Beyond Moderation: The Politics of Nonviolence in a Violent World

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This dissertation challenges the long-standing albeit usually implicit association between political moderation and nonviolent political action. For the three figures I examine here—Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Václav Havel—nonviolence is not a middle way between resignation and the kind of violent resistance many democratic theorists now endorse. Gandhi, King, and Havel each reject violent forms of resistance on the grounds that it marks a continuation instead of a break from a world built on and sustained by state or state-sanctioned violence. Put bluntly, violent forms of resistance are not too radical for Gandhi, King, and Havel; they are not radical enough. I ultimately argue that Gandhi, King, and Havel’s uncompromising commitment to nonviolent political action means that they are better described as zealots than political moderates. They exceed the bounds of normal politics as they ardently pursue their cause.

What motivates and sustains their zealous politics? I contend that Gandhi, King, and Havel’s zealotry is underpinned by what feminist and womanist theorists have called relationality—to be human, Gandhi, King, and Havel, believe, is to be constituted by the needs of the concrete and particular other. As a result, Gandhi, King, and Havel are compelled to respond when they witness someone harmed by state or state-sanctioned violence, even when doing so carried enormous costs and even if the likelihood of mitigating the harm is minimal, at best. Crucially, Gandhi, King, and Havel not only understand themselves as inextricably related to those who are harmed, but to the perpetrators of harm as well. Hence their embrace of nonviolent political action; they are unwilling to harm those who harm others.

I do not think democratic theorists should be in the business of arguing that those subject to state or state-sponsored violence should refuse to respond in kind. As such, I am not proposing that Gandhi, King, and Havel offer a new normative model of resistance. That said, I contend that Gandhi, King, and Havel give democratic theorists reason to re-examine the role of zealotry in pluralistic political communities. In brief, Gandhi, King, and Havel show that not all zealots introduce, entrench, or exacerbate injustice. Pluralistic political communities, then, should make room for zealots like Gandhi, King, and Havel. And doing so requires considering the ontology—I am principally concerned with conceptions of human being or social ontology, here—of the various zealots who exceed the bounds of normal politics when ardently pursuing their cause. I introduce a negative standard of ontological exceptionalism to help democratic theorists distinguish between zealots that introduce, entrench, or exacerbate injustices and those who, like Gandhi, King, and Havel, seem to have the opposite effect.





Tranvik, Isak (2020). Beyond Moderation: The Politics of Nonviolence in a Violent World. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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