The Wisdom of Nonviolence

Fresno Bee, October 3, 2021

Violence is increasing. Domestic terrorism is rising, including threats against members of Congress. The FBI just published its annual report on crime. The bad news is that violent crime is on the rise.

So let’s reflect on the dumbness of violence. Violence produces bad outcomes. It is also dumb in a metaphorical sense. Violence does not speak, it growls. Like a roaring lion, it does not argue. It merely threatens and attacks.

Violence can be spectacular. It attracts our attention. But violence does not really seek to persuade. Persuasion requires an argument. Violent acts are not arguments. That’s why violence does not create or convert.

The ugly truth about violence is well-known. Gandhi explained it. So did Martin Luther King, Jr. Both advocated nonviolence as the higher road.

Oct. 2 marks Gandhi’s birthday and is an International Day of Nonviolence. Gandhi said that even when violence appears to do good, that is merely temporary. Nonviolence creates lasting change because, as Gandhi explained, nonviolence is a “process of conversion.” Instead of destroying those you hate, nonviolence builds bridges and finds common ground.

Gandhi demonstrated that organized nonviolence can be a powerful force for change. Martin Luther King Jr. put this method to work in the United States.

In his Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 1964, King explained the critique of violence this way: “In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all.”

This truth is reaffirmed as we reflect on the aftermath of the war on terrorism. After 20 years of war, we wonder whether the war was worth the cost. The war in Afghanistan teaches us that violence is a blunt instrument for transforming hearts and minds.

The “Costs of War” project at Brown University provides a recent summary. Totaling deaths from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, they estimate that almost 930,000 people were killed in the war on terrorism. This includes over 7,000 American military personnel. About 38 million people were displaced as war refugees. The war is estimated to have cost $8 trillion.

We did kill Osama bin Laden and other terrorist masterminds. But terrorists still lurk in the shadows. And the Taliban quickly returned to power. The war did not resolve the social, political, and cultural problems that give rise to terrorism and oppressive regimes such as the Taliban.

War is a destructive force that breeds reactive antagonism. It does not educate, democratize, or humanize. Political violence does not create just or lasting change. Rather, it destabilizes and provokes, causing polarization and pain.

This truth about war and violence is easily overlooked. There is a primal urge to employ violence. We are animals after all. Like the lion, we roar. When pushed, we attack.

The world’s moral traditions teach us to subdue the lion within. We are not merely animals, after all. We are human beings. We can learn to “turn the other cheek” and resist animal aggression. This is the message of Jesus and the Buddha, as well as Gandhi and King.

Our own culture often ignores this message. We celebrate violence. Pop culture is full of gangsters and cops, super-spies and superheroes. Our culture encourages us to falsely believe that might makes right and that in the end the good guys are justified in using violence.

But we are not superheroes. We are fragile and flawed beings. And unlike in a James Bond fantasy, real lives are destroyed when we uncage the lion.

The good news is that we are intelligent beings. We can learn from our mistakes. Violence involves a kind of smug self-certainty. It fails because it treats other human beings as animals and objects to be manipulated by physical force. But human beings are not persuaded by violence. We are motivated by pride and love, reason and morality.

Nonviolence is not always effective. But in the long run it is wiser to keep the lion in his cage. Nonviolence appeals to the better angels of our nature. It treats human beings with the care and respect we deserve.

Critical Race Theory and the Project of Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, June 13, 2021

Criticism can be divisive. But banning critique is a bad idea. Unanimity that results from censorship is not genuine. The productive solution is more enlightened critique.

I say this in response to efforts in several states to prohibit “critical race theory” (CRT) from being taught in schools. CRT claims that racism is deeply embedded in American institutions.

The reaction against CRT follows a script written by Donald Trump. Last fall he described CRT as a “crusade against American history.” He said it was “toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.”

But prohibiting a theory does not make it false. To disprove a theory, you need to critically examine it. Rather than censoring CRT, let’s encourage students to listen carefully to what critics have to say about racism. If the critics are wrong, let students prove them wrong. If they are right, then let’s empower young people to imagine productive solutions. Ideological indoctrination is wrong, whether it occurs in defense of CRT or against it.

