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In ‘The Force of Nonviolence,’ a tactic that still has some fight left

There are times when it seems like nonviolence needs a better publicist.

Passive resistance and nonviolence, after all, launched some of the great liberation movements of the 20th century, from the civil rights era in the US, to the Prague Spring in 1968, to Tiananmen Square in China.

Gene Sharp, the historian and strategist of nonviolence, who died last year in Boston at age 90, convincingly argued that nonviolent struggle was better than armed resistance in most cases. That if you want to knock off a dictator, nonviolent protest has been twice as effective.

Yet somehow, once again, in our times-a-changin’-back era, nonviolence has to fight to seem as sensible a choice of action as violence, let alone war. Activists and thinkers who speak about nonviolence are often drowned out by those calling for vengeance. Even on the level of fantasy, nonviolence struggles. How many people playing a video game would select the nonviolent weapon icon, should one exist? How many people cheered when a masked protester punched white supremacist Richard Spencer in the face?

Why is this? In her powerful new book, Judith Butler lucidly enumerates the obstacles nonviolence faces in a time when it is sorely needed. Drawing on works by Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, and Sigmund Freud, she makes a fresh new case for what a destructive obstacle our pervasive individualism is to nonviolent action — and the change possible with it.


It seems counterintuitive that the theorist who brought us enlarging ideas about the performance of gender — notions crucial to the establishment of equal civil rights to individuals of all genders — would emerge with a book that tempers enthusiasm for the individual as a unit of society.

Yet the deeper one reads into this book the clearer it becomes that for Butler one of the key obstacles is us; or more accurately, you — or me.


We live in societies, after all, which dream in groups increasingly by talking about individualism. Most of them make a collective by defining what they are not; or more essentially, who they are not. Thus, Butler argues, some life, some lives, are deemed worthier than others.

Even if you believe in nonviolence, then, there are exceptions for when violence is OK — say, self-defense, or in protecting your family, or of your group.

In one of the most dazzling passages of the book, though, Butler dismantles the antiquated idea of the individual at the root of these exceptions, finding a construct as old as Rousseau, Hobbes, and other philosophers. Many of them conceived of this originating individual as a man, strolling a beach, in the mode of a Daniel Defoe novel.

She wants to know: How did this man get there? How did he become an adult? Why is he a man? Whose lives have been erased to make him one?

The deeper Butler drills down into this abstract individual, the more absurdist he becomes. “No one is born an individual," she reminds. We are built, made, and taught to behave as such. Slowly, patiently, Butler shows how as we become individuals we gradually accumulate exceptions to nonviolence — even as our bodies are studies in the interconnectivity of us all.

Here, Butler makes an unexpected swerve toward tenderness. How are we born, she offers, but into the hands of another? How are we taught to stand, by holding on to another? How do we exist, if we are not grieveable, to another?


Grievability is one of a few concepts Butler introduces and explains here as she builds what she calls “a new egalitarian imaginary.” It’s a lovely concept, utopian even, but so were some of the best ideas at the root of this nation.

In the latter half of the book, Butler describes how the power of states to host phantasias of violence should not be underestimated. She doesn’t have to argue hard to show how diabolically states have inverted the logic of protest and violence by arguing that the bodies of the most vulnerable are inherently violent.

Violence committed in this logic in America is so pervasive, so constant, Butler has to refer to it but glancingly — like shooting of unarmed civilians by police — to animate both its spectacle and also the way that the terms can be inverted in order to be used against, say, protesters.

How often was a Black Lives Matter protest described as violent by a state when its beliefs are simply inconvenient? How many times do we hear that a person shot by police was a violent sort of person, therein justifying their murder?

One of the most beautiful aspects of “The Force of Nonviolence” is how totally Butler commits to the idea of life having equal value. Unlike Gandhi, Butler is not arguing that nonviolence comes from a place of calm; unlike Thomas Merton, she is not placing nonviolence within the concept of a God at all.


For Butler, the most essential idea to nonviolence is radical equality — and an attendance to the forces that are already operating on reducing the possibility of that equality. Powerfully, effectively, “The Force of Nonviolence” shows that the damage being done in those moments is most often the bonds of connection that we depend on — ones we turn our back on at great peril.


By Judith Butler

Verso, 224 pp. $24.95

John Freeman is the author of “Dictionary of the Undoing” and editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual.