MacDebate joins us once again for another heated topic.

Matthew Martorana & Amanda Mihoub Wright

McMaster Debating Society


Matt: In a year where the protester was deemed the most influential person in the world by Time Magazine, I think it is important to look back and reflect on whether violence is really necessary in overthrowing a government dictator. I would argue that not only is violence not necessary, non-violence is much more effective. Non-violence is not pacifism. People still go to war, just like military leaders would, only their weapons are not the guns, grenades and rockets that militaries use. Instead, activists can arm themselves with political protest, raising international awareness. In violent civil wars, countries are often marred by political instability, economic difficulty and social injustice. The Democratic Republic of Congo serves as a good example of how violence is destroying the stability and safety of a country. Non-violence avoids such bloody and destructive outcomes. Non-violent protests and similar tactics are used to ensure that such destruction and instability do not ensue.

Amanda: In some situations, non-violent tactics of protest are not effective in terms of inciting regime change. In reaction to some actions of protesters in Libya, Qaddaffi hired foreign mercenaries to kill unarmed civilians. It was only due to the untenable situation in Libya caused by Qaddaffi’s violent repression of his citizens, along with the resistance campaign, that foreign intervention occurred. If the Libyan rebels had continued to use only non-violent tactics of resistance, their resistance would not have lasted long enough to incite foreign intervention. This should indicate that the blanket expectation of non-violence in all situations is unreasonable. In some situations, change may perhaps be achieved without violence, but in others, the use of violence may be the only way to bring about change. How can people be expected to continuously experience atrocities at the hands of a regime, to have their human rights denied to them continuously and to not react in self-defense? Violence on the part of protesters may serve as a pre-emptive type of self-defense.

Matt: In many cases violence has created more problems than it has solved. In Liberia, a civil war was waged because in 1989 President  Samuel K. Doe used political patronage to allow members of his own ethnic group to have control over the military and government affairs. In resistance to President Doe, Charles Taylor created the National Patriotic Front of Liberia to overthrow Samuel Doe’s government regime. Although Samuel Doe was assassinated in 1990, what ensued was a 14-year bloody civil war in which over one hundred thousand people lost their lives. What initially started out as a simple military campaign against President Doe became a war over blood diamonds and economic control. The effects of such a brutal and devastating war have left Liberia in severe economic depression even to this day.

Military campaigns may serve as a great temporary solution, but when we have a long-term perspective we see that military campaigns often leave a country worse off. Even if military campaigns are successful, overthrowing the dictator is only half the battle. The other half is to ensure that there are true democratic leaders to replace the dictator.

Amanda: Overthrowing a dictator is only half of the battle, but the way in which a dictator has been overthrown does not necessarily predict how democratic the new regime will be. The Egyptian revolution was achieved through non-violent methods of protest, but the transition to democracy has been messy. What the outcome of the political situation in that country will be is still not clear. There is also the fact that non-violent methods on their own cannot necessarily overthrow a regime that uses violent methods to maintain power. In some cases, such as Egypt, in which significant international pressure, a high literacy rate, a committed youth and access to social media ousted a dictator, non-violence was effective. However, in other situations, such as the political strife in Syria, it is evident that non-violence cannot always achieve the necessary regime change, as Al-Assad is a ruthless leader. When one’s opponent does not abide by any rules but their own, it is difficult to win by following rules.

Dictators are more often than not vicious and unyielding, as this is often what helps them stay in power. Non-violent revolutions don’t just spontaneously occur – they are often the result of years of planning on the part of individuals and interest groups and should be carefully executed. Social media planning was critical to the success of many revolutions during the Arab Awakening. Yes, there are many examples of non-violence working and achieving it’s goal, however, it is not guaranteed to be the best course of action in every single situation.

Matt: Let me tackle the common assumption that you cannot fight violence with non-violence. I agree that a non-violent response is not an easy one. It requires citizens to suffer great loss, and to respond to great injustice without anger, fear or disillusionment. Citizens must be willing, in the most profound sense, to “turn the other cheek.” The reality is that people have a natural tendency to react violently when attacked or made to suffer severely. I am not so insensitive to suggest that this violent reaction is morally wrong. I merely want to suggest that reacting to violence with more violence is not the healthiest response. A non-violent reaction, such as that which Ghandi performed for India in the face of Britain’s brutality, has the kind of strength needed to create a lasting change and not just a superficial one. Non-violence responses are excellent ways of exposing the root causes of systematic injustices, not to mention in gaining support for a just cause.
Amanda: According to Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Burmese pro-democracy movement, “It is never easy to convince those who have acquired power forcibly of the wisdom of peaceful change.” This statement can be applied to both situations of non-violent and violent resistance. Regime change does not occur smoothly, no matter the method of resistance. Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, improved the bargaining tactics of the non-violent anti-apartheid movement in South Africa by using guerrilla methods. However, there are many more examples of non-violence, rather than violence, achieving political change in history, the most famous of which is the American Civil Rights Movement. The outcome of any resistance depends on the level of widespread cooperation on the part of its citizens, as well as the resistance’s organization and careful execution.


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