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Pacifism, purity, and affirmative action

February 3, 2010

Over time, arguments take on surprising historical resonances. For example, people often question the moral logic of affirmative action on the grounds that it’s absurd to fight racism with racism. Whatever you think of the argument, it taps into and appropriates a certain high-minded style of thought traditionally associated with extreme pacifism, the conviction that it’s absurd to fight violence with violence, that violence is an evil that irredeemably taints all who touch it. In the 19th century, we find this in the Non-Resistance movement of William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou. They, in turn, found it in Jesus’s injunction to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). Here is an excerpt from Adin Ballou’s ‘Catechism of Non-Resistance’:

Q. Wherein lies the chief significance of the doctrine of non-resistance?

A. In the fact that it alone allows of the possiblity of eradicating evil from one’s own heart, and also from one’s neighbor’s. This doctrine forbids doing that whereby evil has endured for ages and multiplied in the world. He who attacks another and injures him, kindles in the other a feeling of hatred, the root of every evil. To injure another because he has injured us, even with the aim of overcoming evil, is doubling the harm for him and for oneself; it is begetting, or at least setting free and inciting, that evil spirit which we should wish to drive out. Satan can never be driven out by Satan. Error can never be corrected by error, and evil can never be vanquished by evil.

The Non-Resistance movement was not very influential in its own time, but it was transmitted by Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You to Gandhi, and thence to Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of others. Today it can be found in Nicholson Baker’s pacifist history of World War II.

To be clear, I’m NOT claiming that Garrison, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King would be against affirmative action. That is absurd. Even if you take the implausible, extreme position that an evil can never be corrected by an evil, even a negligible one, it’s still doubtful that affirmative action is an evil. Rather, I’m claiming that opponents of affirmative action adopt a style of argument that has historical connections to pacifism and non-violent resistance. It’s a style of argument that plays on our instinct for purity at any cost: like a plague, what is evil must never be touched. This instinct can be turned to both noble and self-serving ends.

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