Posts Tagged ‘pacifism’

Why I’m a Pacifist

In PeaceAble on August 26, 2017 at 3:55 pm

Nobody WANTS war! Nobody LIKES war!
Well, except for SOME people. And are you so certain you’re not one of them?
When I was in my twenties, I had a habit of congratulating myself on how I dealt with the violence of my temper. I was slow to reach the point of losing my temper, and I had a strict rule against striking out at people. There were times when I would have had enough frustration, fear, grief or other forms of anger so that I would punch a hole in a wall, kick something, break something; but I told myself that these were inanimate objects, just material things, at least I wasn’t hurting anyone.
What I did not know at the time was that you don’t have to hit someone to hurt them with your violence. I didn’t understand that the potential or threat of violence is already violence. To be in the presence of violence is to be hurt by it.
I have spent a considerable part of the past forty to forty-five years learning about my anger and trying to become more sensitive to the impact it has and has had on those I love, and on my friends and acquaintances. And as part of a culture in which violent solutions to problems is often encouraged and even celebrated, a culture whose language has far more ways to create metaphors of war and violence than of peace and non-violence, I have become aware of the part, however small, my own violence has contributed to that culture.
I feel as though America is at a point where we can collectively, culturally, choose to continue down the road of violence as a solution, or we can begin to mature toward a more peaceable way of life. The path of peace is not an easy one, or without danger, but I don’t know how the human race survives if we do not take it.
Even during my most violent periods, I considered myself a pacifist. Even now I can appreciate that there have been times when violence and war have become unavoidable, even necessary. But that inevitability, that necessity is always a failure. War and violence are always a failure to find other solutions to our differences and our conflicts. No matter how noble or moral we believe our goals to be, war itself is neither noble nor moral.
Whenever I have tried to talk about my pacifism, about the need to resist the temptation to answer violence with violence, someone will ask something like, “Do you really think we could have stopped Hitler by being nice to him?”
No. But pacifism isn’t about being nice, it’s about finding ways to solve problems before they escalate to the point of war. The problem is in knowing when to start. How can we learn to recognize the danger before violence or war becomes the answer?
Pick a starting point, any starting point.
I remember, studying history, how easily the books divided things up. There were eras, and periods, and decades. There were significant events, and seminal moments, and turning points. And there would be a brief discussion of causes that usually served as a transition between one significant something and the next, but the focus was on whatever the next chapter title was about, whatever point the timeline had reached. We were expected to understand the great sweep of history as we might follow the plot in War and Peace.
We would examine the years between wars and look for connections, discuss causation, but always stayed in the line of the narrative.
Life isn’t like that, though. It doesn’t really follow any linear plot, no matter how many subplots or expository passages we might insert. The progress of life is messy; and without a sense — genuine understanding is not possible without a much deeper analysis of the scope of western civilization than most people who are not dedicated historians can manage – without at least a common sense that the second Iraq war, and the current problems in Yemen and Syria and Afghanistan and North Korea and the Sudan, to name just a few, are connected to things like the invasion of the Goths and Visigoths into ancient Europe, to the Crusades, to Columbus’ decision to sail out in search of an ocean route to India, to the decimation of the First Nations of the Continent, and so on to the violence in Charlottesville, how do we begin to understand the place to which violence and war have brought us?
And how do we change that trajectory?
Perhaps we can start with the personal. It is a commonly understood concept in human behavior that things often don’t become clear or important to us until we can make them personal, connect them to things that are integral to ourselves.
That’s why I began by talking about my own violence. I can look now at the great sweep of my life (and I am only just about 70) and I can see how it is manifested today in my relationships with my children, my extended family, my friendships and my communities. I don’t always like what I see. Each violent act, each hole in a wall, was part of that.
In the same way, each time we answer our anger, our grief, our frustration, our need not to be hurt any longer with violence in any of its multitudinous forms, we help create the next necessity of violence. Each time we fail to denounce violence even when it seems to accomplish ends we yearn for; each time we use the language of war and violence to describe our reality; each time we allow ourselves to believe that there is no other way, that the “enemy” cannot be defeated, the problem cannot be solved, the conflict cannot be managed without violence; we set up the conditions of grief and anger and hatred that are the building blocks of the next violence, the next war.
There are those that say we have already reached a point of the necessity of endless war. The President still proposes that we can bomb and kill our way to the end of terrorism. We can’t. Neither can we solve the problems of ignorance and crime and poverty and all their associate evils by going to war against them.
I still get angry. I still have fantasies of violence and the defeat of the other. But I have, I hope for the rest of my life, learned to stop and step back from the brink, to eschew violence for acceptance, tolerance, empathy, and at least the outward trappings of peaceableness. It’s a journey, not a place.
Non-violence works, but we have to start sometime, somewhere. Let’s not wait until it is, once again, too late.

