Situating Self-Immolation within the Ethics of Dissent


The focus of this paper is self-immolation in the sense of setting oneself alight as a form of political protest. This is a form of protest which is steadily gaining ground within liberal democracies. The paper is neutral on the question of whether or not self-immolation is a politicized form of suicide. However, it does commit to regarding it as a form of sacrificial violence towards the self. Offering oneself up to the violence of others may be a non-violent act, but deliberately setting oneself on fire is not. The overall aim of the paper is twofold. First, to convey a sense of the emerging pattern of self-immolation’s migration from East to West. Second, to articulate a sense of ethical unease about this particular form of dissent. The unease is set out in terms of a worry about self-immolation’s effect upon the public domain within liberal democracies. It tends to normalize a form of public cruelty which is at odds with broadly liberal norms. My rejection of self-immolation as a form of protest is in no way a denial that there are problematic features of liberal democracies, and limitations to the broadly liberal public domain. It is, more simply, the view that, by normalizing cruelty, it makes bad situations worse.

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