Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Thoughts on Nonviolence (1)

Fair warning to readers of thethirdnewyork, I'm probably not going to be saying much about New York City in the next few posts, but will be experimenting instead with a few thoughts about a subject that has been much on my mind lately - the virtues of nonviolence. Nonviolence is a complicated subject, because it means so much more than simply refraining from physical violence. For one thing, it is often a political stance against one's country or any country using force to bring about change. For another, it can be focused on the harm done by inflicting emotional or verbal violence on others. Or, in still other cases, it can focus on the many subtle and insidious ways we do violence to one another without fully understanding the impact we are having.

I have been an admirer of practitioners of nonviolence like Gandhi and King for years, but it was only last year that I found my thoughts turning to this subject repeatedly. Two intersecting events brought me here. One, I became appalled by the war in Iraq and the horrible sacrifices our soldiers have made there and especially by the fact that the war has not necessitated the rest of us to make any sacrifices at all. Second, during our great financial crisis, when we were looking into the economic abyss, I don't recall a single member of the financial industry suggesting that it might be patriotic to make a sacrifice by accepting a smaller bonus or deferring that bonus altogether. The juxtaposition of young people, often people of color, having to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, for something that was said to be in our national interest, with the fact that it barely even occurred to us that those making millions might have to make a few millions less for awhile in the wake of a national emergency, made me ill. And although I accept that it is a somewhat irrational and irreconcilable pairing, it has caused me to doubt whether a resort to violence is ever anything but a kind of nationalist folly.

We assume violence works and that nonviolence doesn't, but we are also familiar with how much collateral damage violence can do. We know that violence, which seems in some cases to produce a superficial peace, can leave seething hate and hostility roiling just beneath the surface that can easily erupt into new violence when the conditions are right. I guess we think it would be a terrible risk to adopt a pacifist national philosophy, one that would follow Kristof and others in favoring books over bombs and healthcare over holocaust, but what a transformation it would be for the US to spread peace and well being to other countries in the world instead of violence and trouble.

Quick thought on violence: The root of the word has something to do with violation; with raping and ravishing; with outrage, dishonor, breaking in upon, with the use of excessive force to harm or frighten. Given that word history, given those meanings, does anyone really want to stand for anything but nonviolence?

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