Rhetorical Martyrdom, or Self-Defense?

Let’s say someone aggresses against you. You’ve done no wrong and are morally justified in defending yourself with force. You are also morally justified in choosing not to resist, and possibly become a martyr for your non-aggression. Both responses are morally acceptable, but which is more effective at achieving your goals?

If your goal is self-preservation, it might seem defense is the obvious choice. Upon further reflection, the case isn’t so simple. If someone says, “Your wallet or your life”, non-resistance might actually improve your odds of walking away unharmed, even if a little poorer. Even when the aggressor wants your life rather than your money, it is possible a passive countenance might protect you better than defense. If you’re outmatched, firing a few shots in defense only makes your attackers bolder and more aggressive – now you’ve put them on the defensive and they can kill with clearer conscience. Non-resistance, on the other hand, puts the full weight of the action on their shoulders. They must decide to kill a peaceful human being. They may not be able to go through with it. Of course there is no guarantee that willingness to be a martyr will protect you better than self-defense: many times it may be the opposite. It requires reflection and it’s not an easy call.

If your goal is not self-preservation, but changing the world, the decision is no less difficult. Resistance movements and rebellions have played a major role in history. So has martyrdom. Consider the early Christians who peacefully succumbed to torture and death. Consider the peaceful activists in the Jim Crow South. Arguably, nothing did more to further the spread of their ideas than their refusal to defend themselves from physical force. When you are willing to suffer or die for your beliefs, rather than stoop to the level of physical violence, the world takes notice.

Let’s move away from the high stakes realm of life and death and into the world of words.

If you face an unjust rhetorical attack, how do you respond? Defending your ideas may be perfectly acceptable but not always effective. If you watch professional football you sometimes see a player get in a cheap shot after the whistle. If the other player responds with a cheap shot of his own, it is almost always the responder, not the initiator, who gets a penalty. If there is no response, the penalty may go unnoticed, but often the passivity of the victim provides a contrast that makes the perpetrator’s action stand in high relief. He is revealed for the immature thug that he is.

When someone launches an ad hominem against you, or unfairly attacks your ideas in words, you have a choice. Certainly a well-reasoned defense is in order at times, and it can be very effective and very powerful. But perhaps we undervalue the power of non-resistance and even rhetorical martyrdom. Refusing to respond can make the verbal aggressor look like a fool and undermine their credibility. It can make your ideas stand out all the more, and cause observers to wonder why you seem so unshaken; they may want to know more about your beliefs. It can also bring personal peace.

It’s worth considering martyrdom over self-defense from time to time.

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