In the wake of discussions about violence related to the occupy movement, I want to share my own story of how I came to endorse nonviolence.
As a boy I believed in the necessity of violence. Raised on GI Joe and Star Wars, I was presented with the view that good people had to kill bad people for peace and justice to reign. With action figures and video game controllers clentched in my hands, I acted this story out time and again. It was a simple tale of right and wrong, yet I came to sense a flaw. If killing people was an evil action (as I was also raised to believe), how can people be good if they also kill?
This criticism became heightened once I realized that war was different from how it was portrayed in boyish fantasy. When the first Gulf War happened, the media talked about Saddam Hussein inflating the number of civilians killed by American troops. Around me I heard “well, civilians are always killed in war, but its not that many.” I thought, “not that many? What if it was my father or mother or neighbor or me?” It seemed intensely cruel to offhandedly dismiss any human life, be it ten people or a thousand, Americans or Iraqis, soldiers or civilians.
Then I understood, we tended not to see war victims as human. Instead of “person murdered” we say “casualty of war.” “Casual” is right in the phrase, as though it is easy and everyday. We learn to dehumanize and become dehumanized. And I realized this was a necessary condition for violence. Violence is a degradation of our sense of human worth, and war represents an extreme example of this. As a person believing in my own worth and the worth of others, I could see that violence was perhaps the definition of evil.
Sill, I was so used to the idea that social change came through violence. This is what the history books taught. I had heard of Mohandas Gandhi and the nonviolent Indian Independence movement, but I had difficulty conceptualizing it. Violence was simple. You kill the people in your way and then they are no longer there. Once they are gone you can do what you want. How could people “stop being in your way” without the use of violence? Then I had a realization. There will always be people in the way. Even when power is violently seized, opposition, insurgents, etc. still exist. Social change, violent or otherwise, is never about removing opposition, but about advancing the influence of one regime compared to another. It is about shifting the balance of power. Killing people can shift the balance of power; so can spreading a message, building organizations, raising money, riling people up to act boldly for what they believe in, committing direct action to undermine the institutions that oppress, etc.
In fact, even if a movement is violent, most of the work in building that movement must be done nonviolently. Once we realize this, it isn’t hard to entertain the idea that a movement which has nonviolently built its power could also nonviolently exert that power to make changes in society. Historically this is backed by the cases of Indian Independence, South African resistance to apartheid, US civil rights, the Arab Spring, and many more examples.
But to me the biggest argument for nonviolence is this, if we wish to create a world that does not violate human worth and dignity, how can we do this by using a tool (violence) which inherently violates the worth and dignity of people? In the end I think revolution for a humanizing future must be based on acting against violence in both our society and ourselves. Whether it is a military elite finding power through war, a financial elite making money off of economic collapse, a business elite looking to maximize profit through lowering the resources of workers, an employer in a middle class office who won’t hire a working class black man, a husband abusing his wife because he desires unnatural compliance, an everyday person not recognizing how her privilege is connected to suffering, or an everyday person simply lashing out in frustration- peace and social justice requires resisting violence in order to restore our holistic humanity.