In reading the last two authors for our course, Henry D. Thoreau and President Abraham Lincoln, several questions were raised on the issue of violence. Is violence justified? If it is, how so or in which cases? Why some violence ok and some isn’t? If it’s not justified, what are other courses of action that an individual can take?
While reading these two authors I couldn’t help but to think about a speech I heard a few weeks again given by Dr. Cornel West. Though his speech many focus points, there was one in particular that relates to the questions mentioned above. He referenced what he called the “new, new school” and claimed he was from the “old, old school”. He seemed absolutely bothered by the fact that many young people are afraid to act. So many people of our younger generation commonly accept the status quo rather that standing up for what they believe in. He also mentioned that today’s young people are starting to engage in debating, discussing and taking action for or against societal issues they believe in. But similarly to Thoreau, Dr. Cornel West doesn’t think this is enough. During his speech, which I would call quite motivational, he declared that in order to live you must be willing to die not only for yourself but others because we are all connected in a much larger sense. You have to be able to accept that you could die in fighting a cause that you believe in. At first I was taken aback by this broad and very liberal statement, but after reading Thoreau I understood what Dr. West meant by this.
As mentioned in lecture, Thoreau clearly felt that slavery was a pure injustice of not only the government but all citizens involved with this servitude system. Although Thoreau gives us several options of what one can do when they feel the government is practicing unjust activities, for the sake of this post, violence is of most significance. So is violence justified? Thoreau thinks it is or it can be a viable option amongst others. Thoreau states, “It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him. They are continually shocked by slavery have some right to be shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder, but no others” (Thoreau 132). So this leaves the question does a violent injustice legitimize a violent response? Thoreau would argue yes. He then states on page 133 that, “A man may have other affairs to attend to. I do not wish to kill not to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both of these things would be by me unavoidable. We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence everyday”. Let’s be clear. Thoreau is arguing that individuals have the right to react violently but are not obligated to do so. But like Dr. West, if one stand back and does nothing like being indifferent, withdrawing from society, breaking the law or having a Transcendent Experience, you aren’t living.
On the other hand, President Lincoln would argue differently. Lincoln argues that violence is never justifiable. Lincoln is a strong believer in obeying the law even though he recognizes that there are some bad laws. He argued that violating the law: 1) ruins the attachment of the people to their government, 2) sets an example of lawlessness, 3) violates the success of the American Experiment, 4) has the contagion effect of violence. He argues that violence punishes the innocent and only creates violence. This may sound cliché but Lincoln believes that burning fire with fire only creates a bigger fire.
As for me, I believe that in modern times one should obey the law and do something, legally, if you don’t like what your government is doing. Slavery was purely different, different time and different matter. In my opinion there was really no other effective way to create a shock factor on the argument of slavery. But I would not defend violence as justifiable against government acts in the present day. What do you think violence justifiable and if so in what instances?