Expanding the Concept and Practice of Nonviolence (abridged)

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The following text is an abridged version of a recently discovered, previously unpublished article. The full version is published online at: westernfriend.org/media/expanding-nonviolence

First, let me confess to an itch about the term “nonviolence” – because it connotes a passive absence of violence rather than an affirmative presence of an alternative force for change, which Gandhi called, “a force more powerful.” I like Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement, “. . . true nonviolence is more than the absence of violence. It is the persistent and determined application of peaceable power to offenses against the community.”

This is not just semantics! I know people who are intent on being nonviolent by trying to expunge violent thoughts and deeds from their lives, often by retreating from situations which might provoke violent reactions. Gandhi or King or the Quaker Abolitionist John Woolman certainly worked on their own inner seeds of violence, but instead of shrinking from violent situations, they waded into the troubled waters.

Another itch for me, about the way we talk about nonviolence, is that we love to tell war stories. I have heard many hair-raising accounts from the civil rights movement and the nonviolent resistance to Hitler. I urge us to be cautious about these stories. I think they tend to be disempowering to well-intentioned people who cannot imagine themselves in those positions. And they take our attention away from important, everyday nonviolent acts.

So. How can nonviolence be expanded from the shrunken, passive state it finds itself in?

First, for many of us, we need to overcome our fear and despair. Despair and discouragement are luxuries we cannot indulge. Our government is fear-mongering to keep us in line. As Mark Kurlansky put it, “People motivated by fear do not act well.” We need to buck up, rather than give in to the threats. Courage is simply the everyday work of managing our fears. We all practice courage every day when we confront things we would rather avoid.

Second, we need to look at the world in which we are immersed with fresh eyes. We become habituated to the status quo. Woolman tested his own life to see the ways that it supported slavery. We need to test our own lives for the seeds of empire, oppression, and environmental destruction. We need to ask ourselves: Is our chocolate made by child slaves? Do our clothes have the blood of young Latin, Asian, or African women on them? What is our carbon footprint?

We are protected from the impacts of war – no draft, no war bonds, no rationing. We need to examine our culture for what Gandhi viewed as the seven traits that are most spiritually perilous to humanity:

  • Wealth without Work
  • Pleasure without Conscience
  • Science without Humanity
  • Knowledge without Character
  • Politics without Principle
  • Commerce without Morality
  • Worship without Sacrifice

Third, we need to explore ways to challenge the thrall of the empire. We need to stand by its nonviolent opponents and the millions of refugees of the empire. We need to confront the oil companies and merchants of death – the winners in the empire. We need to cut into their profits and glittering images. We need to find ways to reduce the supply of money, personnel, and political support for the empire and its wars. We can hold fundraisers for organizations like About Face: Veterans Against the War. We need to interrogate candidates about the empire and find ways to cut down on the taxes we pay for it.

Fourth, we need to follow the lead of the environmental movement and the sharing economy. We need to envision, talk about, and practice the peaceable, sustainable future. It is hard to keep telling people what they must give up. We need to describe and embody the abundant life, rather than the affluent life; the beloved sharing community, rather that the isolated, competitive, and suspicious marketplace. Supportive community reduces loneliness and the impulse to buy things to fill the void of relationships. Sharing reduces the need for buying and selling.

Fifth, a “theory of violence” has implications for practitioners of nonviolence. To identify the full potential of nonviolence, it is instructive to look at the dynamics of violence. Doctor James Gilligan, former head psychiatrist for the Massachusetts Prison System, has developed such a theory. He found that extremely violent people have extremely negative – or absent – self-images, which makes them hypersensitive to shaming. While it is common for shaming to provoke anger and violence in people, this is especially true for people who lack self-esteem.

