Todd May : The Dignity of non-violence
We live amidst violence. It has always been with us. Natural environments are violent places. Human kind has improved the techniques for the delivery of violence, but has not diminished the violence those techniques were ostensibly designed to protect against.
Of course, most human violence is not physical. It is structural. It occurs not simply in the beatings, killings, and fear that are the daily fare of so many of our fellows. It is in the needless poverty, marginalization, and hopelessness that are always there even when the physical violence ebbs.
In the decade or more since 9/11, the privileged few of us who are immune to most of these daily predations of violence have been inducted into its discourse, but mostly from the side of the righteous well-placed. We are told that an unspeakable violence has been committed against us, that we have been violated, and that we must oppose that violence and that violation. With what must we oppose them? With violence, of course.
This is what governments and those they support do. This is what they know how to do. The state has sometimes been defined as the institution with the monopoly on violence in a society. When you have a monopoly, you make use of it. In response to 9/11, we were never offered anything else. There was no consideration of how to respond to the brutality of the attacks against thousands of innocents other than the issue of when to commence counterattacks that would kill thousands of other innocents.
After ten years of terror, perhaps it is time, and even past time, to ask the question of how we might think and act otherwise. Perhaps it is time we stopped thinking of violence—physical and structural—as natural, inescapable, or at least beyond our ability to challenge. Instead of thinking about how to harness violence against violence, we should start thinking about how to confront violence with nonviolence. Instead of comparing tactics of violence, embracing strategies of nonviolence.
There are, of course, histories of nonviolence, just as there are histories of violence. Their most prominent moments are associated with the figures of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. However, as the writer Gene Sharp has detailed in his three-volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action, nonviolent resistance has a long history. It is not a history that is taught in schools, which, after all, are largely state institutions. It is, for the most part, not a history of political leaders engaged in glorious exploits. Instead it is the expression of people asserting their dignity against the violence that seeks to warp or derange them.
From strikes to marches to demonstrations to refusals of various types, nonviolence has always asserted the dignity of people. Asked to knuckle under the brutality directed against them or to return it in kind like a mirror image of their oppressors, those who have engaged in nonviolent resistance have instead chosen another path. They have not simply reacted against their conditions and those who have created them; they have expressed their character—or created their character—as something that lies beyond the dynamic of violence and retribution.
It is in this beyond that that dignity of nonviolence lies. Not content to tread the same paths that always lead to the same impasses—my retaliation against your retaliation against my retaliation against….—those who engage in nonviolent resistance assume that there must be something more to being human than this. Nonviolence, true nonviolence, is creative. It seeks to open up new paths that may lead to new and better destinations. At the very least, it seeks to open people’s eyes anew, so they can see something they had not seen before. And in doing so, it works not only on the minds of those to whom it speaks, but also upon the speakers.
Those who engaged in the lunch-counter sit-ins or rode the busses or filled the jail cells during the civil rights movement flamed the conscience of a nation. But they did more than that. They crafted their own ordinary lives into something extraordinary. They elevated the struggle for equality and in the same gesture elevated themselves. They crafted themselves into something they would otherwise not have been, and in doing so brought us along part of the way with them.
The Danes who, when the Nazis invaded, hid their Jewish compatriots or spirited them to Sweden, saving 99% of the Danish Jewish population, achieved a quiet grandeur that magnified them and continues to inspire us.
We all know that we have had enough of violence. We have had enough of the dying and mutilation that is the legacy of our advanced societies’ military technology. We have had enough of the anger that, in places like Rwanda, issued out in the form of machetes and hatchets. And, as the recent Occupation movement has shown, many of us have had enough of the social and economic conditions that are a more insidious, but not less effective, violence against so many. But we must go beyond “Basta!” We must think at once about what must be resisted and how, as is often said, we can be the change that is resistance. To do so is to pass to the other side of violence. It is not to glimpse a non-violence ready-made but instead to inaugurate it, to create something that was not there before. It is to envision and to improvise another context and other selves.
Michel Foucault once said that his writings were animated by the question of who else we might be. We have been given to ourselves, in most places and in most times, as beings of violence. To think and act nonviolently is precisely to ask the question of who else we might be. Not just what we might undergo or what we might suffer. But what, beyond the selves we have been told to be, we might create of our lives. That is at once our dignity and our task.
Article Published: June 2012
Todd May is a professor of philosophy at Clemson University. He is the author of 10 books, including “Our Practices, Our Selves” and “Death,” and “Friendship in An Age of Economics” (June, 2012). Todd also features in the Histories of Violence Ten Years of Terror special series.