In Defense of



This text by Mimi Thi Nguyen brings a crucially useful complement to the considerations on violence and self-defense presented in this issue’s introduction. She argues that there cannot be any a priori legitimization of violence and that there are serious risks of thinking otherwise.


The phenomenon of political violence is not new, though the historical present seems to be overflowing with it. Vigilante, white nationalist terror, openly condoned by an incumbent U.S. president who lauds his concentration camps and praises his armed supporters threatening civil war, is met with opposition (whether with arms or milkshakes) from an increasingly conspicuous militant left. A broader commitment to community safety and mutual aid is also reviving centuries-old grassroots measures by and for populations who are most at risk, including antifascist gyms, hijabi self-defense courses, sanctuary campaigns, and antifascist gun clubs. The 13-second clip of a media-friendly white nationalist punched by an anonymous anarchist while on camera, during an interview, became a flashpoint (and a meme, mixed and remixed to sync to music) two years ago in an era of global right-wing swing: “When is it okay to punch a Nazi?” — the site Can I Punch Nazis? answers with a resounding YES. The structure of this simple question (the timing, the threat, the address to another) opens onto a broader debate on the legitimacy of political violence.

As an existential and legal claim to vulnerability and the right to life, self-defense is often presumed to resolve the legitimacy of violence. However, ‘legitimacy’ is a calculation that only makes sense in specific situations and constellations of objects, persons, and forces. All arguments for and against the use of violence as a political instrument, as a necessity, depend on ethical and political differentiations not only between categories of violence but also its perpetrators. For instance, police shootings, rapes, street bashings, are justified (or acceptable) according to the law or common belief when some persons commit these acts. Meanwhile, other acts are judged as violent — not by the act but by the actor, who is understood as presumptively threatening. 

For whom is self-defense a right? It should not be surprising that the historical right to legitimate violence, including self-defense, lies with those who are perceived to own property in themselves, which is to say that this right exists for some men and most states, whose properties are perceived as being under constant siege by the world. In liberal humanist thought, a person is free on the condition that he can act autonomously, that his actions reference, and are the result of his own free will and self-direction rather than any external force. The consciousness of this actor proceeds through self-referential enclosure as a precondition for rational action, and as a historical necessity for intercourse with like others. As Lisa Lowe puts it, “Through property the condition of possibility of human self-possession — of one’s body, interiority, and life direction — is established.” (“The Intimacies of Four Continents,” 2006). Such abstraction of human freedom as a property (both as metaphysical presence and concrete ownership) is held to be the necessary grounds for ethical encounter and political agency, including self-defense. But even as these properties are perceived to have the necessary capacity in controlling actions and outcomes, these are also perpetually in danger from external forces — hence requiring their defense. This legitimization of violence is found in the Stand Your Ground laws that protect the use of lethal force against those (usually Black and Brown persons) found to be “out of bounds,” in the paramilitaries and border militias that conduct vigilante operations against migrants and refugees, and in the justification of assault or murder due to gay or trans ‘panic.’

These are the same grounds for states to act and to act against a constitutive outside. In the lectures collected in the Society Must Be Defended (1975), philosopher Michel Foucault suggests that racism, as “the break between what must live and what must die,” establishes state forms of self-defense. Thus, racism is fundamental to modern governance, “not simply [as] a way of transcribing a political discourse into biological terms, and not simply [as] a way of dressing up a political discourse in scientific clothing, but a real way of thinking about the relations between colonization, the necessity for wars, criminality, the phenomena of madness and mental illness, the history of societies with their different classes, and so on.” Self-defense, in other words, becomes the premise of preemptive war, travel bans, indefinite detention, and policing. 

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Drawing by Mimi Thi Nguyen (1996). / Inspired by the cover of Slant 5.

Those same theories that purport to measure and manufacture the defense of the human person and society do so in terms that presuppose the alienability of the self — its dispossession. Feminist theorists among others have long observed that dispossession is presupposed, or imposed, on some bodies and not others. Hortense Spillers observes that slavery rendered African persons mere flesh, the “zero degree of social conceptualization.” In dividing the human from the sub-human, Sylvia Wynter calls these distinct categories “genres” of the human. Wynter argues that the West, through imperial expansion and colonial violence, has imposed its genre-specific truths on the world, including the circumscription of human beings through racial, and therefore juridical, forms of personhood. Those who are deemed outside proper humanity or legal personhood are not recognized as human and thus lawful, at the same time that their vulnerability, especially in relation to their body, renders them something else — a threat unto the principle of law or even life itself. 

Abolitionist Mariame Kaba coined no selves to defend to succinctly define this historical legacy of criminalizing women of color, and Black women specifically, for self-defense — against violence perpetrated by husbands, boyfriends, fathers, police officers, prison guards, managers. No selves to defend is an accusation and a critique of the genre of humanity that refuses to women of color, queers, and marginalized others a selfhood whose defense against violence then cannot be conceived. Kaba, riffing on Spillers, observes that, “For a black woman, mere flesh is not a self.” These limits bring into focus the lawful violence of recognizing and granting to some humanity, and to others only (and imminent) criminality. The rule of law thus persecutes those who defend themselves but are perceived as having no selves to defend and no right to do so. We see this with the convictions of Cyntoia Brown, Marissa Alexander, CeCe McDonald, and so many other women of color, and we see this with ramped-up campaigns to criminalize protest as unlawful violence. Since Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, at least 60 measures have been proposed (and a handful approved) to expand the definition of criminal trespass, raise the penalty for a riot conviction, classify the obstruction of traffic or railways as a felony, restrict public assembly on public land and schools, protect drivers who ‘unintentionally’ hit protesters with their cars, and punish journalists for “obstruction of government functions.”(Lifting As They Climbed, 2018).

