Who Is Allowed to Defend Themselves?

Image of woman with tattoos leaning and posing against a bookshelf
Elsa Dorlin at home in Toulouse. Photo by Clémence Polès
A new history shows the elite origins of self-defense.

By Sohum Pal

You may not remember the names Mark and Patricia McCloskey, but it’s likely you remember their faces, screwed up in frustration and rage. They are the white lawyers who stood on the portico of their Italian revival “palazzo” in St. Louis, Missouri, and threatened to shoot protestors grieving the murder of George Floyd. Despite the peaceful nature of the demonstration — not to mention the fence on the couple’s property line and their small arsenal of weapons — the McCloskeys saw themselves as the ones at risk. While it was clear they were trying to inspire fear, the moment was mostly absurd. Perhaps no recent image more neatly encapsulates the contradiction at the heart of the mainstream American discourse on self-defense. As Elsa Dorlin writes in her new book, Self-Defense: A Philosophy of Violence, the main problem is that while self-defense is often presented as a universal right, its beneficiaries have always been members of the white propertied class defending themselves against Black and proletarian revolt.

The McCloskeys’ fears were twofold: They were worried about the threat to their mock-Italian fiefdom, and scared of the symbolic threat to the class order of which they sat atop. Asked to account for their violent behavior, the McCloskeys claimed that they were merely acting in accordance with “castle doctrine,” a rule that allows individuals to use force to protect their private property. The castle doctrine became infamous in the context of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which George Zimmerman invoked after murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. With support from the McCloskeys, a law passed in Missouri this past August provides even greater immunity to those who use deadly force to “defend” their property. According to proponents, these laws do nothing more than secure one’s right to self-defense, which is presumed to flow from the U.S. Constitution’s right to bear arms. But how did the “self” in need of defense become so broadly interpreted as to include a person’s veranda and rosebushes?

To answer this question, Dorlin examines two distinct traditions of self-defense, and how, in spite of their differences, both were designed protect the dominant social order. In Dorlin’s account, since at least the 12th century, continental Europeans have understood the right to bear arms as bound up in hunting and land rights, and therefore interpreted the privilege as one reserved for landed nobility. As far as restrictions on weapons existed, they only aimed to quell “seditious currents among the nobility.” That was the case until 1648, when French aristocrats and peasants unsuccessfully rose up against the king. In the aftermath of the uprising, known as the Fronde, the state secured its monopoly over violence by taking control of “the production, trade, and storage of weapons,” and criminalizing dueling, which allowed aristocrats to adjudicate their own conflicts beyond the watchful eye of the government. But even as the state tightened its grip on the nobility, aristocrats remained free to use weapons to defend themselves against men of lower classes, since such violence served to secure, rather than threaten, the state’s preferred social order. 

Over the ensuing centuries, Dorlin argues that the right to bear arms as a cornerstone of self-defense evolved along two paths. One was the “Anglo-Saxon” model, in which “the defense of the nation is understood as an extension of the natural right to defend one’s person.” While this framework originated in the British Isles, it took its most recognizable form in the 19th-century United States, in the midst of debates over who should be vested with the ultimate sovereign authority — individual citizens or a single leader. That conflict was in some sense resolved through the country’s westward expansion and the ideology of Manifest Destiny. Over the course of the 19th century, white settlers’ homesteads marked the frontier of the burgeoning American nation; in defending their private property against other European colonists and Native peoples, American settlers were also engaged in defending the country’s borders. This naturalized both the Anglo-Saxon idea of self-defense as a corollary to the duty of national defense, and also the peculiarly American paradigm of vigilantism — the notion that individual Americans can and should be vested with the capacity to interpret the law and mete out punishment accordingly, without even instruction from the state. 

Dorlin distinguishes this model from the continental European one, in which “participation in collective defense is framed as a condition of membership in the national community.” Here, the state has the right to call citizens (or slaves as their substitutes) to defend the nation, and the citizen has no choice but to comply. In return, the nation has a duty to ensure equal rights and privileges to all citizens. Unlike the Anglo model, this framework creates a more absolute state authority, allowing states to crush vigilantism at any stage. In this classically liberal formulation, the state’s guarantee of rights is not natural but contractual, and therefore can be revoked. The catch, of course, is that citizenship is itself a circumscribed category — and one that for most of modern Western history excluded non-whites, non-men, and non-heterosexuals.

