Nonviolence and Naked Power

Nonviolence exposes the brutality of naked power.  By responding to violence with courage and grace, nonviolence provokes the conscience and inspires solidarity. 

When organized and mobilized, nonviolence can change the world, as it has in many cases.  I discuss this in my new book, Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion.  Nonviolence has been used to overthrow colonial regimes, to oust oppressive governments, and to transform unjust social conditions.  Some of the strategies of nonviolence are quite forceful, involving marches, boycotts, and protests. 

But there is also the startlingly subtle power of unarmored, unclothed vulnerability.  We’ve seen this in recent protests in Portland, Oregon.  One lasting image is of Christopher David calmly withstanding the assault of security forces who beat him with batons and sprayed gas in his face.  There has also been a “wall of moms” who turned out in yellow shirts to challenge the brutality of federal authorities.  And then there was the so-called “Naked Athena,” a woman who danced nude in front of the camouflaged troops.

These techniques have a history. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. included terrifying images of police beating unarmed people. One famous image is of John Lewis, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee being beaten by cops in Alabama. This image changed minds. Lewis himself went on to become a Congressman and an influential advocate of racial justice and nonviolence. Lewis died last week.

John Lewis beaten by police in Alabama on “Bloody Sunday” (March 7, 1965)

Images such as these demand that we pick sides.  Violence muddies the waters, making moral judgment more difficult.  When fists fly on both sides, it becomes hard to tell who is right and who is wrong.  But nonviolence is edifying and enlightening.  When armed forces assault vulnerable and exposed bodies, clarity dawns.  When bullies beat and gas defenseless people, moral judgment crystalizes.

By exposing themselves to violence, these activists enact what Vaclav Havel called “the power of the powerless.”  Havel demonstrated how simple acts of defiance were used in resistance to Soviet-backed totalitarianism.  In the background of his account is the parable of the emperor’s new clothes.

The act of pointing out that the emperor is in fact naked exposes the false reality of the power structure.  It soon dawns on us that what we are seeing is a mere show of power, camouflaging its cruelty beneath titles, insignia, flags, and guns.  And once naked power is revealed as such, it appears as flaccid, shameful, shriveled, and puny. 

Guns, gas, and truncheons can do real damage.  But when they are exposed in their pathetic nakedness, they lose their legitimacy.  They can kill us but they can’t convince us.  They can harm us but they cannot dominate our thinking.  They can enforce conformity but they cannot destroy the spirit of liberty.

Which brings me back to the Naked Athena who exposed her body and did so while dancing.  This brave woman transfigured vulnerability into strength, power, and grace.  She revealed a moment of beauty and freedom in the face of brutality.  She thereby transformed the power structure.  The unclothed body is typically seen as a symbol of vulnerability.  Consider the cruelty of forced nudity, as seen in images of naked bodies that come from the Holocaust or from the techniques of torture employed by American forces in Iraq at Abu Ghraib prison. 

But in affirming her nakedness, the Naked Athena forces us to choose sides.  On the one hand, we have guns and uniforms.  On the other, we have vulnerable human bodies—mothers, dancers, and unarmored men.  Which side are you on?

The advocates of nonviolence have always been on the side of the vulnerable.  Jesus offered praise for those who clothed the naked, fed the hungry, and visited the sick.  The Catholic priest John Dear explains, “we come into this world as a vulnerable, nonviolent, powerless baby, and we live in that same vulnerable, nonviolent, powerless state.  In our vulnerable humanity is the power of nonviolence, compassion, and love.”

It is our shared vulnerability that unites us.  The forces of domination want to create unity through violence.  But the advocates of nonviolence aspire to what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.”  The recently departed icon of nonviolence, Representative John Lewis put it this way: “We are one people, one family, the human family, and what affects one of us affect all of us.”

When brutality is unleashed upon “the least of these,” as Jesus would put it, we see the shame of violence.  This opens the door toward solidarity.  It pricks the conscience.  And in moments such as these the nakedness of power lies indicted before the power of nakedness.

Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion

I am please to announce the publication of my new book, Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion.