Growing up in the 1980s, the presence of Nazi skinheads on the peripheries of punk shows was more or less a given, as was fighting them. We all knew about these most ordinary clashes — at the clubs, on the streets; at the punk record store where I worked in the 1990s, we had a baseball bat behind the counter, specifically for Nazis. Their presence was a palpable menace, so that even the ongoing construction of alternatives to oppressive conditions (on the small but for us significant scale of DIY spaces) is haunted by violence. Indeed, the situation of oppression is violent, and responses to it cannot but be affected. A coworker invented our slogan, “Open All Holidays, Closed For Riots,” after the store was used as a hideout during the protests against the first Gulf War. But self-defense is also more than the baseball bat, or the black bloc. When Seattle musician Mia Zapata was raped and murdered in 1993, punk turned to self-defense, creating collectives such as Home Alive in Seattle, and Girl Army in Oakland. When anti-abortion activists throw burning tires through clinic windows, targeted clinic workers and doctors in WANTED posters and doxxing posts, clinic escorts put their bodies on the line between the antis and workers, doctors, and patients. When schools refuse to hold instructors accountable for harassment or assault, students scrawl the names of their abusers on public bathroom walls and mirrors, or create sites for anonymous testimonials.

This is why the phenomenon of violence in conceiving a revolutionary ethics cannot be ignored. It is vulnerability to oppressive violence, whether in the form of street bashing or deportations or incarceration, for queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming individuals, for people of color, Jews, Muslims, among others, that informs all our movements for a life that can be lived. This violence is the precondition of antifascism, including the physical confrontation with white supremacists and their accomplices, as an ethics of self-defense; a life that can be lived is not possible without a fight. As Mike Bento of the anti-police brutality group NYC Shut It Down contends, “From the anti-lynching campaigns in the early part of the last century up through to the Civil Rights Movement and to the Black Panthers: These are all antifascist movements.” (cited in “Fighting Cops and the Klan: The History and Future of Black Antifascism,” 2017).

But because self-defense is the justification for all forms of violence, including state violence and its ofttimes accomplices (corporate mercenaries, intelligence agencies, legislators, war profiteers, vigilantes, and we might add data miners and data brokers, among others), we cannot accept self-defense as an argument on principle. A university chancellor might, for instance, describe a black bloc through an orientalist aesthetic — “Last night the campus was invaded by more than 100 armed individuals clad in Ninja-like uniforms who utilized paramilitary tactics to engage in violent destructive behavior” — to warrant the deployment of anti-riot police forces against student protesters. Nor can we approach the question of the legitimacy or use of violence in politics as settled. Instrumentalist arguments about political violence, for instance, assume that we can determine ahead of time the relationship between means and ends of action (and whether these can be distinguished at all), and that we are capable of the calculations that render predictable desirable outcomes. But of course none of this is true. These premises depend on the foundational exclusions (self-possession and alienation) that are our trouble, and such instrumentalist arguments about political violence occur in a world other than as it is. For these reasons, we must embrace the difficulty of asking and answering these questions about the utility of violence, and also the repudiation of it.

In The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), Simone de Beauvoir considers the failures of the “serious man.” For De Beauvoir, the serious man is an ethically untenable type, because he identifies himself with defined ends and values in an unconditional, absolutist way. She elaborates:

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“Fetus Fanatic!”/ Drawing by Mimi Thi Nguyen (1995) as a never-realized T-shirt design for the clinic defense group she used to work with.

But the serious man puts nothing into question. For the military man, the army is useful; for the colonial administrator, the highway; for the serious revolutionary, the revolution — army, highway, revolution, productions becoming
inhuman idols to which one will not hesitate to sacrifice man himself. Therefore, the serious man is dangerous. It is natural that he makes himself a tyrant. Dishonestly ignoring the subjectivity of his choice, he pretends that the unconditioned value of the object is being asserted through him; and by the same token he also ignores the value of the subjectivity and the freedom of others, to such an extent that, sacrificing them to the thing, he persuades himself that what he sacrifices is nothing.

For the serious man who holds his values as absolute, transcendent, above ethical or political complications, the instrumentalization of others is a necessity, or posed as collateral damage; it is also the defining quality of oppressive violence. The serious man is the leader (authoritarian, or revolutionary) who sees the injuries and deaths of others as a ladder to his own desires, but also the centrist who refuses his own complicity with such violence. Thus did Martin Luther King Jr. warns about the white moderate from his Birmingham cell, as others now warn about calls for civility or “reasoned debate” (from some who do not relinquish quoting King) with white supremacy and its adherents. This is the violence of a moral judgment that condemns the oppressed to accept oppressive violence in the name of a principle of transcendence, such as the law or the march of progress. The serious man (who is sometimes a woman) privileges his own stance of absolute certainty over and against others, even if his stance requires their sacrifice. 

Our situation is this: we cannot settle the question of the justifiability of violence a priori, even as we know that tyrants (of the state or otherwise) will understand all our actions as violence a priori — consider accusations about tossed milkshakes, or abortion, each decried as an intolerable political violence. We know these are risks that no calculation can secure, yet at the same time such risks remind us that violence is never unproblematically “useful.” That violence is technical, calculable, and ‘easy’ in the position of those tyrants and their wannabes (presidents and police and Proud Boys) who unambiguously brandish violence against us. It is because violence does not transcend the world as it is that violence, but also our sense of selfhood that hinges upon the constant evaluation of complex conditions of possibility that we exist within. In doing so we must protect each other, because the state will not, and this can and does include sanctuary, clinic defense, or punching a Nazi. ■