Sunday, December 27, 2009


As I think I mentioned a few posts ago, there is no “proactive” word for nonviolence in English. Apparently, as it turns out, there isn’t any proactive word in ANY language for this concept. The only way to express this idea is by making a negative out of a positive as in NONviolence or, in Sanskrit, for instance, coining the word Ahisma, which literally means “no harm.” As Mark Kurlansky says in his quirky book “Nonviolence: The history of a dangerous idea,” the only possible explanation for the lack of such a word is that “all societies have viewed nonviolence as a marginal point of view, a fanciful rejection of one of society’s key components, a repudiation of something important but not a serious force in itself. It is not an authentic concept but simply the abnegation of something else.” By the way, in case you’re thinking that, say, pacifism is a positive word for this concept, most commentators would say that pacifism is a passive response to war, whereas nonviolence is an active, highly political stance. Turning the other cheek is pacifism, winning people over through love and compassion is nonviolence. As Kurlansky has said, nonviolence is a “means of persuasion, a technique for political activism, a recipe for prevailing.” To be effective, it requires practitioners who are courageous, creative, and dogged. When the means are boycotts, demonstrations, highly charged rhetoric, and dramatic illustrations of the injustices that one is up against, nonviolent activists have been far more dependent on their wits and their imaginations than those who rule by force ever were. Nonviolence, as radical and revolutionary as it can be, is the strategy of those who embrace the long view; they are the slow knowers, who are convinced they will prevail in the end, whether it takes decades or even centuries.

It is therefore consistent that Gandhi’s own coinage for the philosophy and practice of nonviolence was Satyagraha, which has been translated as “truth force,” or “soul force,” or even “remaining steadfast in truth,” or “holding firm to truth.” The primary issue for Gandhi was never only to challenge injustice, to promote greater equality, or even famously “to be the change you want to see in the world” though all of these things were important to him. What was primary was always to be true to oneself and more specifically to one’s conscience. Whatever was offensive to one’s humanity must be challenged but in a manner, too, that was not offensive. No one must be physically harmed in the process, but some would be required to make material or financial sacrifices. Such sacrifices were trivial to Gandhi, however, because they were superficial and did not go to the core of what it means to be human or humane. Accomplishing all this while clinging to truth, to what is fundamentally human or even what is essentially sacred, would take time, a great deal of time. But that was okay, because the stakes, of being true to self and to some greater spiritual force, were so high. "Satyagraha," Gandhi insisted, "is not predominantly civil disobedience, but a quiet and irresistible pursuit of truth."

What do practitioners of Education as the practice of nonviolence learn from all of this? That in addition to listening and mutual recognition, an almost inhuman commitment to truth and to patience is required. Without them, the project of educating people for nonviolence, for what is truly important, not what is falsely and superficially significant, must fail.

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