I was invited to write this book in 2019, with the goal of producing a short, readable introduction to nonviolence. Nonviolence is a perennial and important topic. But with the way things have unfolded in 2020, following protests against police brutality and the backlash against these protest by security forces, the topic has become even more important. The publisher agreed to speed up the publication process in light of the unfolding events of 2020. And with substantial effort, we were able to bring the book out in July of 2020.

The book provides an overview of nonviolence. It offers answers to the questions of what nonviolence is, how and why it ought to be used, and who ought to employ it. The book discusses examples of successful nonviolent social protest, from twentieth century movements for civil rights and colonial liberation to the Arab Spring and contemporary Black Lives Matter protests, and considers recent research that explains the power of nonviolence. It also explores philosophical and religious sources of nonviolence, while discussing key historical figures including Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and Malala Yousafzai. This book offers insight into the link between nonviolence and democracy. It reminds us that nonviolence gives us the power to build a better —more just, truthful, and loving— world.

Oppose Fascism, Affirm Nonviolence

Defeat Fascism

This week the President falsely claimed that a 75-year-old peace activist who was shoved to the ground by cops “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.”  The man, Martin Gugino, hit his head on the pavement, drawing blood.  “Antifa,” in case you don’t know, is short for “anti-fascist.”

Even if he was a member of Antifa (he was not), such treatment by police is not deserved.  In the United States, people have the right to belong to political groups and to protest.  Membership in a group does not give the police permission to assault you. 

In fact, fascism occurs when there is a systematic use of the police to abuse members of certain groups.  This is wrong.  And in the United States it is illegal.  The cops who shoved Gugino have been charged with assault.  This shows that the U.S. is not a fascist country.  We prevent fascism by containing police brutality.

The fascists of the 20th Century like Mussolini and Hitler unleashed the police and para-military thugs on the people.  They used violence to consolidate power under a mythology of racial nationalism.

There have been warnings from mainstream thinkers such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about the looming threat of fascism.  But so far, the United States is not fascist.  And I doubt that many Americans long for fascism to come to America.   

I’m not saying it couldn’t happen here.  But Americans are typically anti-fascist.  Americans fought against fascism in World War Two. We are generally outraged by racism. And police brutality is prosecuted. Witness the near universal condemnation of the police killing of George Floyd and the arrest of the cops involved.

Anti-fascism is woven into our traditions and culture.  Our founding myth tells a story of rebellion against tyranny in the name of liberty.  The Constitution prevents authoritarian consolidation of power.  And the Bill of Rights creates strong safeguards against fascism.  The First Amendment guarantees religious liberty, freedom of speech, the free press, and the right to assemble and petition the government.  Other Amendments limit the government’s ability to set up a police state.

It is true that there is a counter-narrative to the American myth.  Native Americans were slaughtered and dispossessed.  Africans were enslaved.  Minority groups were excluded and oppressed.  Thugs lynched Black Americans during the Jim Crow era.  Japanese Americans were rounded up and put in concentration camps during World War Two.  Discrimination and racism continue.

But we have made progress.  The slaves were freed.  Women were given the vote.  Jim Crow was dismantled.  And people continue to take to the streets to demand an end to racism, injustice, and police brutality.

One way to continue to make progress is to oppose fascism.  Americans ought to be anti-fascist.  This means we should be opposed to police brutality, racism, and ethnic nationalism.  To be anti-fascist is to be in favor of liberty and the right to speak, protest, and assemble.

Now let’s consider the question of Antifa, which has become a bogeyman for President Trump.  Antifa appears to be a loose collective of activists opposed to racists and neo-Nazis (see discussions here and here).  If Antifa is committed to violence, then its tactics should be rejected.  But a recent analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded that there is no threat to American values posed by Antifa.  And Stanislav Vysotsky, the author of a new book about Antifa, concludes that Antifa is “a decentralized collection of individual activists who mostly use nonviolent methods to achieve their ends.”

This brings us back to Mr. Gugino, whom friends describe as a loving person committed to nonviolence.  Advocates of nonviolence have always been opposed to fascism.  Gandhi was a dedicated anti-fascist who described fascism as a doctrine of the “naked sword” that glorified war and violence. 

