The Oppressed Have the Moral Right to Decide How Best to Resist Their Oppression

Question: Should people from the oppressor group tell the oppressed people how to conduct their resistance?

Should Jews tell Palestinians what form their resistance to Israeli oppression should take? During World War II should Germans have directed Jewish, Roma, Slavic resistance in the concentration camps?

Nowadays, should whites be telling Blacks how to resist systemic racism — a racism entrenched by segments (and maintained by a plurality) of White society?

I think not. That is why I have a problem, with a likeliest well-intentioned essay, “Racism: Another Crossroads.”

The writer identifies himself as a White male. He then immediately goes on the defensive: “Some people would immediately dismiss my opinion on that basis, but they would be wrong to because prejudice is wrong.”

To defend his opinions, he resorts to ad hominem by accusing dissenters of prejudice.

His opinion is that those who want to bring about change for the better should do so non-violently. He writes, “Mohandas Gandhi in India, was a exponent of non-violent resistance, which King enthusiastically took up. They met their oppressors with resistance but a resistance based in love of humanity, not the resistance of vengeance and hatred.”

In his book Mahatma Gandhi and His Myths: Civil Disobedience, Nonviolence, and Satyagraha in the Real World, Mark Shepherd emphasized,

It’s important for us to be clear about this: There is nothing passive about Gandhian nonviolent action.

Gandhi’s nonviolent action was not an evasive strategy nor a defensive one. Gandhi was always on the offensive. He believed in confronting his opponents aggressively, in such a way that they could not avoid dealing with him.

But wasn’t Gandhi’s nonviolent action designed to avoid violence? Yes and no. Gandhi steadfastly avoided violence toward his opponents. He did not avoid violence toward himself or his followers.

Gandhi said that the nonviolent activist, like any soldier, had to be ready to die for the cause. And in fact, during India’s struggle for independence, hundreds of Indians were killed by the British.

Gandhi and his non-violent resistance — Satyagraha — targets the oppressors for conversion from their violent ways. It is preposterous that the victims of oppression should be targeted to convert to non-violence under conditions of oppressor violence.

The essayist continues,

We are now at a crossroads once again … to tackle this … with intelligence, compassion and dignity to achieve a new era of cooperation and understanding through non-violent resolution. We can also choose to tackle this through violent insurrection, looting, rioting, vandalism and murder. While vengeful behaviour may be totally understandable, we must ask will it achieve a fairer and more just future? Or will it just perpetuate negative cycles?

… If we want a better future, a better world we need to achieve unity of purpose and mutual understanding. Resorting to the basest instincts of humanity will not elevate us to a better place, it will only bring more pain. This fight against racism must be won, but it can only be won by taking the higher ground and maintaining the dignity that all humans should aspire to.

Question: Why does the White male writer target the oppressed rather than the oppressors?

Why focus a call upon the oppressed for “intelligence, compassion and dignity to achieve a new era of cooperation and understanding through non-violent resolution”? Why describe the protests as “violent insurrection, looting, rioting, vandalism and murder”? There is an argument to be made that short of violent insurrection (a pleonasm, since is there a non-violent insurrection?) how else is a revolution in the system to be brought about? Elections? Please… such a response should cause one’s eyes to roll. The essayist ought also to have considered that much of the looting and destruction of private property was probably carried out by agents provocateurs.

With all due respect, has the non-violence preached by any of its proponents achieved racial equality for the Blacks in the US? Yes, every one regardless of melanin production can be seated anywhere on the buses. It is even possible to star as the captain in a Star Trek series. But in the real world can Blacks walk the streets without fear of being subjected to a stop-and-search? Are Blacks accorded respect and partiality in the economic life of the United States (Canada, Australia, and Europe)? Are they treated fairly by the justice system, the penitentiary system, and the gendarmerie? Or are Blacks, by and large, still oppressed today?

Yet the essayist writes of the protestors, “Resorting to the basest instincts of humanity will not elevate us to a better place, it will only bring more pain.”

Who is “us”? And more pain for who? The oppressed are already in pain.

As for the “basest instincts of humanity”? Really? What could be baser than one group of humans oppressing another group of humans? Yet to inversely chide the resistance as being as base as their oppressors for the temerity to resist that oppression is morally unhinged.

I agree 100% with the essayist that the “fight against racism must be won.” But I disagree that “it can only be won by taking the higher ground and maintaining the dignity that all humans should aspire to.” The higher ground belongs to the resistance by default. “[M]aintaining dignity”? The dignity of resistance was quintessentially captured by the anarchist revolutionary Emiliano Zapata when he said: “I’d rather die on my feet, than live on my knees.” It is a sentiment that Gandhi would also agree with (Shepherd writes about what Gandhi “described as the coward’s way: to accept the wrong or run away from it.”).

In a previous essay I argued,

First a given: there can be no resistance unless there is something to resist against. There can be no anti-occupation resistance if there is no occupation, and there can be no resistance against oppression if there is no oppression. It is a simple logic that eludes many people. That it eludes many people (and almost all of the corporate media) is demonstrable by noting the outcry whenever a resistance uses violence: Those evil, soulless terrorists harming other people — and they do it without reason. Well, there is a reason, although the corporate media refuses to divulge it. Occupation/oppression is violent, and it gives rise to resistance. There would be no violence were it not for the violence of occupation and oppression. There is no chicken and egg here. It is obvious that the sole target of vehemence should be the occupation/oppression that induces the resistance, for without the occupation/oppression and the violence that perpetuates it, there would be no violent resistance. Ergo, resistance (whether non-violent or violent) seeks to end violence by defeating an occupation/oppression.

In another essay, “Progressivist Principles and Resistance,” I wrote:

As a principle, resistance to oppression must be an inalienable right no matter what the type of resistance it may be. Blame for any violent resistance must never be laid on the oppressed but rather on the oppressor because oppression in itself is violent and when one suffers violence then violent resistance becomes justified as self-defense.

This is akin to “fighting fire with fire.” Uncontrolled fire can wreak great devastation, but few would object when a large fire is lit to snuff out what might be a more calamitous fire. Why, then, should people object when a violent resistance brings to an end a violent oppression? Peace can only reign when an oppression has been halted. Certainly, it would not be preferable for the violent oppression to continue in the face of pacifist resistance?

Therefore, as a second principle, a resistance movement must never incur greater limitation in tactics than an oppressor uses. To limit a resistance more than an oppressor would be morally anathema. The logical proof is easily verifiable since the cause of the violence is the morally reprehensible oppression; without oppression there could be no resistance. In the case of an occupation/oppression, an entire population is targeted – both civilian and military. In a morally just intellectual space, a military field should never be supported or tilted in favor of the oppressor. Intellectually, if not morally, the entire population of the oppressor could be considered a legitimate target; this writer would, however, recoil at targeting children, elders, and women…

It also follows that an oppressed people must be granted an equivalency in tactics and targets that is beyond moral condemnation, again because there would be no violent resistance were it not for the oppression and violence wreaked upon the resisting people. Ergo, the blame for any violent resistance belongs to the oppressor – not to the resistance.


To summarize briefly:

  1. 1) it is not up to a member of the oppressor group, despite being a dissenting member, to dictate to an oppressed group what form the road to liberation may or may not take;
  2. 2) all the impetus for a resistance and the responsibility for the tactics of a resistance lie with the oppressor;
  3. 3) consequently, a resistance should never have a hand tied behind its back.
Kim Petersen is a former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be reached at: Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.