Normalization and the Norm

In PeaceAble, Politics on December 14, 2016 at 10:28 am

There seems to be some confusion out there about what we mean when we use the word “normalize,” and how that is related to the word “normal.” Allow me to clarify.

When we talk about normalizing a particular behavior or idea, we are not saying that the person exhibiting that behavior or expressing that idea is not “normal” in the common sense of that word. We aren’t, for example, saying that the person is deranged, or intellectually deficient, or pathological. Some might actually think those things, but that is a different discussion and I would appreciate it if you did not engage in that here.

We are, rather, using the word “normal” as the adjective form of the word “norm.” A norm is a behavior or idea that our culture or society tells us, in both subtle and more obvious ways, we should expect from each other. We are trained from early on to regard these things as “the way it is.” Now norms are not necessarily the most common or most acceptable or most likely behaviors or ideas, which is what the word normal usually suggests. For instance, American culture has, for its entire history, been dominated by the behaviors and ideas of straight (at least openly), male, Puritan/Christian (at least publicly), powerful warrior men. In other words, the straight, white, Puritan/Christian, powerful male warrior is the norm. And we are socialized to view the world from that perspective.

Now, there are, in fact, more women than men in the population; there are far more people among us more who have no more than modest power, and we are quickly discovering that LGBTQ+ people are much more numerous than we have been told and the non-white population may soon outnumber the white population. And any one time, the number of people who are veterans or serving in the armed forces is less than 15% of the population.  But that only states the demographics, not the norm. The norm remains primarily straight, white, Puritan/Christian, warrior men of power (especially economic). And that means, that despite our attempts to change things, the perspectives arising from that norm continue to pervade the society.

Distrust, bigotry, discrimination and disenfranchisement of people who do not represent that norm is “normal.” Misogyny, racism, homophobia, and the Christianization of society are “normal.” The dis-education and miseducation of those not part of the norm is “normal.” Using the very genuine fears of the working class, minorities, and women to divide the masses of people and thus more easily rule over them is “normal.” The idea that success is to be defined in terms of wealth is “normal.” The idea that everyone has the same opportunities to achieve that mythological thing we call the “American Dream” is “normal.” The idea that problems can be best resolved through force is “normal.”

Now we have tried over the years to change some of those things, but progress is always slow and still fragile, as the recent election demonstrates. The things we do to create greater equality for all, to promote justice and protect the rights of those who have less power to protect them for themselves,  and to seek more peaceable solutions to our problems, are called “normalization,” or “normative behaviors.” That is, they are things we do to create new norms that better reflect our diversity, our stated American ideals, our rights, privileges and responsibilities as members of society. But our social behaviors, our laws, our public images of ourselves in the media and our demographics all change more quickly than our norms do.

So electing a non-white President did not change the norm of whiteness as the perspective through which we see things. The Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, Roe-v-Wade, and the striking down of laws that would require the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in public school science classes, for a few examples, did not usher in a new secular norm. Women still have less access to power, non-whites and non-Christians are still marginalized, and it is still “normal” to proclaim one’s patriotism while waving the flag of a nation that went to war against the United States, and lost. We still think that the more firepower we have, the safer we are.

