Every relationship of domination, of exploitation, of oppression is by definition violent, whether or not the violence is expressed by drastic means. In such a relationship, dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things- the former dehumanized by an excess of power, the latter by a lack of it. And things cannot love.
— Paulo Freire (2000)
By Edward SantoPrieto
Do you know the sound the human body makes upon impact after being flung from a five-story tenement building?
Do you know the ringing absence of sound and the smell of cordite when the enraged husband of the woman whose body he flung off that roof, empties his revolver into her lifeless body?
Do you know personally what it feels like to get punched in the face, or to be jumped by a group out to hurt you and to have your face cut in the process?
Do you know what it’s like to have fight almost every day of your life?
Have you ever felt skin and bone crush under your fists as, adrenaline coursing through your bloodstream, you repeatedly punch someone you fear and hate as he lays helplessly underneath you?
Do you know what it feels like to have someone to point a gun at you and pull the trigger; to hear the bullets zing by you as you run for your life?
Do you know what it’s like to lose a friend to bullet, or to have to push another friend in his wheelchair after he was crippled by a bullet?
Do you know what it feels like to actually stab someone? To take a sharp object and thrust it into another human being, perhaps hitting a bone in the process, and still press forward because you felt that it was either that person’s life or yours?
Have you ever plotted and waited, intending to cause harm to another human being because you were afraid for your own life?
Do you know violence? Have you been intimate with violence? Have you ever committed violent acts? Real violence, not violence as something abstract or theoretical, but as an everyday reality?
And I knew and experienced most of these things before I reached adolescence. I grew up in some of the most violent places in this country — fuck, in the world. In fact, the infant mortality rates of some of the places I was raised still rival third world rates.
I don’t mention this because I think it’s something to brag about or because it somehow privileges me in any way (except to experience some really fucked up shit no one should ever have to experience). I mention this because I want to properly contextualize my advocacy for nonviolence as a radical, revolutionary form of social change. I want to impress upon you that I didn’t come to my own nonviolent stance as a result from a rose-colored or sheltered existence. I know violence in ways very few people know it, having lived it and experienced it first hand in ways most of you only read about in novels or see glorified on TV and movie screens.
I remember the first time I met someone who told me he had never, ever, had a physical altercation. My immediate response was disbelief. I could not conceive how any individual could reach adulthood without ever having gotten into a fight. Impossible! I thought to myself. But that day, during a lull in a research study on the effects of violence on childhood development, no one on the research team, mostly young adults from middle and upper middle class backgrounds, had ever been in a real fight. And they were genuinely horrified at the personal recollections I was sharing. They could not believe I had been subjected to (and subjected others) to the horrific acts of violence I was sharing as casually as if I were eating an ice cream.
Sure, some admitted to having had some intense shouting matches, and some pushing here and there, but not one of my colleagues ever actually committed an act of violence — at least not to the degree I knew violence. And this had been something of an epiphany for me, realizing that perhaps, my experience wasn’t “normal” in the sense that most people didn’t grow up in an overwhelmingly violent environment.
I have been a practicing Buddhist (in the Theravadan tradition) for a little over two decades now. I first became a practicing Buddhist — meaning, among other things, I had committed to five precepts, one being abstaining from harming others — while I was incarcerated in a maximum-security prison. I wrote about that experience previously at Subversify. The main point of that article was really about the challenges of practicing non-violence in a very violent environment (probably one of the most, if not most violent, dehumanizing experiences in my life). My question at the time was that if Buddhism were to have any relevance in my life, then it should work under any circumstances. What follows is what I think is a clarification about what nonviolence means — a too short introduction to nonviolent struggle and to some of its modern-day applications, as a way to dispel some of the bullshit and as a clarification.
In my most recent post on my eyewitness account to the savagery of the events of 9/11, someone responded in the comments section that nonviolence was a “conditioned” evil or some such nonsense. I equate that with other Orwellian-like Newspeak such as “greed is good,” or the new term for torture, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” It’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard in some time. Yeah, thoughtful, peaceful attempts at conflict resolution are evil. Right. ::winning::
First, I’ll state it right up front and say that violence is the way of the coward. It’s the easiest, mindless thing in the world to enact violence. It’s easy to pull a trigger or punch someone you disagree with or (most likely) fear. I have a rule: if you advocate for violence as a means for social change, then you will have to tell me how it is you come to defend killing mostly innocent women and children because the vast numbers of the casualties of war are women and children. If you’re advocating for mass violence (war), then you have to begin your defense of that advocacy in this way, “I advocate the senseless murder and brutal rape of mostly women and children because… ” Why? Because that’s the reality of war1. That is the reality of violence. Violence unleashes a bloodlust that reduces us to the level of the reptilian end of our DNA. War is rape is unbridled capitalism is mindless consumption. The fact I’m often confronted with is that most people who advocate violence really have no true intimate knowledge of it. And those who do know it first hand and still advocate it are usually disaffected youth (or emotionally stunted adults), chickenhawks,2 or worse, sadistic sociopaths. Most have never ever really experienced violence and almost never ever engage in its brutality.
