Vladimir Lenin offered two simple questions when thinking about political violence: “Who? Whom?” When it comes to political aggression, what matters is who performs the action and upon whom it is performed. Thus, the Tsarist regime was wrong to have camps for political prisoners in Siberia, but the Bolshevik regime was right to have political prisons in Siberia. The action was the same (putting people in camps), but the doer and the done-to were different. Thought of grammatically, the verb doesn’t particularly matter. The moral distinction centers on who plays the role of subject and who plays the role of direct object. Political victory is when one makes the other a direct object.
A similar logic is growing in the American political scene today. Think back to the weeks after the murder of George Floyd. As people cleaned up broken glass amid burnt-out store fronts, NPR featured a discussion on the political and moral value of looting. On social media, the favored meme was of Martin Luther King Jr. saying that “rioting is the language of the unheard.” It mattered little that the quote was taken out of context and used as a contradiction of King’s vision of creative nonviolent resistance. On the right, Fox News mixed outrage at the riots and exaggeration of their size. Increasingly, the right demanded order by means of force. This included the idea of sending in the army to end the violence. Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed about this brought about a major scandal at The New York Times as writers and editors objected to the editorial itself as an act of violence.
January 6 and the subsequent period proved to be something of a whiplash. Suddenly the memes with King were gone and discussions of the political need for looting disappeared from NPR. The outrage at Senator Cotton’s proposal was nowhere to be found as the National Guard occupied DC. The right, so passionately in support of police and order, suddenly seemed uninterested in the “Blue” lives threatened at the Capitol. Initially, many on the right either downplayed or denied the event. Now, some are glorifying the “patriots” of 1/6. Appalled at protests in Portland, Oregon, many now celebrate threats, the waving of guns, and the need to coerce opponents in the political sphere.
Actions that were condemned are suddenly celebrated, not because the action has changed but because the actors have. The logic extends beyond physical violence. Rhetoric that degrades is acceptable (when directed from my side to the other), but it is beyond the pale when reversed. To listen to the left is to find out that the right fights dirty so we need to fight dirty too. To listen to the right is to find out that the left fights dirty so we need to fight dirty too. As the left frantically seeks to cancel people with the wrong views, the right—outraged by cancel culture—increasingly praises Viktor Orbán for, well, canceling the left in his country.
We are increasingly becoming afflicted by the who/whom logic of Lenin. For many, the relative “rightness” of political violence depends not on the action done but who is doing it. The reaction to Kyle Rittenhouse is emblematic of this. What happened on that night was terrible immorality and socio-political chaos—people fighting in the street, carrying weapons, shooting at each other. That evening should inspire mourning and conversion. Instead, the left condemns Rittenhouse and ignores the rioters, and the right celebrates Rittenhouse and condemns the rioters.
I don’t want to exaggerate the prevalence of political violence or the temptation to it. However, the minority of people who are attracted to political violence is growing. It is more deeply threatening on the right, as recent polls indicate, but it is real on both sides. The temptation to political violence—and the divisiveness that lies behind it—are deeply corrosive. When political violence rises, it is hard to dial back from it. We might be mostly at the rhetorical stage, but it is better to step back now than let things worsen.
The Who/Whom Distinction
To step back requires attending to why political violence and, more importantly, the who/whom distinction, are wrong. In part, this entails recognizing a certain moral standard that sees some things as intrinsically wrong. Some actions are wrong because of the kind of action being performed, not because of who is doing it. The camps in Siberia were wrong when organized by a Tsar and when organized by the head of the Communist Party. The immorality of an action does not depend on whom it is inflicted upon. Throwing rocks at cops and crushing them in doorways is not right in one case and wrong in the other. It is wrong in both cases.
But why is it wrong? To see this, the who/whom distinction itself needs to be critiqued. This distinction is far older than Lenin and is almost unavoidable in the history of political thought. We see it in Plato’s Republic, where the Guardians need to be like dogs, trained to distinguish between friends and enemies (whom you bite). Later, Augustine made the baleful distinction between punishing heretics and punishing Christians. The former is not persecution, whereas the latter is. As Carl Schmitt writes, “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” To think beyond the who/whom justification of political violence, we need to think past the distinction between who/whom and ultimately between self and other. We need to overcome, or at least relativize, the /.