When we try to normalize something, we are trying to create it as a norm. We are saying that this behavior or this idea is to be expected, that it defines us as a society and a culture, that this is now the perspective from which we will evaluate and express our public and official actions.

So, what we are really seeing around us now is not the normalization of bigotry, of white supremacy, of male dominance and privilege in the affairs of the nation; we are seeing an attempt by that “normal” perspective to roll back the normalization of those things that threaten it. It is not the normalization of racism that threatens us, it is the de-normalization of diversity. It is not the normalization of misogyny, it is the de-normalization of the idea that the feminine is in all ways the equal of the masculine. It is not the normalization of xenophobia or homophobia or religious prejudice, it is the de-normalization of acceptance, tolerance, and cooperation. It is an attempt to say that who we are becomig is not who we are; an attempt to say that who we are is embodied in the worst of who we have been all along.

War as Solution and as Metaphor

In PeaceAble on November 25, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Let’s face an uncomfortable truth about ourselves: war is the default, go-to solution for our problems. From the War on Poverty to the War on Terrorism, we turn to war as both metaphor and action as we seek to address our issues. And both ends and the middle of the political spectrum are all complicit in this. The right has the War on Christmas; the left has the War on Women. And war as a metaphor is a powerful way of addressing problems. It heightens awareness and commitment; it brings people together in common cause; it employs powerful language that stirs powerful emotions; when we go to war things get done. But what gets done in war may not be what we really want to get done. There are times when rational people might argue reasonably that war is the best possible solution to some critical problem, but there are important reasons why we ought to stop turning everything into a war.
War requires us to de-humanize the other, and in the process dehumanize ourselves. In order to go to war, we need an enemy; or more to the point, we need “THE enemy.” And the enemy needs to be as simply and graphically defined as possible. Any weakness in our definition of the enemy makes it that much harder to fight them. But the world is never that simple. Human beings are complex creatures, neither all good nor all bad as a rule; but in order to go to war we need to create stark contrasts between ourselves and the “other.” This does neither of us any good. It’s easy to see how this happens in extreme situations. The atrocities being committed by the forces of ISIS, or ISIL, in Iraq and Syria make it easy to condemn the whole force as purely evil. We don’t want to hear about our own complicity in the creation of the Islamic State; we don’t want to really know what motivates them to act so abominably; because to understand them in human terms makes it harder to say “kill them all.” And since they call themselves Islamic, it is easy to extend that to all Islam and all Muslims and all those who might look Muslim and to all those who come from places with beliefs and customs and ways of being that are different from our own. Tragic and horrific events have this effect, and while that does not justify the dehumanization, it at least makes it understandable.
But even in instances of great trauma, dehumanizing the other has the effect of dehumanizing ourselves as well, in at least two ways. First, dehumanizing the other gives me the cover I need to dig into the darkest parts of myself, to howl and snarl and hunt and kill, and employ instincts necessary to the task. I begin to throw rhetorical magnets in the way of my moral compass so that it will point me the way I already want to go. Even when the task itself, such as stopping a great evil, seems necessary, even noble, the dehumanization goes both ways. And that leads to the second self-dehumanization. When we define the enemy, we define ourselves as their enemy, and we invite them to do to us what we are doing to them. It is not possible to say to ourselves, “because the enemy has done these terrible things, then we must do these same or similar or even worse terrible things to them,’ without becoming, in at least some small way, like them. If we see them as less than human because they see us as less than human, how have we improved things, and what are we becoming? Are we not all becoming dehumanized along the way?
Now see what happens when everything becomes a war. Declare that there is a “War on Christmas” and who is your enemy? Suddenly everyone who chooses to wish people a happy holiday becomes the enemy and is dehumanized. And they in turn lump all those who feel even the least bit of a loss of some specialness, some sense of tradition and continuity, who miss what was, into one monolithic hate group and thus dehumanize them as well. Declare that there is a “War on Women” and it is easy to see men as the enemy, or at least for men to believe that that is your intent, and this lumping together of men as the enemy is dehumanizing; so you get the rise of #notallmen, which seeks to turn those with a genuine concern for the really serious issues of violence and inequity and dehumanization women face every day in a male-normative culture into further dehumanized “man-haters.” And there’s no excuse to be found in trying to decide who started it. The question is who’s going to stop it?