I first became familiar with the notion of nonviolence from the perspective of Eastern philosophy. It was the mid-60s when I was about twelve-years-old; I was in a fight with someone who fought in a way I never experienced. He was using his hands, elbows, and feet in a way that was completely alien to me (my uncle, against my mother’s protestations, taught me Western boxing). In short, he was kicking my ass. The fight was stopped by a tall, bald black man. Sensei Blair, as we came to know him, would take kids off the street and teach them Gōjū-ryū Karate for free. He owned a storefront and it was there I would learn nonviolence, among many other things. Sensei Blair demanded an oath to never use the martial arts to harm, and never out of anger. If he caught you fighting, you were barred from the dojo (school). Paradoxically, the more adept I became in the art, the less I fought, and the more I walked away from taunts and fights. It was at the dojo where I first learned meditation and my first introduction to Daoism and I devoured the books on Eastern philosophy Sensei Blair kept. Sensei Blair was also something of a role model/ father figure for many troubled youth. In a very real way, Sensei Blair was teaching nonviolence in a very effective way — offering kids an alternative to gangs, general criminal activity, and drug dealing otherwise so easily accessible.
Nonviolent action is a means of social struggle that arises from the more evolved stage of human development. It has been developed in a conscious way only in the last several decades. It does not, contrary to common misunderstanding, rely on the goodwill of the opponent but instead is designed to work in the face of determined opposition and violent repression. It is not limited to any race, nationality, social class, or gender, and has been used successfully in a wide range of political circumstances.
Nonviolent action is not simply any method of action that is not violent. Generally speaking, it means taking action that goes beyond (transcends) normal institutionalized political methods such as voting, lobbying, letter writing, verbal expression, etc., without injuring opponents. Interestingly enough, nonviolent action is like war in that it is a means of waging conflict (some would say “waging peace”). It requires a willingness to take risks and bear suffering without violent retaliation. In its most essential form, nonviolence is a means by which people discover their social power.
No discussion of nonviolence is complete without a mention of Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) and his career, which marked a watershed moment in the development of nonviolent struggle. In leading the struggle for Indian independence, Gandhi was the first to intentionally combine a wide range of tactics according to a strategic plan in a campaign unequivocally nonviolent. He was also the first to conduct a series of campaigns toward long-term goals. Spiritually-centered, practical, and innovate in temperament, Gandhi was nonetheless an astute, indefatigable, and efficient organizer who combined a basic joy with a unwavering determination. He was not only a political strategist but a social visionary whose work, marked by a deep concern for the unconditional regard for all persons, illuminates several critical discourses in political theory, touching upon debates that overlap the thought of many Western thinkers.
Gandhi’s nonviolence had three main features: 1) self-improvement (the effort to raise one’s level of consciousness, or make oneself a better person), 2) “constructive program” (a concrete schema with which to replace the status quo aimed at), and 3) campaigns of resistance against the oppressive obstacles that block the way forward, such as the caste system and colonialism (Gandhi, 2001). Gandhi’s success in linking mass action with nonviolent discipline demonstrated the enormous social power this form of struggle tapped into. While it is true that his was an experimental, sometimes less rigorous approach, instilled with his charisma, making it difficult to disentangle these factors, his contribution was still overwhelmingly positive, with tangible, long-lasting results.
In my article regarding my attempts to live nonviolently in a prison setting, I mention only the dynamics between myself and another individual. What I never mentioned was how that incident actually grew into a small movement in itself and to the transformation of my immediate surroundings from one of almost animalistic brutality to one of individual and group transcendence. Shortly after avoiding a fight, my little corner of that prison began to resemble a workshop of sorts. A small group of us who had an interest in political consciousness-raising, began meeting informally, and from those meetings began a germ of an idea that eventually became a curriculum, which I conceived and wrote with the help of this “committee” and which I titled, How to Escape Your Inner Prison.
It was an attempt to lay out a psycho-spiritual road map for awakening. It exposed the fact that the prison system thrived when we fell into the violent mindset, and it highlighted how buying into separating ourselves (Black vs. White vs. Latino, for example), served to incarcerate our minds. Physically, we had very little choice about being in prison, but we were, my curriculum pointed out, giving outside forces permission to incarcerate our minds. “Breaking out,” it followed, meant to break out of the conditioned violent mindset of the prison culture.