To overcome the slash between us, we need to look at the whom on the other side of it. Who exactly are they? Certainly our political opponents are human beings, but to see them as human might not be a sufficiently compelling answer. Humans can be other, can be enemy, can be the whom we impose on. In Gaudium et Spes, the Catholic bishops proposed an answer to think about the whom: “everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self.” Your political opponent, the guy coldcocking a fascist and the fascist being coldcocked, the looter and the looted, the person storming the Capitol in Madison and the Capitol in DC, are each another self.
The Other Self
In other words, whom you attack is a who in reality. Just as you are a self, so too are they a self. A self does not want to be turned into a whom. They do not want bad things done to them. How do I know that other selves don’t want to be harmed? I, as a self, don’t want bad things done to me. This is the insight of the prophet Tobit: “Never do to anyone else anything that you would not want someone to do to you” (Tobit 4:15). Why wouldn’t I do to him what I wouldn’t want him to do to me? Because he is a self too. On the other side of the slash, I find a self, someone who doesn’t want their store looted or their Capitol mobbed.
But there is a deeper intimacy to thinking of my neighbor as another self. On the first level, they are another self, a me who is not me. But in another sense, they are another me. In seeing another self, I look across the political divide and find myself. This is why Jesus—while including Tobit’s admonition within his own—teaches that we are to “do unto others what you would have them do to yourself” (Matt. 7:12). Not only should I not harm the person on the other side of the slash, I should also help them, reach out to them. But why? Because they are another me. We are not commanded merely to love our neighbor as a person, a human, another anthropoid. We are to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Why would you ever love your neighbor—or your enemy—as yourself? Because there is an intimacy between us, a kind of overlap, where it is hard to determine where I begin and the other ends.
The who/whom distinction depends on imposing a divide that doesn’t see other people as other selves. A self is a subject, who thus originates actions, seeks meaning, and often fails in doing both. Lenin turned people into direct objects; the political philosophy I am sketching from Tobit to Gaudium et Spes sees them as subjects. As philosopher Paul Ricoeur explains, to see the other as a self is to know that you too “are capable of starting something in the world, of acting for a reason, of hierarchizing your priorities, of evaluating the ends of your actions and . . . of holding yourself in esteem as I hold myself in esteem.” To see this means that even when we are doing unto them, we are to do unto them as other selves and so as subjects. What, then, should we do unto them? Do no harm to them; do good for them. Why? Because they are a me, too.
In seeing others as selves, an inversion occurs. The whom is also a self and so also a subject, a who. What does that make of me? Having thought I was always a “who,” I find I am also a whom. To see others as selves is to see them as agents who can do unto me. If my neighbor is another self to me, then I am another self to my neighbor. And selves—whether myself or yourself—should be treated with love. This inversion means that sometimes others are right, that others have a claim on us, and that others get to win elections and govern for a while. And when we govern, we ought not inflict on them what we would not want them to inflict on us. And even if they do harm us, we ought not harm in return. To turn the cheek is to never do to others what we do not want done to us.
Towards Political Community
When Lenin sent Tsarists to Siberia to be worked to death, he thought the action was fine because the right kind of people were inflicting these camps on the wrong kind of people. But there just aren’t the “wrong” kind of people; there are just other selves making their way through this world. Lenin was wrong in denying them, wrong to posit the who/whom distinction that undergirds not all politics but all political violence. Those who celebrated looting and denounced storming the Capitol and those who denounced looting and celebrated storming the Capitol did so because they got caught up in thinking in the binary of who/whom. But for a political polity to work, it requires that we see other people as other selves and so people we should not harm (Tobit) but help (Jesus) because we love them as other selves (Jesus again).
What then does this make of the political community, a collection of selves engaging and encountering each other in the public square? If we need to think past the interrogative pronouns, what pronouns should we replace them with? Let me propose the first-person plural: we/us. When we start seeing others as selves, we start to see us. The subject then that does the action (we) always acts on a direct object that is itself (us). A we/us divide is in truth no divide at all but a self-reflection on the difficult project of being a community. As America sees the rise of a who/whom distinction, the urgency of recognizing other selves is the urgency of thinking of us as a “we” again. This is no small task, but our very selves depend on us figuring it out, together.