Also, war is a violent metaphor that encourages violent behavior. This should, of course, be obvious. Real war is violence. But even using war as a metaphor implies violent behavior, which in turn justifies violent responses. The violence begins rhetorically. Our language escalates first, and the escalation of language leads to escalation of action. And the drumbeat of war drowns out the discussion of alternative solutions, especially those that require compromise and cooperation. Albert Einstein once wrote that “One cannot simultaneously prepare for war and plan for peace.” The military routinely sends “surplus” equipment, the tools of war, to police departments. When police departments begin to treat the business of keeping the peace as a military operation, then they become encouraged to treat the citizenry as the enemy, to dehumanize them, and to act violently in dealing with them. Historically, this has disproportionately affected minorities and the poor, the disenfranchised, because these groups are already dehumanized by our cultural language. If you own a tank, you feel the need to use that tank; and whom will you use it against unless there is an enemy; and who is the enemy? And if you have a tank and are prepared to use it, then drawing a gun and firing it seems almost insignificant by comparison. And if you are a citizen facing that kind of militarized firepower, is it unreasonable to think that you might have to arm yourself, too?
War prepares us to accept things like “collateral damage,” “acceptable losses,” and “the ultimate sacrifice” without measuring the real cost of those things. Every death in war, every person who suffers injuries of any kind is dehumanized by our investment in war as our primary response to conflict. Soldiers who die are turned into heroes for the rest of us, becoming symbols rather than flesh and blood beings. They are held up as support for the heroism and nobility of war. We honor those whose children die fighting wars, “Gold Star Mothers” for example, as though their grief should be tempered by that heroism and nobility; as though we might choose to have a son or daughter die in war. The children of the other, the enemy, however, are not celebrated as heroes. We find ways to mock the enemy dead, even to blame them for their own deaths. Non-combatants who die are simply numbers. In the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, more than 3000 people died. They were overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, Americans. This event was used, is still used, to convince the American people that we are at war. That war led us into Afghanistan and Iraq, and those two wars have caused the deaths, injuries and destruction of lives for tens of thousands of Americans, mostly but not entirely military; and the deaths, injuries and destruction of the lives of more than half a million non-Americans, mostly civilian. When we count the cost of war we often forget the cost of rebuilding communities, nations, and individual lives. And we don’t want to know. We elect to Congress people who want to spend more money on weapons and war, but less on treating the injuries, both physical and psychological, of veterans.
This dehumanization of all involved in war also celebrates and honors warriors, and disparages peacemakers; thus celebrating and honoring war while disparaging peace and those who work for it without war. We have dozens of national, state and local holidays and observances that honor the military, from Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day to days honoring Robert E. Lee or Confederate veterans, to VE Day, D-Day, and Soldiers’ Day. The only national holiday honoring someone who worked for peaceful solutions is Martin Luther King Day, which is still a controversial holiday. In a few places, a day is set aside to honor people like Rosa Parks, also. This is, by the way, not accidental. We begin calling people heroes as soon as they put on a uniform, pledge our nearly unconditional support for them and whatever they do, and give them benefits unavailable to others. We do this because we need to convince them and ourselves that what we are asking them to do, to risk, is always a good thing. When something turns out badly we either don’t talk about it or treat it as an aberration, something that “happens in wars,” but not actually caused by war itself; as in My Lai or Abu Ghraib. Or we blame it on the dehumanized other, the “enemy,” as when students are killed at Kent State or civilians die in raids against the Taliban or Al Qaeda; or when an unarmed person is killed by a policeman. War itself makes these excuses and evasions necessary, because if war were not a good thing, a thing for heroes and people of noble character, then all our soldiers would be simply mercenaries, willing to kill or be killed if the pay is good and the benefits substantial. We need people who are genuinely interested in doing the right thing, in helping; we need people who will commit to the cause and the solution for honest, good reasons. The other side of that is that we consider diplomats and peacemakers as weak, or duplicitous, because we don’t see them at work, because the results of their efforts are less immediate, less dangerous, and less visible than the work of war.
