by Derrick Jensen
Here are some standard lines thrown out by pacifists. I’m sure you, too, have heard them enough that if we had a bouncing red ball we could all sing along. Love leads to pacifism, and any use of violence implies a failure to love. You can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. It’s far easier to make war than to make peace. We must visualize world peace. To even talk about winning and losing (much less to talk about violence, much, much less to actually do it) perpetuates the destructive dominator mindset that is killing the planet. If we just visualize peace hard enough, we may find it, because, as Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller tells us, “Peace is rarely denied to the peaceful.” Ends never justify means, which leads to Erasmus saying, and pacifists quoting, “The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war.”
Gandhi gives us some absolutism, as well as absolution for our inability to stop oppressors, when he says, “Mankind has to get out of violence only through non-violence. Hatred can be overcome only by love.” Gandhi again, with more magical thinking, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall- think of it, ALWAYS." Violence only begets violence. Gandhi again, “We must be the change we wish to see.” If you use violence against exploiters, you become like they are. Related to that is the notion that violence destroys your soul. If violence is used, the mass media will distort our message. Every act of violence sets back the movement ten years. If we commit an act of violence, the state will come down hard on us. Because the state has more capacity to inflict violence than we do, we can never win using that tactic, and so must never use it. And finally, violence never accomplishes anything.
Let’s take these one by one. Love leads to pacifism, and any use of violence implies a failure to love. If we love we cannot ever consider violence, even to protect those we love. Well, I’m not sure mother grizzly bears would agree that love implies pacifism, nor mother moose, nor many other mothers I’ve known.
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 certainty 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 Audre Lorde (certainly no pacifist herself). The essay has nothing 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 undoubtedly have been horrified, because she is, reasonably enough, suggesting a multi-varied approach to the multi-various problems we face. She says, “As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.” We can say the same for unarmed versus armed resistance, that activists have been taught to view our differences as causes for separation and suspicion, rather than as forces for change. That’s a fatal error. She continues, “Survival is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
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 culture’s degradation and exploitation rejects nonviolent resistance. Many of us routinely participate in nonviolent resistance and support those for whom this is their only mode of opposition. Once years ago I and two other non-pacifists wasted two hours sitting at a county fair tabling for a local environmental organization and watching the- how do I say this politely?- supersized passersby wearing too-small Bush/Cheney 2004 T-shirts and carrying chocolate-covered bananas. We received many scowls. We did this nonviolent work, although we accomplished precisely nothing. But many dogmatic pacifists refuse to grant the same respect the other way. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of the dogmatic pacifists I’ve encountered have been fundamentalists, perceiving violence as a form of blasphemy (which it is within this culture if it flows up the hierarchy, and these particular fundamentalists have never been too picky about reaping the fiscal fruits of this culture’s routine violence down the hierarchy), and refusing to allow any mention of violence in their presence. It’s ironic, then, that they end up turning Audre Lorde’s comment on its head.
Our survival really does depend on us learning how to “take our differences”- including violent and nonviolent approaches to stopping civilization from killing the planet- “and make them strengths.” Yet these fundamentalists attempt to eradicate this difference, to disallow it, to force all discourse and all action into only one path: theirs. That’s incredibly harmful, and of course serves those in power. The master’s house will never be dismantled using only one tool, whether that tool is discourse, hammers, or high explosives.
I have many other problems with the pacifist use of the 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 land bases. 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). They’ve convinced us they own water. They’ve convinced us they own the wild (the government could not offer “timber sales” unless we all agreed it owned the trees in the first place). They’re in the process of convincing us they own the air. The state has for millennia been trying to convince us it owns a monopoly on violence, and abusers have been trying to convince us for far longer than that. Pacifists are more than willing to grant them that, and to shout down anyone who disagrees.
Well, I disagree. Violence does not belong exclusively to those at the top of the hierarchy, no matter how much abusers and their allies try to convince us. They have never convinced wild animals, including wild humans, and they will never convince me.
And who is it who 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 tools used by the master, what tools, precisely, can we use? How about writing? No, sorry. As I cited Stanley Diamond much earlier, 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- all discourse is one of the master’s tools- and we can never use it? Of course not. They also own the means of industrial religion production, and they misuse religion. Does that mean they own all religion- all religion is one of the master’s tools- and we can never use it? Of course not. They own the means of industrial violence production, and they misuse violence. Does that mean they own all violence- all violence is one of the master’s tools- 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 make 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. I’m guessing that Audre Lord, for all of her wonderful capabilities as a writer, thinker, activist, and human being never in her entire life dismantled a house. Had she done that, she could never have made up this metaphor, because you sure as hell can use the master’s tools to dismantle his house. And you can use the master’s high explosives to dismantle the master’s dam.
There’s an even bigger problem with the metaphor. What is perhaps its most fundamental premise? That the house belongs to the master. But there is no master, and there is no master’s house. 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.
Those in power are responsible for their choices, and I am responsible for mine. But I need to emphasize that I’m not responsible for the way my choices have been framed. If someone puts a gun to my head and gives me the choice of taking a bullet to the brain now or watching twelve straight hours of Dennis Miller, I don’t think I could be held entirely responsible for taking the easy way out and telling the person to pull the trigger. That’s a joke (sort of), but the point is a serious one. I want to be clear: I am responsible for the choices I make. I am also responsible for attempting to break the confines which narrowly limit my choices, whenever and wherever possible.
The next argument I’ve often heard for pacifism is that it’s much easier to make war than to make peace. I have to admit that the first ten or fifteen times I heard this I didn’t understand it at all: whether war or peace is harder is irrelevant. It’s 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.
The next ten or fifteen times I heard this phrase it seemed to be an argument for violent resistance. If I want to live in a world with wild salmon, and if I’m all for doing this the easiest way possible, they’re telling me I should make war. Certainly we have enough difficulties ahead of us in stopping those who are killing the planet without adding difficulties just for the hell of it.
The next ten or fifteen times I heard it I started going all psychotherapeutic on those who said it, wondering what it is about these pacifists that causes them to believe struggle for struggle’s sake is good. Sounds like a martyr complex to me. Or maybe misplaced Calvinism. I don’t know. But after I heard it another ten or fifteen times I decided I just don’t care. The argument is nonsensical, and I don’t want to waste time on it that I could put to better use, like working to bring down civilization. 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.”