violence to any extent, but targetted only on ‘combatants’, i.e. those involved in violence themselves. This is, I think, a strong and intuitive part of how we think ‘war’ is supposed to work (hint: it usually doesn’t), and is also, in this case, by the killer of George Tiller.

4) Non-violent ‘violence’, targetted against ‘combatants’, but only attacks or property or harassment, not physically attacks on their bodies. This is the methodoloy adopted, with only a handful of exceptions, by animal rights terrorists and direct-actionists (I draw the distinction because while some actions seek to intimidate and coerce through fear, others aim simply to rescue actual animals).

5) No forms of illegal ‘violence’ even in the very attenuated sense of harassment or attacks on property. Stay within the bounds of law (or alternatively, around the level of civility that the law requires, regardless of precise legal details).

*6) The stupid-statist approach. This is where you say that the world’s most destructive organisations, states and armies, can operate with rule 2, while everyone else must operate with rule 5. This is rather like saying that penniless youths who rob a grocery store should be given stringent sentences to uphold the rule of law, but former presidents and politicians who authorise a regime of torture shouldn’t be prosecuted because it would be ‘back-wards looking’.

If I try to finish this discussion in one post, I fear it will become much too long, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

2 Responses to “Fighting Clean and Fighting Dirty: How to Handle Disagreement”

  1. Fight Clean and Fighting Dirty, Part 2: How to Handle Being Fallible « Directionless Bones Says:

    [...] Fighting Clean and Fighting Dirty: How to Handle Disagreement [...]

  2. links for 2009-06-03 « Rumblegumption Says:

    [...] Fighting Clean and Fighting Dirty: How to Handle Disagreement « Directionless Bones [...]


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