War never leads to peace, nor to lasting solutions. War encourages us to deal with problems in terms of bi-polar, simplistic, winner and loser results that do not address the real issues. If diplomacy takes more than a few months we are quick to call it a waste of time; but a war that drags on for years becomes its own justification. We can’t stop now, before the enemy is defeated completely, before we can declare victory. Compromise is, of course, impossible in war; we either win or lose. If we begin to call it a “War on Christmas” because people want to say “Happy Holidays” or include the recognition of other celebrations during the season, then we won’t be satisfied with anything less than complete surrender. A “War on Coal” precludes a serious attempt to transform our fossil fuel industries, to address climate change. And the constant refrain of war leads us to fight undeclared wars whenever a new problem arises. We get enraged that stores might stay open on Thanksgiving, but offer no long term, reasonable solutions to the needs of those who don’t get paid if they don’t get to work, the more substantial issues of the simultaneous mythologizing and commercialization of our holidays, the wastefulness and inequity evident in our feel-good drives to make sure that people who starve all year round have an enormous Thanksgiving dinner rather than solving the problems of food insecurity. The truth is that reason is the enemy of war. War is always a desperate solution, not a reasonable one.
The culture of war reinforces and recreates itself through our children. We have created a culture of constant war, of crisis. We see enemies everywhere, even among ourselves. Whatever our position on an issue it is the only correct one, the only patriotic or Christian or liberal or conservative one. Our enemies aren’t “real” Americans or Christians or patriots; but they simultaneously represent all that is evil about the groups they belong to. They are Muslims or socialists or fascists or atheists, and they are all thugs or terrorists or criminals. They are gun nuts or ammosexuals or libtards or repugs or feminazis. We are given stark warnings of the disasters that will befall us if “they” aren’t stopped. And this constant cultural reference to “the War on” virtually everything becomes part of the early vocabulary of our children, whom we require to declare their loyalty and allegiance daily and to learn the virtues of neither questioning nor resisting authority, to follow orders. We teach them to beware the others whoever they are, to distrust science, to treat the myths of history as sacred fact and the facts of history as distractions from the unquestioning loyalty that is necessary for the inevitable war. Our culture tells us that we and our enemies are biologically and psychologically predisposed to war, so war is the only possible choice. If we try to teach our children about peaceableness, about learning to live in peace, through acceptance and compromise and reason, we are defeated at every turn by the overwhelming cultural onslaught of the language of war. And the saddest thing is that we are well aware that children left on their own will trust the other, embrace the other, and accept the other as simply human and worthy of their unconditional love. And while it is true that there is risk in that, that there are dangers in the world, the dangers are never as common or abundant as the good. When every risk is a crisis, when every response to controversy is a war, when even the pacifist finds himself using the language of war to describe the struggle, then it is way past time to step back, take a deep breath, and develop a more discerning perspective, a more nuanced and balanced approach.
We cannot change the culture until we change the dominant language, the common and normative images and references at tell us who we are and what we are like. It is time for us to put aside the language and imagery of war as normal and find new, more peaceable ways to talk to ourselves and about ourselves. One good start would be to refuse to cooperate when someone declares a war on something. Let’s, instead, take the time to say what the issues or problems really are. This is especially important for those of us who claim to be progressive and pacifist. We cannot claim to abhor and oppose war if we use the language of war. It won’t be easy, but it is honest; and it is necessary.

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