what is ‘a diversity of tactics’?

For some time now, and dramatically on the increase, calls for ‘a diversity of tactics’ have been made by many within progressive activist circles. It is of significant importance for a number of reasons. These most notable reasons, for me, are twofold. The first relates to where its use emerged from/who is adopting its use and promotion, and the implications of its use and how it is used. The first is easier to note, and the second has significant implications as defined by Antonio Gramci’s deconstruction of ‘common sense’. As such, I will look at them in the order introduced.

A diversity of tactics has effectively replaced (not yet 100%) the use of ‘all tools in the tool box’ as a one-line argument for the use of tactics that do not fit into the rubric of nonviolence. This requires some explanation. What actually constitutes nonviolence is and will always be a debated subject. Some incorrectly conflate nonviolence with pacifism (for me this being very far from the mark is a given) whereas the more significant aspect here is whether property damage is nonviolent. For example, the Ploughshares uses (symbolic) property damage as an aspect of their nonviolent actions. A number of activists argue that property damage is nonviolent in that violence can only be perpetuated against living things (a broad generalisation, though one that works here), whereas others argue that it is violent and that the construction of arbitrary boundaries do little to further social change. Discussions about this can be found in many other locations.

Often fitting within the last of the above described categories are those that argue for the use (or perhaps more accurately, availability) of all tools in the toolbox. In reference to my previous post, Peter Gelderoos fits in here. It is often argued that to limit the tactical options available weakens a movements’ options and potentially negates any chance of success. There are many problems with such positions that I have yet to come across (and yes I have been research this subject for several years). The first of these clearly contrasts with the notion that the means reflects the ends (some proponents of the toolbox might argue that the ends justify the means. What does all tools in the toolbox actually mean??

I often find that those who claim to be an all tools in the toolbox person do not have an appreciation of what is in the toolbox. The term all appears to be lost on them. Whilst I could delve here, there is a specific aspect I repeatedly note is unquestioned. If it is OK for progressives like ourselves to use any and all tools available, why is it not OK for others? An argument stridently made (whether accurate or not) against activists who adopt nonviolent principles is that they consider themselves to be morally superior. If the all tools in the toolbox proponents were/are to be free from such criticisms themselves (they are often the ones making such an argument) they would need to accept that anyone can use such tactics. To draw one simple analogy, why is it then not acceptable for people opposed to women’s reproductive freedom to kill doctors who perform abortions (or the support staff) – or destroy clinics where such procedures are performed? To be consistent this needs to be supported does it not?

My point here is that whatever tactics one adopts, endorses or promotes it needs to be one that is available for others to use – irrespective of their differing values or beliefs. That is, unless we consider them to be deficient in some way. We can argue certainly against their ideas, yet can we deny them the same tactics we use? I think we need to be vary wary of the concept of all tools in the toolbox given this (and other issues I have not gone into).

To return to a diversity of tactics, this is effectively the same concept as all tools in the toolbox and it leads into the second of what I consider notable implications of its use. What has specifically spurred me to write about this now is the upcoming APEC summit in Australia and actions being discussed to disrupt this. In response to calls for not limiting available options, as in calls for ‘a diversity of tactics’, the term ‘peaceful protest’ has been removed from promotional materials. This received mainstream news coverage in the Sydney press and was reproduced more widely (see mostly water).

More obtuse and catch-phrasey that all tools in the toolbox, the notion of a diversity of tactics seems very appealing. Yet how many people actually think beyond the post-modern unquestionings of the term diversity. Given our (apparent) multicultural period, isn’t diversity a good thing (I have written elsewhere about the implications of postmodernsim on contemporary activism)? What the phrase a diversity of tactics achieves – whether intentional or not – is what amounts to Gramscian deconstruction of common sense. What I refer to here is that the term seems to be common sense, as diversity is widely accepted as a good thing. Extending from this, such a notion becomes accepted without any (critical) reflection as to what it means. How many people, for example, who think that it is a good idea to have diversity would note that supporting this would necessarily imply they were also supporting the use of all tools? This is a significant issue and one as yet left un-questioned.

What is perhaps more problematic and one I foresee as emerging for quite some time before it is transcended are the direct implications of something seen as common sense. With a diversity of tactics as a catch-all effectively being viewed as such, it will come to mimic others politically mobilised (again intentionally or not). For example, the term political correctness has received widespread adoption in Australia by the political right. It is used as a criticism of social programs and other progressive ideas and has become so effective as a dismissive that it renders any response as invalid even before it is made (as it does with the initial idea criticised). No actual thought on responses are given – there is no need as the initial criticism is perceived as common sense.

As a diversity of tactics is increasingly used, I can easily see – based on the common sense of diversity – the rendering of any criticism as ideological and closed-minded. This is irrespective of the merits of such criticisms, even those I have briefly outlined above. Aside from the issues within progressive circles, if the political right and reactionary circles work on highlighting these implications in the mainstream press, the impacts will be substantial. An ability to garner broader support for issues (essential for an effective movement, (mostly) irrespective of your views – something I will return to in part 2 of my thoughts on How nonviolence protects the state) will be undermined via a large-scale corporate public relations campaign.

That we are the target of such campaigns is not the basis for my criticism – we are now and will continue to be. What is the issue is that if we endorse all tools, current attempts to label us as (domestic) terrorists as central to the current green scare/green is the new red, will be all the more easier. This does require some explanation – something I am certain to not do adequately here. To make a simple point via perhaps one of the most extreme examples: assassination. It is a tactic that has (and continues) to be used in intra- and inter-national conflicts – quite often state sponsored. I am not arguing for this, however does this not fall into all tools. What about the Okalahoma bombing, others? Can adopting such tactics (including some recently promoted by animal activists) actually promote and lead to change? Or do such actions merely shift the focus onto individuals rather than the structural basis of exploitation? To conflate, will killing the head of the chief exploiter of a vivisection company lead to necessary changes in attitudes for animal testing to be banned?

I think some (enough?) of us realise that the use of promotion of fear will not lead to real and lasting change? Can it lead to short-term change and associated reduction in suffering, exploitation and/or murder of a small number of animals? I cannot deny that this is possible. And I guess this affords the basis for some arguments put forward for a diversity of tactics. It does not, however, significantly alter what I have explored here – if you feel otherwise, please let me know…

To get back to the main impetus for my writing, we need to reflect on this now, before it can become an effective tool of the political right. This is something I will certainly come back to and explore…

[this was written on June 21, though not posted until now – with minor edit]

One thought on “what is ‘a diversity of tactics’?

  1. Non violence is a key issue in radical politics, because it’s a quite a paradox on one hand, to say ‘I am opposed to the violence of the state and how this is used to oppress people’ and then on the other hand, grapple with the notion that some tactics are more effective than others (like a coup).
    That aside for a moment, I think that you have made a lot of excellent points. However, I am not entirely sure I am clear on the ‘Diversity of Tactics’ definition as really being ‘using all the tools in the box’.
    Surely, the right (particularly the new right) have usurped lots of terms and turned them into mushy rubbish beyond truth (like the word anarchy, for starters!) and ‘Diversity’ is one such term.
    But I don’t think ‘Diversity’ equals everything, or even a box to contain everything. I think its about being open to ideas, people and situations. ie Progressiveness through Possibility. Yes, this may lead to tactics that are in opposition with core principles, but it doesn’t have to.
    I think when we look at Diversity of Tactics, we need to think of it as Creativity of Strategy, not just using what’s always been there, but finding new ways of engaging in social change.  It’s about getting out of the box, not neccessarily using everything thats in it.
    I hope I haven’t taken you out of context, its just my thoughts 🙂

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