We held informal meetings, somehow managed to get several copies of the curriculum circulated for feedback from other inmates who became interested and thus began our first leadership workshop. It changed our world, and it transformed us all profoundly. The changes were so palpable that some of the guards took the workbook home! I’m not going to say everything became Oprah Winfrey-like — we were still in prison — but our lives were changed drastically. More than twenty years later I still keep in touch with some of these individuals, quite a few of whom are spreading their nonviolence in innovate ways. And my curriculum became the template for other curriculums, other workshops.
Eventually, I would be put in solitary confinement for attempting to organize a prison breakout (the title for the workbook was ill-advised, it seems).I believe the trumped up charge was raised because some saw the effects and were fearful.
It is through nonviolent direct action campaigns in the tradition of Gandhi that most people in the United States have become aware of nonviolence and nonviolent methods. The fact is, however, the United States has its own native tradition of nonviolence (Lynd & Lynd, 1995). Before Martin Luther King, Jr., there was A. J. Muste (Muste & Hentoff, 1970) who as early as 1928 laid out his position in his article titled, “Pacificism and Class War.” He was an important leader of the lost history of labor struggles and also chided other pacifists critical of violent action to recognize that, “… they violence on which the present system is based.” He turned his back on nonviolence for a while, but through his experience became convinced of its inadequacy and sought a politics that would be revolutionary and nonviolent.
After advocating for violence earlier in her career, Emma Goldman eventually came to the conclusion that, “… violence in whatever form never has and probably never will bring constructive results… [the] methods and means cannot be separated from the ultimate aim. The means employed become, through individual habit and social practice, part and parcel of the final purpose.”
But it was the movement of African American people for civil rights and an end to racial oppression that is most connected to the idea of nonviolence on the American psyche.
King’s important role as a spokesperson and moral symbol of the struggle, however, has often led to an under emphasis of the grassroots, democratic nature of the movement. As anyone who has been involved in any form of action knows, there are so many nameless, faceless people that make direct action and a movement possible. There are, for example, the men and women who prepare the foods for meetings, the various committees that undertake the task of consciousness-raising, recruitment, the people who help reframe the way issues are conceptualized, and down to those who paint signs, knock on doors, solicit economic support.
The way we tend to look at history is through the patriarchal “Big Man” lens: history filtered only through the lives of famous men. But Martin Luther King and others, great though they were, would have never been able to accomplish anything on their own. A movement, especially an evolved, nonviolent social movement, takes place on many different levels, working the transformative dynamic in many different ways. At the heart of the heart of the civil rights movement was the collective decision by tens of thousands of ordinary, everyday people to risk their security and often their lives to the cause, and to grow toward a greater fulfillment of their own potential in the pursuit of human dignity, justice, and community.
The civil rights movement had an enormous and lasting impact. It affected the full range of the American experience: Blacks, whites, Latin@s, women, Asians, The LGBTQ community, among others. It created a shared moral and political ground from which they could move to challenge other injustices such as the Vietnam War, imperialism, poverty, ethnocentricity, and sexism. These achievements are often minimized if not dismissed by those who, radicalized by the enormity of the task, realize that it is more than merely correcting a flaw in an otherwise healthy system. Those entering the movement for social change sometimes take for granted the gains that were made by huge costs.
Still, the work continues and many of today’s nonviolent revolutionaries continue to emphasize the issues and tactics of earlier movements. The struggle to replace the violence of capitalism requires that we strive to change ourselves in ways that eliminate the role our own personal behavior plays in perpetuating sex, race, class, and other oppressions. Nonviolence is being the change you desire to see in the world, to paraphrase Gandhi’s famous admonition. It’s about rejecting the dominant capitalist discourse of the “good life” based on mindless consumption in favor of a fuller, richer life grounded in a higher awareness of self and our place in the world, a life of fun, and more social satisfaction — a way of life achievable only through revolutionary (indeed, evolutionary) change. It’s promoting a flatter organizational scheme and consensus decision-making. It’s seeking to help people empower themselves through education and training programs (such as the workshops I mentioned earlier). Political work in this context means efforts to spread an alternative analysis of society, a vision of a more just one, and a strategy for getting from here to there, and the implementation of nonviolent campaigns as a part of that strategy.
The conventional view of power is that it is a commodity of sorts to be hoarded. It is something some people have and others don’t. From this perspective power resides in soldiers, authority, ownership of wealth, institutions, and even correctional officers.
The nonviolent theory of power is essentially and radically different: rather than seeing power as something to be possessed (or taken, even by force), it argues that power is a dynamic of social relations. Power is relational. Power depends on sustained obedience. When people question laws and refuse to obey rulers, it erodes the power of those in positions of authority. One would think this is something obvious, yet it took the dramatic events of Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaigns to illustrate this new model of power. The fact is that in routine life the truth is often hidden.