Gilligan notes that the U.S. has ten times the rates of violence of Western Europe and concludes that violence is a policy choice. The U.S. has structural arrangements that, he argues, mass-produce degradation and shame. The policy choices of extreme income inequality and racism generate shame in a culture asserting that we all are equal. Our public education system also uses shame as a key motivator. Gilligan estimates that different policy choices could reduce the U.S. rate of violence by 90%.

The implications of Gilligan’s theory for the practice of nonviolence are profound: We need to broaden our conception of nonviolence to include opposition to public policies of shaming and to promote confidence-building alternatives.

In terms of immediate intervention, we need to raise children to have a robust and positive sense of self – and not only our own children. Luckily, some schools are really trying to affirm all their students.

On the other end of the age spectrum, my 95-year-old mom says positive things to discouraged people in her assisted living institution, as she shuffles her walker down the long halls. She would never self-identify as a nonviolent warrior, but you can see the powerful impact she has on the people she meets.

When I was riding a bus recently in Seattle, a short older man got on fuming, and he cussed out the black woman bus driver for being late. She was firm and calm and asked him not to yell at her. He came down the aisle muttering that she was rude to him. I commented gently to him that I thought he was the one who had been rude. He sat down in front of me. My seatmate thanked me for speaking up and, aware of the angry man in front of us, we had a quiet discussion about how little control bus drivers have over their schedules. I said, “I know it is frustrating to be late; in fact, I am also late to an appointment.”

My seatmate went on to talk about his collection of top-ten pop songs from 1950 to 1965. He owned them all. I mentioned a couple of titles from my high school years and the sock hops after the basketball games. Suddenly, the angry man in front of us turned around with a broad smile on his face and exclaimed, “Sock hops! I haven’t heard that word for years!” The three of us then reminisced, and we all shook hands as I got off. I find the bus is a wonderful place to witness people being good to each other. It is possible to practice nonviolence in effective ways, to assert compassionate relations in a shaming society, without standing in front of tanks.

By practicing humane treatment of others, we make dramatic nonviolence more plausible. At the same time, Gilligan stresses the need for structural change in the conditions that provoke violence. Working for a progressive income tax, high state tax, raised minimum wage, health care for all, public financing of elections, strengthening of unions, alternatives to incarceration, and police accountability for bullying behavior may be more effective nonviolent actions than sitting in at our senator’s office, calling for an end to the latest war.

Sixth, we can plan nonviolent campaigns to oppose the empire. Let’s be clear about what empire involves. It involves imposing one state’s will over others by military, economic, political and ideological force. Although empires vary somewhat in their levels of brutality, they all impose their wills with violent force on subordinate peoples. They all undermine the democratic institutions of their home states. They are wealth-and-power machines for the elite and are sold as a protection racket for the rest of us – supposedly to protect us from the barbarians.

We are members, voters, and tax payers of a bloody empire, and we are living in a time when devastating crises are barreling down upon us. We are living in a time of endless war and militarism; peak oil; diminishing fresh water; spasms of extinctions and deforestation; food riots and people eating dirt; epidemics, a wasteful, mean and violent culture; increasing intolerance; greed as a value and skyrocketing national debt.

Isn’t opposing our empire the main task of U.S. adherents of nonviolence? To put it mildly, we have our work cut out for us. We can assume that one clever tactic is not going to be enough. As James Lawson, a strategist of the sit-in movement, said, ‘’When we become serious about resisting violence and injustice, we find that change doesn’t just happen by itself. It takes strategizing and planning and discipline. That’s how change happens.” So how can we get serious about mobilizing peaceable power to oppose the empire?  ~~~

Mike N. Yarrow was a member of University Friends Meeting, a beloved sociology professor and an organizer for peace and justice. He completed alternative service to the draft by organizing for peace with the American Friends Service Committee. In 1964, he registered voters with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Summer. He earned a PhD focused on how Appalachian coal miners understood the issues affecting their lives. Mike launched the Peace Activist Trainee program of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He was loved for his thoughtful activism, warmth, and humor. He died in 2014 at the age of seventy-four.