On violence as a means of social change

A video version of this post is available here.

A few days ago a Han (the main ethnic group in China) Chinese citizen, Li Wei, armed with a rifle took 14 Han’s hostage on a bus in the Xinshi District, Ürümqi, west China. Li Wei was demanding justice for the Uyghur people, a Turkic ethnic group in a region of west China that was invaded by China in around 1750 following a decade long war (and culminating in an attempted genocide of some of the regions’ ethnic groups).

Today, the Uyghurs remain an exploited minority to an extent that I’m sure most people would find horrifying, and some people might even be genuinely surprised is happening in our modern world (I certainly was a few years ago). Today, Uyghurs are being forcibly removed from their homeland and sent to east China to work in factories against their will, among other atrocities.

The hostage situation played out for 12 hours, and ended when the hostages demand was met. After a 15 minute phone call between Li Wei and Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping made a public and international statement that the country’s treatment of the Uyghur people was wrong. Li Wei then turned himself in to the authorities without physically harming anyone.

How do you feel about this? It remains to be seen, but Li Wei may have created some meaningful change for Uyghurs. However, they did it through the threat of violence. Should we never use violence, or should we consider it in the face of extreme oppression? I will point out that, while the 14 hostages were innocent, they were also complicit in the treatment of the Uyghur people. There are some indications that they worked at a factory where Uyghurs are exploited and that’s why they were targeted, but I can’t verify this. But supposing they were indirectly causing the suffering of the Uyghurs, would this then be acceptable?

I want you to really contemplate how you feel right now, and capture this. I’m about to make a point.

I made up some of this story. The plight of the Uyghur people is entirely real and entirely horrific. However, the hostage situation a few days ago was not in China, it was in Ukraine’s western city of Lutsk. 13 people were taken hostage at gunpoint by a man who released them and turned himself in after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy publicly urged Ukrainians to watch Earthlings, a documentary from 2005 with footage of the cruel exploitation of non-humans in the agriculture industry.

How do you feel about this now? I’m trying to make a point, but I’m also genuinely curious. Please consider sharing your thoughts. Do you feel any different about the use of violence in this situation? If so, why do you think that is?

I want to be clear that I’m not condoning the use of violence for social change. However, I have the impression that many people are supportive of violence to end human on human oppression (we’d call them freedom fighters), but not to end human on non-human oppression (we’d call them terrorists). There are possibly some valid reasons for this difference, and some non-valid reasons.

The simple fact that the victims are not human is not a valid reason. Non-human animals feel pain just as we do, and their exploitation and suffering should be seen as also tragic. Indeed, the scale of farmed animal suffering today is greater than the suffering of human-caused human suffering today. Someone might claim that they don’t care about non-humans as much as humans, just as someone might claim they don’t care about Uyghurs as much as non-Uyghurs, but is this an opinion we should value? Or should we just say they are wrong, and that their suffering is still bad?

One of several plausibly valid reasons for having a different position on the violence used for non-human and human freedom is that we are just at different stages of progress for both. Many people see human oppression as wrong, but many people see non-human exploitation as acceptable. If it is the case that, because of this difference, violence for the benefit of non-humans backfires and harms the movement/victims rather than benefits them, this is an important difference.

I honestly don’t know if this has happened here in Lutsk. I genuinely think anyone who claims they know whether this was positive or harmful for animals at this point is lying. But I absolutely accept that well-intended actions don’t always have good consequences, and that we can’t just do things ‘for the animals’ and think that’s good enough. But I do think that if it is possible for violence used against oppressors to have a net positive outcome (as some people would say), then it should be possible for violence used against oppressors to have a net positive outcome.

If you think that violence is just unacceptable for ending exploitation of non-humans as a rule, consider whether you would have held the same position regarding aggressors in Nazi Germany, or in slave-holding USA. If these don’t do it for you, it surely can’t be difficult to construct a realistic scenario where, if you are consistent in your logic, you shouldn’t support violence for ending the exploitation of humans in a place where the majority of people support the exploitation, or are at least entirely complicit. Perhaps, say, in western China.

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