Violence is a Choice, Not a Necessity

Depending on how you were trained and socialized as a child, you probably heard basically two schools of thought: (1) humans evolved from war-prone chimpanzees therefore war is natural; or (2) humans descended from nonviolent bonobos therefore peaceful is our default mode.

The debate still rages on but I think it is safe to say that humans have the capacity for both violence and nonviolence. However, capacity is different from necessity. Is violence really needed? Is it truly an inevitable part of life? Or is it a learned behavior? And can we unlearn violence and not choose it?

With all the horrible news about violent attacks and wars recently, I could not help but think why humans continue to choose violence when it is so utterly useless and costs us so much.

Dustin Howes, a political theorist who studies the origins and utility of nonviolence, has an interesting new book entitled “Freedom Without Violence.” In the book, Howes challenged the conventional view that violence is necessary to defend and exercise political freedom.

Howes shared three reasons usually used to justify the use of violence to achieve freedom: (1) violence is needed to liberate people from oppressive governments; (2) violence is necessary to defend once freedom is established such as the violence of the military and the police were legitimated in the name of freedom; and (3) the idea that the free should rule over slaves and barbarians such as in colonialism and totalitarianism.

However, he also pointed out that there are liberation movements that “accomplished more for freedom than all of the violent revolutions combined, if we consider raw numbers of people or the portion of humanity effected.” He noted the abolitionist movement and the women’s movement as examples of this.

In a recent interview with, Howes rejected the idea of Mao’s famous quote that said: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” He maintained that Mao came to power not from the barrel of a gun but from the Long March which “avoided direct engagement with the Nationalists while cultivating support among the rural areas the Communists traversed.” He pointed out that the more Nationalists used their guns, the more power receded from them. “If power grew from the barrel of a gun, the much better equipped Nationalists would have defeated Mao,” he argued.

I was further convinced when Howes cited extensive empirical studies that have shown that those who are better armed are not more likely to win wars. I guess the experience of the United States in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq supported those findings.

He further pointed out that the Nazis were “experts at violence” and killed millions more people but they still lost. He explained that it is because they ran out of power, that is, people willing to join with them in common cause.

“Power grows from the coming together of people for a common purpose. Using guns is one way to exercise power but it is not power itself and sometimes drains one’s power,” Howes stressed.

As for the case of the Middle East, he said that authoritarian governments and foreign intervention encourage terrorism. “Repression drives terrorism and acts of terror legitimate further repression,” he explained at the same time noting how governments are much better equipped to handle violent insurgencies than mass popular uprisings.

When the subject of nonviolence comes up, Mahatma Gandhi is usually the role model who comes to mind. Gandhi believes that true democracy needs people who are able to rule themselves, that is, people who are not captive to selfish addictions, to lust for power, the greed of wealth, and the impulse for destruction. It means people who are truly free show their willingness to shed all forms of violence in favor not just of nonviolence but a commitment to fostering goodness in all dimensions.

Howes, who also wrote about Gandhi, said that Gandhi suggests that we are not free when we do violence to others. “If we find ourselves believing we have no option but violence, it is a sure sign that we are being ruled by necessity and have not yet figured out how to be free,” Howes said.

As political philosopher Hannah Arendt said: “Violent acts do indeed change the world — into a more violent world.”

It is 2016 and humans have definitely evolved and innovated many ways of resolving conflicts and managing vulnerabilities in nonviolent ways. We can make well-informed and better choices now. We can choose not to be violent. We can choose peace. So why aren’t we?

In his article entitled, “Are Human Beings Naturally Violent and Warlike?” evolutionary biologist and psychology professor David P. Barash insists “not necessarily.” He said that humans are not “biologically doomed to unceasing violence” and that we have the power to choose peace.

Barash shared this powerful story, said to be of Cherokee origin: A young girl was troubled by a recurring dream in which two wolves fought viciously with each other. When she recounted the dream to her grandfather, a village elder renowned for his wisdom, he explained that there are two wolves inside everyone, one peaceful and the other warlike. At this, the girl was even more upset, and asked which one wins. Her grandfather’s response: “The one you feed.”

Violence is a choice. It is not a necessity. Let us exercise our freedom and stop resorting to it.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, March 31, 2016