As 19th-century colonial administrators began to move towards a model of forced labor and resource extraction in lieu of genocide, the Anglo and continental interpretations of self-defense converged again — this time around the idea that colonial subjects and enslaved persons should never be permitted to bear weapons. This, however, presented a challenge, as physical labor sometimes required the use of potentially dangerous tools. To solve this problem, colonial governments created a host of narrowly tailored laws such as Spain’s Black Codes, which stipulated, for instance, that while a “machete was permitted for agricultural work [in the colonies] its total length had to be less than a half cubit.” This distinction between armed masters and disarmed subjects “traces a dividing line between subjects, who own themselves and are responsible for their own preservation, and slaves, who do not own themselves and whose preservation depends entirely on the goodwill of their masters.” Colonies, then, came to reproduce the self-defense models of their metropoles. Where self-defense laws once exclusively applied to kings and queens, as European colonizers expanded into Asia, Africa and the Americas, white people assumed the mantle of the sovereigns, creating laws to subjugate and defend against the unfree classes. For the enslaved and the indigenous worker-servants, self-defense has always been cast as a threat to social order. 

Nonetheless, violence has always inspired resistance, including to the ideologies that serve it. Dorlin describes World War II resistance fighters in Eastern European Jewish ghettos who vowed to fight to the death, considering “suicide a waste of bullets that should be saved for the Nazis.” Dorlin described this approach as one “wherein death serves as an agent for restoring life’s value.” She describes the Black Panthers, who patrolled their community with guns to protect Black people from cops who were employed by a government that blatantly disregarded Black life. While Dorlin seems to look more kindly on self-defense by marginalized groups — self-defense that almost always challenges the law — she’s not optimistic about any movement that focuses on self-defense and whose goal is primarily safety. 

Dorlin recounts the poet June Jordan’s account of self-defense during two assaults — the first by a white man, and the second by a Black man. After the first assault, Jordan considered just avoiding white people altogether. After the second, glossing Jordan’s state of mind, Dorlin writes that she was “stupefied by the unbearable injustice of having to be on guard, of having to defend herself, even with her [Black] companions in struggle.” For Dorlin, this demonstrates that a state of perfect safety is an impossible and unhelpful goal. Self-defense forces confrontation with the “politics of discriminatory management and the exponential production of risk and social insecurity that gradually makes life unlivable.” One’s world may get smaller, but not safer. 

In Dorlin’s refusal to articulate any hopeful model for self-defense, there is a hint of Afropessimism, a school of thought that understands anti-Black violence as foundational to the world. Dorlin’s translator Kieran Aarons is the author of a popular 2016 essay, “No Selves to Abolish,” which draws on the Afropessimist insight that Black suffering possesses a unique grammar resulting from Black people’s “perpetual vulnerability to terroristic violence.” 

Aarons’ proposal for eliminating this violence is “self-abolition” — dissolving the self and abdicating the impulse to hold onto identity markers, a practice that he calls “negative identity politics.” Protestors demonstrated self-abolition, Aarons writes, in their looting, blockades, and anti-police attacks after police officer Darren Wilson was found not guilty of murdering George Floyd. This is self-abolition, in his telling, because the response was collective instead of individual. Dorlin seems to arrive at a similar conclusion about the potential for self-defense, one that discards the individualist model common between the European traditions in favor of a self-defense where a class (of Black people, of queer women, etc.) defends itself. But she offers no concrete examples of what this might look like, and it’s hard to parse what might qualify as desirable self-defense from her point of view.

We might have gotten more clarity had Dorlin included the 19th and 20th century anticolonial revolutions that turned self-defense on its head. It’s a surprising omission given that Dorlin’s reputation in France is as a scholar of anti-colonial and anti-slavery resistance. In the Americas, enslaved people defended themselves against the violence of bondage through escape (known as marronage) and through insurrection — in the Haitian Revolution, in Sam Sharpe’s Rebellion in Jamaica, in Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia, and elsewhere. The 20th century’s most remarkable characteristic may be the extent to which American, Asian, and African colonies fought for liberation — the masses of sacrifice and revolutionary violence against colonizing Europeans that can hardly be seen as anything but self-defense of colonized persons as a class. 

Dorlin’s analysis, then, offers a satisfying historical account of how Western states have reserved self-defense for their elite and colonizing forces. The book makes clear enough why the McCloskeys were allowed to stand on their porch with a small armory, whereas protesters for Black liberation were jailed by the hundreds. But without widening her archive, it’s hard to grasp how those of us not included in that elite should think about our own self-defense. If we wish to strategize about our own protection under the rising threat of fascism, this book leaves us in the dark by declining to assess actual mass movements against colonization and elite violence. What we need today is a genealogy of self-defense that we can use.

Sohum Pal is a law student and historian. He tweets @antibhadrata.

Illustrations by Chloe Scheffe. Original photographs courtesy of Lindsey Duce / Unsplash