The effort to ban CRT is symptomatic of a broader human avoidance of critical thought. We often prefer useful illusions about faith, family and country. When people challenge our illusions, we get defensive.

Religious people get defensive when scholars critically examine religious texts and beliefs. Something similar happens when feminists criticize gender, sex and the family. It happens when philosophers question cherished values.

Ideas and institutions are strengthened by confronting criticism head on. Criticism exposes flaws and weaknesses that can be improved. Without critique, bad ideas fester and institutions rot. If an idea or an institution is not strong enough to sustain critical scrutiny, that is not the fault of the critic.

The crucible of criticism causes values to evolve. We cannot predict where this will lead. But the hope is that as bad ideas are exposed, better ideas will develop, and institutions will be strengthened as a result.

Radical critique has a deep history. Socrates criticized Athens. Jesus critiqued Jerusalem. The American founders criticized British tyranny. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. critiqued the American dream.

The heroes of critique are often opposed by reactionary forces who aim to silence them without responding to their criticisms. Sometimes this involves violence, as in the cases of King, Socrates and Jesus. But silencing the critic does not stifle the criticism. If the critique contains truth, the next generation will carry it forward.

It is not easy to think critically about the status quo. Sometimes it seems easier to avoid thinking altogether. But as King said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” He also said we have a “moral responsibility to be intelligent.”

Ignoring the problem of race in America will not make it go away. Indeed, institutions that censor criticism end up looking weak and stupid as a result. It is childish to stop up your ears and close your eyes.

Adults ought to confront problems with honesty, sincerity, and creative intelligence. Let’s model that behavior for our children. American kids know that there are racial problems in America. Riots in the streets make it clear. Preventing them from thinking critically about these problems won’t solve them. Our kids need lots of critical tools so that they can imagine solutions to our problems. Silencing the critics is not a useful strategy.

Censors sometimes seem to think that the critical theorist is conjuring these problems into existence. But critical theory is not a conjuring act. Rather, it brings to light the skeletons in the closet. The critical theorist does not create these specters. They are already there.

Critical theory is about enlightenment. One of the most famous mottos of enlightenment is “sapere aude,” which means “dare to be wise.” Wisdom requires the courage to confront the world without illusions. The light of truth exposes things as they are, not as we want them to be.

You have to shine this light into the closet. Ignoring the skeletons hidden there, won’t make them disappear. You also have to look in the mirror. If you don’t like what you see there, turning off the light won’t help.

Saying No to Racism, Brutality, and the Politics of Total Domination

Fresno Bee, June 7, 2020

Evil is contagious and brutality loves company. When George Floyd was killed, one of the officers involved should have said, “Stop it.” But peer pressure and the bandwagon can cause ordinary people to participate in terrible things. It is often easier to look away than to say, “This is wrong.”

So kudos to former Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis and to Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both of whom spoke out against abuses of power emanating from the White House. Critics may say that this is coming a bit late in the game. But better late than never.

The Rubicon was crossed this past week when the president threatened to deploy the military in pursuit of what he chillingly called “total domination.” The police and National Guard then used tear gas and grenades to drive peaceful protesters away from a church so Trump could pose with a Bible.

The president did not read the Bible at the church, of course. Nor did he cite an equally important document, the U.S. Constitution.

Each of the five freedoms of the First Amendment was under assault this week. The threat of total domination and police brutality undermines our freedom to assemble, protest, and petition. Journalists were shot at and arrested, in violation of freedom of the press. And then the president took a battering ram to the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state.

Our country needs a crash course in civics. You don’t hold a democracy together by domination. Nor do you unite a secular nation by brandishing a Bible. Cops and soldiers especially should read the Constitution with care. We consent to be governed because we believe that the institutions of government — including the military and police — exist to defend our rights.

That’s why police brutality is so appalling. When the police kill people in their custody, the social contract unravels. That’s also why efforts to create law and order through domination are un-American and counterproductive. Domination does not create consent, it breeds discontent.

The good news is that there are conscientious cops, soldiers and civil servants. Americans of all races volunteer to serve the public and protect the Constitution. Many public servants spoke out against the George Floyd killing and against racial injustice. Some even took a knee with protesters. And now Gen. Mattis and Adm. Mullen are reminding us of the need to reaffirm our commitment to the Constitution.