To be anti-fascist is be in favor of democracy and opposed to a cult of power, violence, and domination.  The best way to oppose fascism is to affirm nonviolence.  When nonviolent protesters such as Mr. Gugino are assaulted by police, the specter of fascism appears.  But when police brutality is prosecuted, this ghost is exorcised.

Violence has no moral authority

Violence has no moral authority, discredits any cause and does no practical good

Fresno Bee, September 1, 2017

Violence will always be with us. There is something in common between the street battles in Berkeley and Charlottesville and the saber rattling over North Korea. Millions also tuned in to watch Mayweather fight McGregor.

Violence is alluring. It attracts our attention. Our fascination with fire and fury is morally problematic. When a fight breaks out on a playground, kids rush to watch. No one really cares which side they are on.

Not everyone is enamored of violence. There are more anti-hate protestors than there are haters. But a few people are always itching for a fight. Others egg them on. And the rest of us watch awestruck and spellbound.

There is a whiff of transcendence in violence. Adrenaline, pain, and the risk of death are stimulating. The heart races and the senses focus. Like sex and extreme sports, violence can elevate and inspire.

Aggression is hard-wired in brain – especially the masculine brain. Buried somewhere in the male limbic system is the evolutionary residue of the mammalian struggle for mates and dominance.

But we are not animals. The world’s moral and religious traditions demand that we control aggression and limit violence.

Socrates suggested that it is wrong to return harm for harm. Jesus told us to love our enemies. The Taoist sages advised harmonious nonaction. South Asian traditions prescribed ahimsa or nonviolence.

Unfortunately the Paleolithic brain is often immune to the counsels of civilization. Anger and aggression are subrational. Young men fight without thinking about what they do.

Some people offer justifications for violence, making exceptions to moral commandments. Some think that violence can be productive. They view it as a tool to advance a cause. Terrorists often rationalize violence in this way.

But justifications of violence are morally flawed. An immoral tool should not be used to advance a noble cause. Morality requires a unity of means and ends.

Violence infects and discredits any cause it is associated with. When a riot breaks out at a political event, the riot becomes the story. Violence undermines political agendas and destabilizes political movements.

Violence can be effective, in the short-term. Intimidation and coercion do work to change behavior. Violence runs some people off, scaring them away. It also attracts thugs. But it does nothing to persuade people to change their minds.

Violence is stupid. It stupefies, stuns and awes. But violence makes no argument and gives no reasons. Violence is not intelligent, clever, or insightful.

As brute force, violence brutalizes. Violence dehumanizes because it treats persons as objects to be manipulated through physical power. Violence does not listen or respect human needs. Instead it pushes and pulls the levers of pain, seeking dominance and control.

Violence has no moral authority. The victors are not more virtuous than those they defeat. They are only more powerful. Victory depends upon physical prowess—and often on good luck. It does not depend on moral rectitude.

Violence feeds on itself. Bloodlust is stimulated by fear and the desire for power. Those appetites and emotions overwhelm our rationality. Thus violence incites more violence.

The tit-for-tat of violence slowly simmers. Hatred and resentment fester. A careless spark can cause quick and fatal escalation. Violence is chaotic, unpredictable, and contagious. It stimulates backlash and blowback. And it tends to spread.

Violence only creates lasting change when it becomes excessive and permanent. The logic of violence thus points toward totalitarianism and final solutions that eliminate all enemies.

Violence makes no argument, utters no truth, and cherishes no value. It cannot deliver liberty, justice, or happiness. Violence tears down, destroys, and destabilizes. But it cannot transform and uplift the human spirit.

Violence cannot give birth to a child, build a community, create justice or sustain a way of life. The work of birthing, building, creating, and sustaining is nonviolent. It requires love, patience, tenacity and wisdom. Those are human values that have evolved beyond the Paleolithic brain.

The good news is that most of us understand that violence is subhuman. We know that a human world depends upon rational argument, cooperative activity, love and justice. The challenge of the future is to further discredit violence. And to find ways to further sublimate the sinister impulses of our mammalian brains.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article170511697.html