Realistic Nonviolence #4: Why governments are not nonviolent (and how to change that)

Friday, January 25, 2013

This post is part of a continuing  series on practical nonviolence. Read the first post here

Pacifism is often understood in terms of a refusal to commit violence and/or a refusal to kill. Pacifists then lament that governments refuse to adopt pacifism. I want to propose two of the main reasons why they do and how we can get past them.

Reason #1: Viable Alternatives

The first reason is that we need to provide viable alternatives. If we don't, we can't expect anyone to listen.

Take for example corporal punishment in schools: This practice has been banned in most states, but was common in the past. You can imagine that at first teachers would have been at a loss for how to keep order in the classroom without the use of physical punishment. So what can they do instead?

If we are talking about little kids then you can give them a "time out" for instance However, educators found that this can also be harmful when it shames children. So they moved away from saying "you are bad" to addressing behavior. They learned to kneel down to eye-level when speaking with kids, say "following directions" instead of "obedience," speak with a calm voice instead of yelling, and started calling time-outs a "thinking chair" instead.

Now all of this constitutes a major paradigm shift: Most of us think the goal of discipline or punishment is to make the child feel bad -- to give them a negative and unpleasant consequence -- in order to "teach them a lesson." This is often the case, regardless of whether or not physical punishment is used. As a result,  a time out -- even though it does not involve any physical violence -- can have the effect of making a child feel abandoned, rejected, and shamed. It still harms; it still damages.

So educators recognized the need not only to avoid violence, but to avoid harm. That meant re-thinking what the goal of discipline was. If it's not the goal of a time-out to make the kid feel bad, what is the goal?

The goal of a time-out is quite modest: It is simply a way to diffuse a situation, to get the kid into another environment so they can calm down. Once they are calm, depending on the situation, they might just go back to the group, or if there was a conflict then the teacher could help them to work it out with the other kid(s).

Long story short: If we want to ask people to stop being violent, then we need to provide a viable alternative. And here's the moral of the story: This will often involve more than just "less violence" (we stop hitting, but our goal is still to cause pain), and instead involve a paradigm shift that addresses the issue (a student disrupting the class in this example) in a way that does not harm them (either physically or emotionally).

The fact is, government has adopted nonviolent policies in regards to school discipline. So it just is not true that government wont ever adopt nonviolent policies. They already have in many many areas. This is a really big deal because for centuries it was common practice to beat kids in school. 

Now, if we want our government/society to become less violent in other areas, then we need to provide viable alternatives that effectively address the needs involved.

Reason #2: The Wrong Medicine

This brings us to the second reason that government/society does not adopt nonviolence. We provide them with an alternative, but it's the wrong one.

When we think of the government adopting pacifism, the first thing that comes to mind is war, and the first pacifist method that comes to mind is turning the other cheek. Now if this is understood simply as "letting yourself be wronged" then it is clear why governments wont adopt it: It would be like saying to to a doctor "just let the patients die." We can't expect a society not to protect its people.

So instead we might appeal to how Martin Luther King effectively used nonviolent resistance (which is basically the application of turning the other cheek applied on a mass scale) in the civil rights movement as a way they could adopt. This was not just "doing nothing," it was a powerful means of exposing injustice. So could governments adopt this?

I would say no. Here's why:

In the situation of Gandhi and King, the power dynamics were of a weaker party being wronged by the one in power. Turning the other cheek here has the effect of exposing injustice in the eyes of the community. It humanizes the victim, making them visible, bringing the injustice into the open. It thus reveals that the one in authority is being unjust. The perception is shifted here so that the one in authority is shown to be in the wrong, and the weaker one is vindicated.

Now if we reverse this power dynamic so that the one in authority is turning the other cheek, this no longer works. It does not work because we already assume that the one in authority (the police, for example) is just, and the weaker one (the criminal) is in the wrong. So there is no need to shift perception in this way.

Now that does not mean that we can do nothing about this, but it does mean that we cannot simply adopt the "turning the other cheek" approach and apply it to crime or international conflict. We need to identify the harmful dynamic and act to reverse it.

For example with violent crime, the offender needs to learn to develop empathy. This can happen by them gaining insight into their patterns of behavior and thinking, teaching them to recognize the harm they cause from the perspective of their victims. Rather than seeing things from the perspective of self only, they gain insight to see the other. 

This approach has been shown to be effective in reducing violent crime, and is increasingly being adopted within the prison system. In contrast, simply incarcerating a person actually increases their potential for violence once they are released. So again, this presents a viable and effective alternative to a system of punishment that not only harms them, but harms all of us because it fails to reform them, this making all of us unsafe. It is not wide spread, but it is currently being adopted by our government, and as people are seeing that it works, this is growing. Compared to corporal punishment in schools however, restorative justice programs in the criminal justice system are in their infancy and we still adopt a punitive model for the most part.