But this is not easy. Mullen’s statement opened a difficult can of worms. He said of the military, “They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief.”

If a cop or solider were given an order to violate the rights of citizens, would he or she refuse? Conscientious disobedience is a deeply American idea. But it is a question that rightly provokes fear and trembling.

The nation began in disobedience to tyranny. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Howard, the Earl of Effingham, was a British officer who became a hero to early Americans after he resigned his commission rather than fight the colonists. Henry David Thoreau said that if the law causes you “to be an agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, we have “a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” And in 2003, President George W. Bush warned Iraqi soldiers that they would be prosecuted for war crimes and that it would be no defense to say, “I was just following orders.”

This lesson can also be learned from George Floyd’s killing. A uniform does not protect a person from moral condemnation or from legal prosecution. The cops involved were fired and arrested. It seems obvious in retrospect that one of them should have said, “Stop it. This is wrong.”

In the heat of the moment, peer pressure and the bandwagon often prevail. But once the heat has dissipated, the world will condemn those who condone cruelty. And history will eventually shine a more flattering light on those who have the moral courage to say to the creeping shadow of total domination, “Stop it, this is wrong.”

MLK and the Moral Need for Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, January 19, 2020

We have a moral obligation to educate and enlighten ourselves. Love and duty are blind without education. This is a theme we find in the life and writing of Martin Luther King Jr.

King was a Christian minister whose nonviolent work for racial justice was inspired by Jesus and Gandhi. But he was also a scholar. He studied sociology, philosophy and theology.

King’s model of thoughtful activism provides an antidote for a culture of quick tweets and silly memes. Our attention spans are short. We skate across the surface of things. King reminds us of the power of the slow and serious study of the humanities. Social change begins with change of heart and also with a change of mind.

So here’s a proposal for Martin Luther King Day: read something! King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a good place to start. King shows there how Socrates and Jesus inspired him to engage in civil disobedience.

If you want to know more about King’s philosophical influences, read his “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” where he explains his philosophy and theology of love. King says there, “All life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers.”

This idea did not pop into King’s mind unformed. He discovered it through an intellectual pilgrimage through the history of philosophy. King’s ideas, and his activism, grew out of a broad understanding of the world’s traditions.

King routinely warns against intellectual and spiritual blindness. In his book, “Strength to Love,” King said it is “not badness but blindness” that causes evil in the world. It was ignorance that led people to crucify Christ and to execute Socrates. The root of racism, hate, and violence is “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

King concludes that we have a “moral responsibility to be intelligent.” And he argues — with a nod to the existentialist philosophers he studied — that moral blindness is a result of a tragic misuse of freedom.

Racists and haters often make a conscious choice to be dumb. Every human being has the capacity to think critically, inquire into truth, and gain enlightenment. But people choose not to exercise this capacity because they are focused on defending their own selfish interests and narrow points of view.

Liberation from ignorance is difficult. It causes anxiety. It is difficult to question authority and stand up for justice. The solution for the anxiety of emancipation is a courageous commitment to truth. We need the courage to think for ourselves and, as King puts it, to “courageously do battle for truth.”

King suggests that the Christian faith provides the ultimate solution. He rejects the idea that human reason and science alone can eliminate hatred and injustice. He says, “Man by his own power can never cast evil from the world.” He says that humanistic hope is based upon an illusion about the inherent goodness of things.

King was, after all, a Christian pastor. In the background of his thinking is the problem of sin and the need for a savior. King tells us that he found the strength to persevere against threats and violence with the help of God.

This pushes us toward further reflection. Are we good enough to save ourselves? Or do we need divine assistance?

In order to answer those questions, we need to embrace the difficulty of thinking and the complexity of faith. A lot of people would like to ignore these sorts of questions. They would prefer to ignore the question of why racism persists, whether violence can be justified, and whether the arc of the universe really does bend in the direction of justice.

But lazy indifference is not helpful. Faith without thought is flimsy. And wisdom is not possible without fear and trembling.

King said, “Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

So how do we honor Dr. King? We honor him by working for social justice. But we also honor him by avoiding half-baked solutions and easy answers. In short, we honor him by taking up the task of thinking.

