Pacifism

I’m annoyed by the presumption that we should never “stoop to their level.” Tit-for-tat with forgiveness, i.e., if you hit me, I’ll hit you back but I’ll eventually forgive you, is good advice for deep game-theoretic reasons. However, Gandhi-style pacifism is also sound advice with proven results.

As has been well discussed elsewhere, pacifism only works when you are non-violently resisting people who are not going to literally kill you. But there is another subtler constraint on pacifism.

Suppose you say I’m not allowed to walk on the sidewalk. And suppose you threaten to hit me if I do. If I walk on the sidewalk anyway, get hit, and don’t hit back, then I have resisted your coercion without escalating, shown you that I won’t defer to you (which signals that I have self-respect), and third parties will take my side in the “who’s in the right” debate because it is you that is hitting me.

However, this strategy doesn’t work if you are wronging me in less conspicuous ways. If you are constantly interrupting me or strawmanning my views, and third parties don’t agree that these things are bad, then my passive resistance won’t look like a noble stance of self-respect and restraint. It won’t look like I’m resisting, but failing to escalate. It will look like I see nothing as wrong.

But it is shitty to do things like strawman, interrupt, dismiss, or subtly character assassinate. In these cases, it is appropriate to call out the behavior because stoic resistance will not work. And if calling out behavior doesn’t work because you are with an audience who doesn’t agree these things are bad, it may be appropriate to adopt a tit-for-tat strategy. Oh you are interrupting me? Time to interrupt you back. Oh you are dismissing me? Time to dismiss you.

Neither eye-for-an-eye (read: tit-for-tat with forgiveness) nor pacifism (read: always cooperate) is good for its own sake. They are strategies. Strategies that can be employed to stop people from messing with you. But because they are strategies and not intrinsic goods, we should learn their strengths and weaknesses—we should learn when to do one and when to do the other.

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