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.

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

Let’s stop the violence

No more urgent task than to create a world where children don’t get murdered

Fresno Bee, June 3, 2017

The river of tears keeps flowing. Children are killed by bombs in Baghdad, Kabul and Manchester. In Portland, Oregon, three Good Samaritans are knifed while protecting teenage girls from racist harassment. In Fresno, a teenager who worked to end violence in her neighborhood is killed in a gang-related shooting.

We search for causes and cures for cruelty. Some blame weapons. Friday was National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Protesters wore orange to bring attention to gun violence, which kills 90 Americans every day.

A Breitbart columnist, AWR Hawkins, has criticized the campaign. He points out only a third of those 90 daily deaths are homicides. The rest are suicides or accidents.

That’s a difference without significance for grieving families. Our tears fall for all of the dead. Suicide is as troubling as murder.

A different approach might look to neuroscience. Mental illness can contribute to violence.But let’s be careful. People who commit violent crimes are often mentally ill. But most mentally ill people are not violent.

A similar story holds with regard to alcohol, which is a major contributor to violence. Many violent people are drunk. But most drunks are not violent. Moral character is what matters. A good person who is drunk is not suddenly going to become violent. And an evil person is a menace, whether stoned or sober.

Some blame religion or politics. But terrorists and mass murderers have been politically, religiously and racially diverse. They say that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” It is also true that ideologies don’t kill people, evil people do. The danger lies in the cruel indifference of people who wield ideas and weapons in immoral ways.

Masculinity is another significant factor. Mother Jones has a database of mass shootings in the U.S. Its latest entry is for a racially charged murder that killed three white men in downtown Fresno on April 18, 2017.

In 83 of the 86 cases in this database, the attacker was a man. But again, let’s be careful in drawing conclusions. While nearly every terrorist and mass murderer is a man, not every man is a terrorist. Men of good character simply don’t commit mass murder.

It is clear that violence involves multiple causes. Violence occurs when unstable or drunken men with easy access to weapons get fixated on bad ideas.

There are no simple solutions here. Just think how much society would have to be modified in order to change the causal factors contributing to violence. We might begin by providing better mental health care, alternatives to gangs, and drug and alcohol counseling. One simple proposal is to raise the price of booze. Apparently this has worked to reduce violence in the United Kingdom.

In a society that values liberty, we are not going ban weapons and alcohol – or cruel religions and racist ideologies. The risk of violence may be the price of liberty. But that should not leave us indifferent to atrocity. Liberty must be linked to education, morality and responsibility.

Free people need compassion and self-control. A society of free persons depends upon a serious commitment to universal moral education. We create a peaceful world by teaching children to be loving, courageous, and just.

Among the more poignant stories emerging from the recent carnage is a letter written by the mother of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a 23-year-old who was killed trying to protect those teenage girls from a racist assailant in Portland. Taliesin’s mother wrote, that her son’s selfless act “changed the world, when in the face of hate he did not hesitate to act with love.” She raised her son well, it seems.

Slow progress will be made by strong mothers who raise courageous sons like Taliesin. Let’s not forget that there are many brave and loving people among the decent majority of peace-loving people. Fresno’s Kayla Foster was another example. She worked to end violence before she was gunned down.

Let’s celebrate the good, while we lament the evil. We need a systematic and multifaceted effort to reduce violence. We should avoid simplistic answers and politicized debate. And once we stop mourning, let’s get to work. There is no more urgent task than creating a world in which our children are no longer murdered.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article154033489.html

Love and hate at Christmas time

Love and hate at Christmas time

Fresno Bee, December 3, 2016

Hate is growing. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that hate crimes have increased since the November election. The Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno received hateful threats that mentioned Donald Trump. But hate already was rising before Trump’s election.

According to the FBI, hate crimes increased 6 percent in 2015. And hate goes both ways: Anti-Trump protests, vandalism and graffiti are a problem. Trump’s star on the Hollywood walk of fame has been chiseled and defaced.

We are in the middle of an ever-increasing hate-storm.

The Kellogg company pulled its advertising from Breitbart News, citing disagreement with Breitbart’s pro-Trump values. Breitbart ran a headline saying Kellogg “declares hate for 45,000,000 readers.” Breitbart’s editor-in-chief said, “If you serve Kellogg’s products to your family, you are serving up bigotry at your breakfast table.”

Breitbart has called for a Kellogg boycott. Will we now suspiciously eye one another in the grocery store? The fight over Fruit Loops seems absurd. But it is also symbolic of our acrimonious era.

An “us vs. them” mindset is developing. We look for allies, while fearing everyone else. Emotions are frayed. We become wary and worried. Every glance, action and word seems pregnant and portentous. A spark can easily cause this powder keg to snap, crackle and pop.

Hate, fear and violence form an unholy trinity that undermines stable and harmonious social life. These evils provoke a tit-for-tat logic. We fear those who fear us. Those we hate hate us in return. Each turn of the ratchet of fear and hate creates an atmosphere in which violence becomes likely.

We need to stop it. When asked about outbreaks of hate and violence on 60 Minutes, President-elect Trump said he is saddened by it. He said, “If it helps, I will say this: Stop it!”

Yes, it does help. We all need to say it loudly. Stop the hate. Stop the violence.

We desperately need de-escalation, reconciliation and human kindness. It sounds naïve, but the simple truth is that the world needs love. We need trust, communal feeling, generosity and hospitality. And more of us need to say to the haters, “Stop it.”

