LIVING FOR CHANGE
Time For A New Kind of Pacifism
By Frank Joyce
Michigan Citizen, April 10, 2009
Most days news of parents killing children, husbands killing wives, children killing parents, physical abuse in your own family, mass murders at churches, schools, shopping malls, workplaces or wherever just washes over us. The same goes for violence in TV shows, movies, video games, not to mention wars and genocides. We are numb and passive in the face of violence.
Strangely, even our conversations about political change ignore humans’ propensity to routinely commit violence upon one another. True, some political activists tackle issues like child or domestic abuse. Opposition to a particular war or military occupation has motivated many political movements and organizations. But political theorists and activists of any political persuasion rarely examine the root causes of violence or look for ways to eliminate it altogether.
Even progressive political activists just accept violence as an immutable component of human “nature.” The violence we commit on one another is assumed to be no different than our capacity to commit laughter. It’s just what humans do. Indeed, virtually every religion, ideology, political philosophy and legal code has at its core some version of violence management—as distinct from its elimination.
While most contemporary political thinkers and activists pay little attention to violence, neuroscientists are understanding more and more about how our brains operate and what can move us to violence—especially when we are not facing an imminent physical threat. Drug researchers have developed many drugs that reduce violent outbursts. There are military and police scientists and thinkers who work on the development of non-lethal weapons (a tiny minority compared to those who work on making weapons ever more lethal). Some academics and practitioners are working on original and creative non-violent approaches to resolving many kinds of human conflict.
However, the essence of violence, be it physical child abuse; spousal battering, war, gang conflict, or any of the myriad other forms of human-on-human physical attack, is rarely a part of our explicit political discourse (there is one significant exception: in warrior cultures such as the U.S. and Israel, candidates for political office are required to prove that they can and will “man-up;” that is, they must be demonstrably willing or even eager to inflict physical harm and pain on “enemies”).
So, does raising the possibility and desirability of incorporating violence reduction into our core political thinking mean that I personally want to go up against an unruly pit bull, polar bear or shark with my bare hands? No. Besides there are already proven non-lethal methods of dealing with animals.
Does violence reduction demand disarmament or the other way around? Yes, there is a valid democratic concept behind the Second Amendment. And, yes, people, not guns, kill people. But let’s be honest, if pervasive gun ownership is supposed to deter both crime and tyranny, why do we have more people locked up than any society in history? And why are people like Dick Cheney and the financial masters of the universe allowed to rob the public treasury with complete impunity? Can’t we get past the stale debates on this issue?
Do I think aliens might attack us some day, so we would therefore abandon our capacity for violence at out peril? It’s a long shot, but maybe. So, let’s make sure we incorporate that possibility into our conversation.
But most importantly, let’s begin that conversation. Let’s put violence on our political agenda. Surely a better world is a more peaceful world. And believe it or not, recent news notwithstanding, violence is less common than it was a few hundred years ago. Progress is possible. In this time of searching for new paradigms, let us think and talk and act to make a new kind of pacifism.
Frank Joyce is a lifelong labor and political activist. He is writing a book on the big changes society faces, is Vice Chair of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights and board president of The Working Group, sponsors of Not In Our Town, an organization that organizes communities to oppose hate crimes (www.niot.org).