Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thoughts on Nonviolence (2)

So think of nonviolence not as passivity or the absence of something but as a proactive stance, a form of persuasion that to act without force is a more effective and just plain practical form of action than violence. As Mark Kurlansky has pointed out in his little book called Nonviolence: The history of a dangerous idea, there is no positive word for nonviolent action in English. Nonviolence is the best we can do. Pacifism doesn't quite capture it, as it usually denotes simply the position of condemning all war. But nonviolence is much more active and political than that. For one thing, strictly speaking, pacifists have nothing to resist when there is no war. Nonviolence rather implies not pacifism so much as passive or nonviolent resistance to a state that is hurtful or unjust or disrespectful to human beings. Nonviolence recognizes that there are many ways to do violence to people. Doing intentional physical harm to another is a terrible, almost always inexcusable thing, but there is also psychic violence. Such violence is harder to see and difficult to calculate the harm it does. And there is the violence that results from poverty and inhumane conditions, violence that causes untold suffering to millions.

Kurlansky imagines a world for us in which the only word for war is nonpeace. In such a world, he surmises, war would be a trivial, marginalized, unimportant thing. Similarly, in our actual world where nonviolence is the best we can do, you can bet that we are referring to what most would see as a fringe idea that only extremists and kooks entertain.

I participated in a discussion about nonviolence recently, I believe the question posed was is violence ever justified. But the discussion, at least as far as I was concerned never got anywhere, because not a single participant could imagine a world where violence was rejected. People love to talk about the extreme cases when nonviolence is brought up - what you would do if a loved one were attacked? But they rarely are willing to even consider the possibility of behaving differently under more normal conditions. When the example of Martin Luther King is brought up who stopped people from acting violently dozens of times in response to violence inflicted on them, there is a tendency to dismiss King as a philanderer or as a myth, but we have many eyewitnesses who can attest to the fact that King repeatedly responded to violence with nonviolence, including an attempt by a deranged woman to stab him in the heart when he was signing books in a bookstore. Nonviolence is weird, off-beat, something not to be taken seriously because it is so ridiculously impractical. But why am I finding myself thinking again and again that few things are more impractical than violence itself.

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