Time magazine recently published an article by researchers from UCLA and Princeton that argues that communities can de-legitimize violence and prevent hate by speaking out against it. Violence decreases when masses of people – including prominent “influencers” – vocally and vigorously condemn it. When hate appears, we should all be vocal in condemning it.

The way to cure darkness is to shed light. The way to fight hatred is to spread love. The way to stop violence is to practice nonviolence. And the first step in ending social dysfunction is to say, “Stop it.”

Violence and hate easily become normalized. It begins with a few mean jokes and insulting words. Soon, we are not surprised or offended by rough language and hateful speech. This is especially true when leaders and elites start speaking in insulting, uncivil and hateful ways.

But hateful speech and violent deeds are not normal or defensible. Normal people respect each other. We normally view each other as partners in the project of building up the common good. Normal families, businesses and polities work together, avoiding rancor. Normal people follow the Golden Rule of treating others as you want to be treated.

This time of year, we teach our children that they better be good, for goodness’ sake. And we talk about being naughty or nice. The moral spirit of the season is about generosity, hospitality, love and peace.

Of course, even Christmas has become political. But you don’t have to believe in Christ – or Santa – to understand the moral message of Christmas. The Golden Rule is common to all of the world’s traditions.

It is better to give than to receive. It is better to welcome than to exclude. It is better to build up than to tear down. It is better to live in peace than to be at war. And it is better to love than to hate.

Let’s declare December a hate-free month. Tone down the political vitriol. Reach out to the marginalized. Defuse conflict, violence and fear. And if someone says a hateful word, quote Trump, and tell them to stop it.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article118497773.html

Arms Race No Winners

In an arms race, there are no winners

Fresno Bee, July 15, 2016

  • We ought to imagine alternatives to violence and the arms race
  • Security and peace require more than military power
  • Polish examples provide a nonviolent alternative to violence

An ancient lesson teaches that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. That remains true in a world of guns and bombs. An armed world escalates insecurity. But we cannot seem to figure out how to disarm ourselves.

The arms race is like the rat race. There is no winner in such a race. Instead there is anxiety, fear and violence.

OUR FASCINATION WITH MATERIAL SOLUTIONS TO SPIRITUAL PROBLEMS
PREVENTS US FROM IMAGINING WAYS TO BEAT OUR SWORDS INTO PLOWSHARES.

I am in Warsaw, Poland, this week, attending an international conference on global dialogue and peace. Last week, there was a NATO summit here focused on military defense.

The NATO powers issued a communiqué at the summit describing “an arc of insecurity and instability” on the periphery of the alliance. It warns of Russian aggression, instability in the Middle East and North Africa, and increased intensity in global terrorism.

The NATO document recognizes the need to “address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism.” But those conditions are psychological, social and ethical.

Human beings need respect, equality, happiness and love. Lack of those spiritual goods is the source of violence, hatred, fear and insecurity. More guns and better weapons can do nothing to change the spiritual malady that leads to violence.

Here in Warsaw last week, President Barack Obama responded to recent outbreaks of violence in the U.S. He warned against fear and violence. He advocated building upon “the better angels of our nature.”

And yet, it seems easier to invest in material solutions to violence than to buttress our better angels. We tend to look at security in technological terms. We want advanced surveillance and mechanized firepower. We want missiles, robots, drones, and more and better guns. But the world needs education, dialogue and mutual understanding.

Material security seems easier. The logic of the arms race is simple. If your sword is bigger than mine, I need a bigger sword. But if I get a bigger sword, you will buy a stronger shield. And so on.

Of course, those who make swords and shields will cheer on the arms race.

Raytheon1Around Warsaw there are massive billboards advertising Raytheon, an American defense company. It seems odd to see an American defense firm advertising in Poland. But Raytheon is working to close a $5 billion deal with Poland for missile defense.

And so it goes.

IF WE SPENT AS MUCH ON NONVIOLENCE AS WE DO ON
ROBOTS, MISSILES AND GUNS, WE MIGHT FEEL MORE SECURE.

Just last week a robot manufactured by Northrup Grumman, another American defense company, killed an assassin in Dallas. This was the first time a robot has been used by police to kill. I suspect it won’t be the last. Nor, unfortunately, will this be the end of the arms race in our streets.

Gun sales have skyrocketed. According to Fortune magazine, American gun sales are up 40 percent from last year. After mass shootings, people buy more guns. Some want these guns to defend themselves. Others worry that the government may curtail gun purchases.

Of course, the gun companies don’t mind the business.

All of this is a bit depressing. Violent solutions to violence escalate violence. This increases anxiety and fuels a further arms race.

A different approach needs to be imagined. A hint is found in Eastern Europe, where nonviolent movements brought about the end of communism. If we spent as much on nonviolence as we do on robots, missiles and guns, we might feel more secure.

In Poland, Pope John Paul II is a local hero and beloved saint. His support of the nonviolent Polish Solidarity movement helped to end the communist regime. John Paul once said, “Violence and arms can never resolve the problems of men.”

Violence requires a spiritual solution. Without more basic social and spiritual goods, armed security is a mere stopgap.

Human beings need meaning, hope and love. We thrive when there is respect, dignity and communal feeling. Our fears dissipate when we have stable communities, satisfying work, decent living conditions and trust in the future. We need security. But security must be grounded in liberty, happiness and solidarity.

The fallacy of the arms race is the idea that violence produces peace. In reality, the arms race enriches arms dealers while escalating violence. And in the end, our fascination with material solutions to spiritual problems prevents us from imagining ways to beat our swords into plowshares.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article89837432.html#storylink=cpy