Enlightenment Values and Education

Ignorance is Not a Virtue

Fresno Bee, May 20, 2016

  • Ignorance, enlightenment are political issues
  • American universities are committed to enlightenment values
  • Democracies flourish when citizens are enlightened

Obama at Rutgers graduation- Ignorance is not a virtuePresident Barack Obama defended Enlightenment values recently in a commencement address at Rutgers University. Obama described the American founders as Enlightenment thinkers who opposed “superstition and sectarianism.” He concluded, “In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.”

This caused a minor flurry of commentary. Many took this to be an attack on Donald Trump, which it probably was. Trump tweeted that it was Obama who was ignorant. And so it goes in an era when even university commencements are politicized.

But universities are not politically neutral. They are bastions of enlightenment. They proclaim enlightenment values in their Latin mottos. The Rutgers motto says, “Sun of righteousness shine upon the West.” Fresno State’s motto says, “Receive the light and give it forth.” The University of California’s motto is “Let there be light.”

WE CURE OUR MORAL BLINDNESS THROUGH FREE INQUIRY AND RATIONAL ARGUMENT.

The enlightenment ideal is politically progressive. Defenders of the enlightenment believe that knowledge makes the world better. And they know that knowledge rests upon freedom of thought.

The great Enlightenment thinkers were liberals in the broad historical sense of the term. They advocated liberty, equality and justice – and in some cases, political revolution.

Enlightenment thinkers believed that tyranny and injustice could be overcome when the light of reason is allowed to shine. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant used a Latin phrase as the motto of enlightenment: sapere aude. This is a command: “dare to know!” Enlightenment rests upon a set of such imperatives. Speak truth to power. Be audacious in pursuit of wisdom. Follow the light, wherever it leads.

Some critics claim that this is a bunch of Eurocentric nonsense. They reject Enlightenment values as the oppressive ideology of colonizers and slaveholders. It is true that the heroes of the Enlightenment were white European men. They were wrong about a lot of things, including slavery.

We all have blind spots. But enlightenment provides a solution. Enlightenment requires self-criticism. We cure our moral blindness through free inquiry and rational argument.

Other critics reject reason as a solution to the human problem. Some believe that faith and feeling are more important than argument and inquiry. Others fear that liberal education is irreligious indoctrination. Some even think that science is an ideological temptation.

But blind faith is willful ignorance. Good ideas do not need protection from criticism. Rational critique strengthens good ideas and helps us avoid bad ones.

Martin Luther King once said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Immoral people often plead ignorance, when they are caught doing something wrong. Others turn a blind eye to injustice.

Voluntary ignorance is negligent and recklessly indifferent. Knowledge generates responsibility. Mature people accept the obligations that knowledge creates. Moral people also shine a light on their failures. They admit their mistakes and work to correct them.

Some people are proud of their prejudices. Others wear bigotry as a badge of honor. The ignoramus relishes his own stupidity.

Such bovine complacency is the opposite of enlightenment. Conformity and obedience are easy. But cud-chewing contentment is beneath the dignity of human being. And docile herds are susceptible to the whims of the demagogues. Fanatics manipulate superstition, while tyrants prey upon a compliant populace.

CUD-CHEWING CONTENTMENT IS BENEATH THE DIGNITY OF HUMAN BEING.

Enlightenment is not easy. It is hard to think for yourself. Some claim that ignorance is bliss. But ignorance is not bliss – it is merely the path of least resistance.

To claim that ignorance is bliss is to deny our innate inquisitiveness. We are born ignorant. But we have a thirst for knowledge.

Education feeds off of curiosity. It questions everything and stimulates further inquiry. A good education arouses our mental energies. A great education leaves us with burning questions.

Laziness, cowardice and self-interest occasionally get in the way. It is easy to rest comfortably in our misconceptions. No one is completely wise or perfectly moral. Dark spots of ignorance remain within each of us. But the solution is obvious: more enlightenment and less stupidity.

Our schools and universities are a product of the Enlightenment, as is our republic. Democracies flourish under conditions of enlightenment. They falter when ignorance grows. They thrive when citizens dare to be wise.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article78862672.html#storylink=cpy