There are two poles in political advancement, and while some grey area does admittedly exist, they have endured in almost binary opposition throughout all of history. Luckily, our buddy history provides two examples contemporary of one another that personify each pole. Martin Luther King was a civil rights activist who promoted racial equality by utilizing strictly non-violent methods. Malcolm X, on the other hand, was famously quoted by campaigning for civil rights “by any means necessary.” If that sounds like a subtle threat, it shouldn’t, because it was an incredibly overt threat. Malcolm X, and the other pole of political advancement, presents an unflinching view of violence as a potential necessity in social change. The “fight” for civil rights is exactly that, with all of the brutality that that implies.

I believe we are quite privileged to exist in a society that gets to claim quite rigidly that the non-violent approach is the ideal solution in political advancement. There is a middle-class modality to non-violent activism that belabours our relative affluence compared to the rest of the political and historical climate of the world. Revolutions have almost entirely been violent. The Haymarket Massacre which galvanized unionists and delivered us the eight hour work day got its name from obvious implications. America won its independence from England and eventually freed its slaves with violence in both instances. As easy as it is to denounce violence, it does have precedent in successfully altering the course of history in progressive ways. The swiftness with which violence can enact change in its ferocity is also a testament to the power that it wields, as entire paradigms can shift in the span of a few years when ideas are conquered and quashed by force.

However, within violence lurks a system of oppression that is utilized in every instance. Audre Lorde is quoted as saying that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. Napoleon Bonaparte, Joseph Stalin, and Mohammed Morsi are illustrative of causes dedicated to ameliorating power imbalances within society which used violent means to achieve those goals, and ultimately climaxed in yet another oppressive regime. To conquer with violence is using tools of oppression to fight oppression, and will only lead to perpetuating the very thing it is trying to overcome.

Violence, with its implicit link to oppression, is also incredibly alienating. Those who are moderate or ambivalent toward a cause will shun it if its proponents utilize violence as tactics. Since quoting people makes me sound a lot smarter, Gandhi’s rubric for success comes from first having them ignore you, then having them laugh at you, then when they fight you, you win. Gandhi used the violence of the occupying British authority to delegitimize them, and through this measure effectively achieved Indian independence. While perhaps this is illustrative of our modern day sensibilities, I believe most people recognize that those utilizing violence, especially against those who do not, have lost the higher moral standing.

What is it about change that leads to violence? Progressive movements today try to shun its use, but that is a relatively recent phenomenon. Bob Mullaly indicates that anger is the natural response to injustice, and that it can be used constructively to reconcile that injustice. However, anger often leads to hate, and as Eric Hoffer states, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents. It pulls and whirls the individual away from his own self, makes him oblivious of his weal and future, frees him of his jealousy and self seeking. He becomes an anonymous particle quivering with a craving to fuse and coalesce with his like into one flaming mass … Mass movements can rise and spread without a belief in a God, but never without belief in the devil.” Even contemporary progressive movements like Occupy Wall Street demonized the 1%, and utilized that hatred to form an albeit ineffectual mass protest against income inequality. If anger is the reaction to injustice, and hatred is required to spur a movement, it is of little wonder that violence has been the root of previous social change.

Both Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi were widely successful with their non-violent methods of social activism. However, neither of them acted within a vacuum. As I began by showing, MLK worked in tandem with Malcolm X (though not cooperatively), and they played the good cop/bad cop routine in their pursuit and eventual acquisition of civil rights. Gandhi had the multitudes of India, and his distinctively harmless methods belied an unspoken threat of violence from the sheer amount of popular support which stood behind him. Is this Yin Yang approach demonstrating the veracity of Al Capone’s quote saying that you can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone?

The appropriate approach to social justice is not even a simple matter of the already impossible task of mediating the proper balance between peace and war. MLK, Gandhi, Occupy Wall Street, all the dove approaches to social justice, and even Malcolm X, the Arab Spring, the Ukrainian uprising, or the Irish during The Troubles representing the Hawk approaches, all recognized the importance of message control. Everyone knows the difference between a terrorist and an unhinged individual because of how he is portrayed in the media. The success of both hawks and doves is often the result of finding a sympathetic journalist to exonerate their cause and declare it just.

What’s the solution? Do we stick strictly to a non-violent approach to maintain the easiest access to sympathy? Strike terror with violent methods in the hopes of a quick fix? Rely solely on the whims of the news media to dictate what gets positive attention? Or some combination of all three? Oddly enough, I don’t think people necessarily plan these things. I doubt Martin Luther King and Malcolm X sat down together to hash out their respective paths, nor do I think groups like ISIS or Al-Qaeda wonder whether or not non-violence might be a successful alternative to their current modus operandi. I think the conditions that lead to activism are the greatest indicator of the practices used. Extreme oppression will result in mirrored backlash, as indicated by extremist groups being bred in poverty and cultures of violence, whereas groups like Occupy Wall Street with its foundation in milquetoast America are more prone to drum circles and sit-ins. Pacifist activism may be slower and more methodical than the alternative, but it is the result of privileges already gained from previous revolution. Perhaps we are beyond the need for violence in activism, but that does not mean we should be ignorant of its causes when we witness it in practice.