The Knotted Gun: A Flawed Symbol for Non-Violence

When the knotted-gun was installed at the United Nations, Kofi Annan said it was ‘… a powerful symbol that encapsulates, in a few simple curves, the greatest prayer of man; that which asks not for victory, but for peace.’ In doing so, Annan equated victory to vainglory and neglects to remember that peace, and all that flourishes in it, often results from a startling struggle to achieve it and an eternal fight to defend it.


Image Courtesy of abac077, © 2012 some rights reserved

This symbol is inappropriate. It is both informed by and informs an overdose of utopianism and reflects normative values, which hinder positive engagement with the world’s affairs. As a symbol, the knotted-gun stands for a wider idea. As an object, the twisted gun is evocative — its simplicity is valuable and its intended meaning is clear. It functions in 2D, 3D, black and white and full color. It is a solid symbol. I find fault in its association with non-violence and the thought process that informs that association, more than I necessarily fault the symbol itself.

The connection between symbol and meaning is not quite as simple as ‘guns => bad.’ Rather, the association of the gun to the moral judgment of ‘bad’ is filtered through one more step: ‘guns implies violence implies bad,’ ergo ‘guns’ mean ‘violence’ which is bad. The root of my criticism has more to do with the collocation of violence to ‘bad’ than it does with the gun. I will approach the ‘guns implies violence implies bad’ connections in two steps, the first dealing with ‘guns implies violence,’ and the second dealing with ‘violence implies bad.’

The conflation of the gun to violence is flawed on two levels. First, the attribution of a moral judgment to an inanimate object is a fallacy. The gun as a concept, though a product of humanity, is nothing without the context of its use. The gun is not by its nature violent, but some of the ways guns can be used are. Second, I fault the implied assertion that without guns, there won’t be violence. The Rwandan genocide tells us that this is not true, considering the prevalent use of the machete during the several months of genocidal violence. The policy implications of this conflation of violence to an inanimate object is concerning, though I must note that the non-violence project and its efforts do not fall for this trope. Their projects and outreach methods are terrific, and not improperly focused on disarmament.

Worse is the implication that violence is bad, full stop. Violence can be bad. More often than not, violence is bad. Reducing violence and harm is important and is not only laudable but should be a central goal of all those involved in foreign affairs. That said, unless qualified, the absence of violence must not be the ultimate objective we strive for.

The normative framework that violence is bad is utopian. That is not said with distain. It is a regrettable truth that violence is part of this world. For better or for worse there is no choice but to acknowledge and understand that there is good violence. The playground reprimand that ‘violence is never the answer’ is not universal. I mentioned earlier that our normative approach to violence must be qualified. Ultimately, non-violence must come after emancipation, freedom and a respect for human rights on our priorities list (Though to the extent that random, unjust violence contributes to oppression, injustice and deprivation, it should be rigorously confronted). It would be a miracle in the truest sense of the word if peace, justice, and freedom just happened. But such things do not just happen passively; instead, these are the results of active struggle. This struggle can be non-violent. If possible, it should be. But circumstances may compel dirty, sad, visceral violence. This just violence is morally good.

I worry that when it comes down to these misconstrued priorities and moral norms, there is also an element of Teju Cole’s white savior industrial complex at play here. It might be heretical to articulate, but to what extent does the West rob people of their agency when it insists on disarmament? Who are we to look down on the world and say, “your fight for freedom and justice is violent, knock it off!”? How can the West, in the assertion that liberal institutions are the best method of change, legitimately presume to deprive people of their agency and capacity to defend themselves or to fight for freedom?

In asking these questions I emphatically do not suggest a program of arming the world to make it more peaceful. I only comment that not only is the ‘guns implies violence implies bad’ paradigm realistically a fallacy, but is also inherently informed by a reality that exists today in the West and the implication that the West’s processes and values should be universal. If this paradigm becomes action and policy that prioritises non-violence over true freedom and justice, then it becomes a project which embodies Cole’s concerns. He said, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” By citing him I do not intend to harshly damn the non-violence project. My hope is that their endeavors will raise a generation more prone to peaceful solutions than their predecessors. But non-violence is not about justice. Non-violence can in fact very easily be unjust. There are goals more virtuous than non-violence, such as freedom and justice. In service of those goals, and without wanton excess, violence is just.

Violence is not the problem. Guns are not the problem. They are indeed sadly too often the solution. The real problem is the root causes of violence like oppression, injustice and deprivation. We should not neglect the fight against those problems in a false prioritization of other goals.

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