Saturday, August 09, 2014

169.2 - Nonviolence and Me, Part 2

Nonviolence and Me, Part 2

[This week's show was one long discussion of my commitment to nonviolence. For ease of reading, I have broken it into five parts, this being the second.]

Being me, I had to see if I could intellectually justify my emotional reaction. So I read pamphlets on pacifism and nonviolence. I read books on pacifism and nonviolence. I read scientific articles on the psychology of violence, both individual violence and group violence. I read histories of nonviolent campaigns around the world, including both successful and unsuccessful ones. I read essays on the philosophy of government.

That is, being me, I had to see if I could make a logical case for deep morality, a logical case for conscience. It didn't have to be an airtight case, it didn't have to be of a sort that would convince everyone or even anyone else: Conscience is an intensely personal thing; recently on the show I called conscience "the most human of human rights."

But for me, for myself, my conviction about organized violence had to be based on something more than an emotional reaction, it had to be conscience rooted in something beyond itself. Again, it didn't have to be absolute proof but for me conscience had to have some logical foundation or at least logical support to stand on. You had to be able to make some kind of case.

Ultimately, I decided couldn't justify the full extent of emotional reaction, an extent that said I would never raise my hand against anyone no matter what, but I could justify the baseline conviction that large-scale organized violence cannot be right. Ever.

A big reason for that is that there are alternatives. There is extensive literature on the use of nonviolence, of nonviolent action, to achieve justice. Gandhi was just a small, even a tiny, part of that history. In fact, he credited Henry David Thoreau as one of his influences; one story says he had read Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience so many times that he had it memorized.

That essay, called "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," was Thoreau's explanation of why he refused to pay a tax levy intended to help pay for the war with Mexico in 1848. These are my favorite lines from that essay, which I think present the core of the argument:
If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth ... but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.
This idea, this concept, of using nonviolent action, nonviolent resistance, as a means for working for justice, is not only ancient, it goes up to and includes nonviolent national defense - that is, defending the nation without an army.

But of course if you say this to anybody, if you argue that nonviolence is both a moral and a logical imperative, especially if you say it to politically-oriented or involved people, and especially when the issue at hand is a matter of justice or people resisting oppression (which is usually when it comes up), you will get the standard pushback of how "that would be nice but it won't work" or "nonviolence only works when everyone is ready to agree," often enough (in an odd twist on Godwin's law) including some reference to the supposedly self-evident absurdity of using nonviolence against Hitler.

And then after all that these same people will say how they'd prefer nonviolence, it's just, "y'know, it's naive, and y'know, I'm not glorifying violence you understand, of course not" and so forth and so on.

Well, of course such people are glorifying violence. They are glorifying violence as a - indeed, as the only reliable - means of self-defense and achieving justice. Indeed, the political philosopher Franz Fanon openly glorified violence itself, declaring not only that it was the only way for the colonized peoples of the world to be liberated but that it itself, that the very act of violence, was liberating.

The argument, stripped to its essence, is that nonviolence, well, yeah, it might work sometimes - but violence always does. Nonviolence can fail, but violence never does; just hasn't succeeded yet. The argument allows for no option under which violence fails, even less for one where violence fails but nonviolence succeeds. Even when the conflict goes on, as some in world have, for decades, in some - in too many - minds, including if not especially among those not directly affected, the thought "violence has failed" never seems to arise.

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