From the perspective of conventional theory of power, what happened while I was in prison was defeat — we were all in prison, after all. We had no power. In reality the situation was a lot more complex. Instead of two social factors at work, the New York State of Corrections and our little band of prison activists, a whole range of forces was involved. Nonviolence is not magic; it is a way of mobilizing existing (and often untapped) power for maximum effectiveness. Beyond “action/ reaction” or the clash between the prisoners and the system there were prisoners who weren’t as committed to change, or who were on the fence. In addition, there were correctional officers who, eavesdropping on our workshops immediately saw the benefit of a pedagogy of freedom. They saw that they were as much part of the dehumanizing effect and were, in turn, being dehumanized as well. The stress, the dependence on alcohol, the family dysfunctions, they saw that the system was having an adverse effect on their lives as well and became, to varying degrees, sympathetic to our cause. In the end, this is what saved me, as officers testified on my behalf when I was falsely charged with planning a prison breakout.
In other words, the actions of the main social actors have the potential to affect all the stakeholders in any given situation. This is the power of nonviolence. Three main ways in how nonviolence attains its goals are: conversion, accommodation, and nonviolent coercion. Conversion might be viewed as the gold standard. It means that the opposite extreme of the spectrum has had a change of heart. Examples are the correctional officers who participated in the leadership workshop we created. Another example would be Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon papers after being converted to opposition to the Vietnam War.
At the other extreme is nonviolent coercion, where activists have it within their power to frustrate the opponent’s will. In my prison experience, nonviolent coercion was exemplified by inmates refusing to participate in the dehumanizing process; refusing to buy into the dominant narrative that we were worthless, animals. Other examples are work stoppages by unions, jury nullification by jurors who refuse to abides unfair laws, and GIs in Vietnam who refused to risk their lives in an unpopular war.
Accommodation means that the opponents give in, partly or completely, not because they have changed their minds, and not because they have no other option, but because the costs override the benefits.
In the end, I am an adherent of nonviolence mostly because my lived experiences have taught me it is the noblest, most evolved path. It’s ironic that for years I practiced a martial art, Wing Chun that, tradition holds, was passed down by a Buddhist nun. It’s considered one of the most vicious systems stressing never meeting force with force. And the more I learned the art, the less reactive I became, realizing that the knowledge of how to blind or maim another human being came attached with a profound responsibility toward non-harming.
Some of you might ask something along the lines of “What about Hitler? Wouldn’t taking out Hitler have averted the senseless murder and genocide that followed in his wake?” And my response would be that this is true only if you’re stuck in the paradigm of violence. Hitler didn’t create all that suffering by himself. His was a political movement that was made possible through an earlier war; a zero sum “solution” that left the German people starving, literally burning wheelbarrows of German marks for fuel, their currency had become so worthless. And that set the stage for fear, hate, anger, fueling the hunger for a scapegoat to blame. Them. The Jews, the homosexuals — anyone that could become the face of evil. So my answer is that Hitler was a creature of violence, and the same mindset that creates the problem cannot be used to find a solution. I can tell you this much: fuck the academic posturing, experientially, in order for you to get to the point that you rationalize enacting violence on another human being, you first have to dehumanize that person. And most of you just don’t know what that entails…
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th Anniversary ed.): Continuum.
Gandhi, M. K. (2001). Non-violent resistance. New York: Dover.
Lynd, S., & Lynd, A. (1995). Nonviolence in America: A documentary history. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Muste, A. J., & Hentoff, N. (1970). The essays of A. J. Muste. New York: Simon & Schuster.
1. 90 per cent of war casualties are civilians, almost 80 per cent of whom are women and children (see here, here, and here). In addition, a unique harm of war for women and children is the trauma inflicted when men wield their penises as weapons to demean, assault, and torture. Military brothels, rape camps, and the growing sex trafficking for prostitution are fueled by the culture of war which relies on and authorizes aggression, and by the social and economic ruin left in the wake of war which is particularly devastating for women and children. Rape and sexual exploitation in war, however, were not systematically documented and named as war atrocities until very recently. Yet, history reveals that senior officers of war and military occupation have always sanctioned and normalized the sexual exploitation of local women by military men. Governments on all sides of war have initiated, accommodated, and tolerated military brothels under the auspices of “rest and recreation” for their soldiers, rationalizing that brothels contain male sexual aggression, limit STDs, and boost morale.
2. Chickenhawk: political epithet used in the United States to criticize a politician, bureaucrat, or commentator who strongly supports a war or other military action, yet who actively avoided military service when of age. Click here to view a virtual who’s who of chickenhawks to get an idea of the mindset of those who advocate for violence and war.