Sunday, May 03, 2015

At the end of the line

It's the post-lunch session of a course in nonviolence and the energy has lowered. "Right", says the facilitator, "I'd like you to imagine a line going down the middle of the room. 'Agree' is at this end. 'Disagree' is at the other. Now, where would you stand to respond to the following statement: 'I would use violence to save a family member's life'?". We look at one another with dread, and shuffle awkwardly into place. I, inevitably, am down one end of the line.

As a pacifist, I am regularly asked to justify my stance in ways that Governments, churches or just mainstream people who take a just war approach are rarely asked to do. Whether its during an animated discussion with friends, exploratory queries after 2 or 3 dates, or the post-lunch session of nonviolent activism training, I do tend to find myself alone at one end of the line. Recently, I've had cause to question my stance. Am I too fixed in my thinking? Would I be truly open to changing my mind if presented with new information? Am I simply naive?

There's a sortof assumption that use of violence "as a last resort" is more pragmatic and intelligent than committing to nonviolence more completely. And perhaps I am naive, simplistic, or not pragmatic enough. But I also wonder how people decide that all other options have been exhausted, or that now we have reached the time of "last resort". I wonder whether people really understand the practice and theory of nonviolence when they make the decision to dismiss it out of hand. I also think there's a massive assumption that pacifism, because of its name, is passive.

I remember a few years ago I was very affected by the story of a Canadian Quaker (let's call him Joe) who had been murdered by his estranged son-in-law. I had heard about this situation through the nonviolence network because Joe had been actively involved in the Alternatives to Violence Project, a workshop process that I'm also involved with. Back in the 1970s it had drawn tools from nonviolent social change training methodology to work with prison inmates who were seeking to transform the cycle of violence in their lives. Many inmates had found the process transformative, and had gone on to become facilitators, mentors for younger offenders and to live exemplary lives. When I became involved, I found the process useful for dealing with conflict in my own life, and worked time and again with inspirational people who had experienced terrible violence in their lives, were facing those demons, and working to create different patterns in the future.

With Joe's situation, I had been struck by the tragedy of a person, who had dedicated his life to peace, dying in such a violent way. I kindof became obsessed with the story. After some internet research, I learnt that Joe's daughter's ex had a history of violence and mental illness, and on the fateful day that Joe had intervened, he had saved his daughter's life but sacrificed his own. When I told friends this story, I remember one turning to me and saying "isn't it ironic that he resorted to violence after working so hard his whole life for nonviolence?" I was baffled by this analysis, because I hadn't said that the man had resorted to violence. I had simply relayed that he had "intervened". None of the media articles had specified exactly what had happened. I had assumed that the man had intervened nonviolently, whereas my friend clearly imagined any intervention would necessarily be violent. It's almost like the riddle about the surgeon who can't operate on her son which confuses people because they don't think that a surgeon could be female. Similarly, people can't imagine any type of intervention that is not violent.

So, when asked whether I would use violence to save a family member's life, and I choose "no", everyone assumes I would somehow sit idly by because I apparently lack the imagination to come up with any kind of intervention that isn't violent. Of course, I can probably only list, on demand, maybe half a dozen of Gene Sharpe's 198 methods of nonviolent action, and I am not especially skilled at any of them. In fact, it's entirely possible that I would blunder my way through such a scenario. Perhaps I would be so scared that I would freeze and essentially be passive, or would, in the moment, resort to violence. But the point is not really to predict what I would "actually" do, but to assert what I believe is the best thing to do and what I would aspire to do. Just as I believe that Joe was willing to lay down his life to save his daughter, I hope that I would step between an attacker and somebody I love in order to save them from harm.

But the "intruder attacking my loved ones" is only one scenario where people want to argue that nonviolence is pathetic or flawed. The other scenarios where a pacifist stance is questioned is where there are great injustices and complexities at play such as the recent riots in Baltimore. When asking friends about nonviolence recently on facebook, I found that this contemporary scenario was one that resonated with many who said "this is the one situation where I would question nonviolence". And I see where they are coming from. When a police officer, who is part of the structural violence and unjust machinery that condones explicit physical violence against black people, turns around and tells the community (meaning black people) to keep calm and use nonviolence, I, too, lose patience.

There is an assumption that because I am a pacifist, I will side with the police and the patronising and hypocritical call for nonviolence. No, I regard perpetuating racist structures and discrimination as extremely violent. Being a pacifist absolutely means confronting structural violence, naming racism, oppression and injustice, and standing alongside those who are most vulnerable. While I think creative nonviolent strategies are most likely to succeed and produce durable results, I do recognise that in order to stand in solidarity with those who are persecuted, I need to support them "where they're at", even if that space is expressing frustration violently. After all, I regularly find myself resorting to emotional violence or participating in structural violence, to my own chagrin. I am certainly not the one to throw the first stone. And, I've actually found that it's never that hard to find the humanity and goodness in the inmates, or freedom fighters or even mentally ill sons-in-law. The real challenge is to find the humanity and goodness in those who don't challenge themselves about the ways that they benefit from injustice, perpetuate violent structures, or stand idly by while others are persecuted. That's when my commitment to nonviolence is truly tested.