The moral here is that there is a real alternative to causing harm, but it is not applying "turning the other cheek,"  and instead employs principles of restorative justice.

With war, the application would be in helping nations to engage in conflict negotiation and resolution. Again, this involves a shift in perspective from "us/them" thinking to "us" thinking: What are our respective needs, and how can we work to meet them? This is also currently employed. Of course war -- and in particular war conducted by the USA's, which gets into issues of big money -- is beyond the scope of this post (the cover article of this months Sojourners addresses this, and is worth a read). But we can see that there are ways to address international conflict between nations nonviolently, and that this does not involve nonviolent resistance. Here I would refer readers interested in digging deeper in to this to the work of Glen Stassen and his Just Peacemaking criteria. Stassen proposes 10 strategies for addressing international conflict peacefully, which I have written about here.

Conclusion: Defining Nonviolence

Now I realize that there is much more that could be said here. This really only scratches the surface. For example, I have not addressed the question of what to do when an individual or a country is attacked. I'll need to leave that for a future post. For now I want to do two things: 

First I want to again stress that pacifism must be practical.  
We need to provide real working alternative to violence and harm. The world is willing to listen if we can provide them will real answers that address how to effectively deal with situations nonviolently. In fact it already does this in many areas of society. So when pacifists act as if government is simply "evil" this is simply unfair since we can see that in many places people working in the public sphere are already using nonviolent means -- including educators, health care workers, law enforcemvent. More importantly perhaps is the fact that thinking of government as evil creates an "us/them" divide which is the very thing we should be working not to do.

Second, I want to define nonviolence. 
 If you pick up a book on nonviolence, 9 times out of 10, its focus will be on nonviolent resistance, as practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. As explained above, nonviolent resistance can be very effective when applied in the appropriate context, and it can equally be ineffective and morally irresponsible in others. So we need to understand how it works in order to understand how (and where) to effectively apply it. Likewise, we need to employ other nonviolent techniques where nonviolent resistance is inappropriate.

Because nonviolent resistance is a context specific technique among many,  it is therefore a mistake to think that nonviolence is synonymous with  nonviolent resistance. It simply is not. The larger principle of nonviolence is the desire to find ways to solve problems without causing harm. There are many ways to do this depending on the situation, however it is also vital to understand that nonviolence is not simply the refusal to harm, but also involves the alternative means to address the need. 

The big picture here of how nonviolence works is one of de-escaltion, of reversing hurtful dynamics. My kids like to say it's about "turning bad guys into good guys."  So nonviolence is a way to solve problems without causing harm which works by turning negative situations into positive ones. In short: it's about restorative justice, about fixing stuff that's broken, about acting to heal. It's not just the about not causing harm (that's a good start!), but actively doing good and working to repair harm. 

So returning to the two reasons that government/society does not accept nonviolence, stated at the beginning of this post: (1) we need to present viable alternatives, and (2) we need to realize that this does not only mean applying the techniques of Gandhi and King, but instead will involve many different means. 

This of course will involve a lot of work, but I'd propose that this is a good place to start. A big part of this is getting people to change the way they think. For the longest time we though that the only way to raise good kids was to hit them. Most of us don't think that anymore. But when it comes to crime we still do believe in punishment. Same with war. So there's a lot of work to do to help people to see things differently. We do that by showing better ways to solve problems and mend wrong. As messed up as our world is, it does seem to be getting betters slowly. All in all, we treat people more humanly than we did 100 or even 50 years ago. Nonviolent techniques are becoming more and more widespread and integrated into society. More and more people are seeing this. It's still in it's infancy, but baby steps are good when you're a baby.



At 9:35 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Great ideas on nonviolence! Have you ever read the book "Bold Love" by Dan Allender? If you haven't, it's worth a read. It presents compelling points about the concept of love not just being a passive, pushover kind of compassion, but a bold one that actively seeks true and deep restoration. But be warned - it's a love it and at the same time hate it kind of book!

I would love to see this concept of active nonviolent restoration developed into a greater repertoire of concrete/practical approaches that can cross the boundaries of culture... especially in cases of refractory conflict.

For example - how do we love persistently hurtful and abusive loved ones, without writing them off or telling them off, and work towards restoration without completely exhausting or hurting ourselves?

At 1:19 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Samurai, that's a great question, full of complexity and challenge. Rather than addressing it here and not doing it justice, I think that would be a great topic to take up in a future blog post. Thanks.


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