After an annoying spate of illness and a negative COVID test, I find myself with a small backlog of ideas for posts. But I think I won’t do an omnibus post for them, so here is the first topic: nonviolence.
The first thing everyone has to do when they raise the topic of nonviolence is clear the ground for discussing it. That is, we’re obliged to give some kind of sop to the idea that nonviolence “doesn’t work,” or “isn’t realistic,” or is somehow the province of the impractical, the unambitious, the servile, the passionless, and the naive.
I’m sure there are more than two ways of clearing this ground, but I want to talk about two: the tactical argument, and the strategic argument. The tactical argument is very familiar to me: nonviolence, it goes, is actually more tactically useful and effective than violence when it comes to leveraging, say, protest for change, or wrongfooting someone who is trying to dehumanize you.
I’d say that’s true. The disabled sit-ins in support of the ACA and Medicaid were far more effective tactically than many a “dirtbag” protest roundup. I’ve already noted how Michelle Obama’s dictum, “When they go low, we go high,” is (among other things) a way of offering generosity as a gift before racists can demand it of her as their rightful due from an inferior. Disrupting the script of oppressive action and reaction is itself a good tactic.
Then there’s the strategy of nonviolence. Nonviolent direct action does not take place in a vacuum: it takes place in a social context, in a nexus of relational connections between individuals and families and affinity groups, “the inescapable web of mutuality,” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it. The one who avoids being reactive is the one who can advance the more convincing insight into reality. Why would you let the oppressor decide what “reality” is and set the terms of the interaction?
So, thus we clear the ground to be able to talk about nonviolence and dispose of all the usual scornful stalking horses that seek to dismiss the topic as not worth examining. As G.K. Chesterton said of Christianity, nonviolence is rarely tried and found wanting; it is found difficult and left untried.
Because it is both concise and entertaining, I link theologian Walter Wink’s interactive lecture Nonviolence for the Violent — a title that acknowledges from the outset that people don’t undertake nonviolence because it is easy. Wink is interested not only in Jesus’s tactics of nonviolence, but in a larger critique of what he calls the “domination system” — a homeostasis of violence that strikes downward in the social order and has resisted eradication even by religious communities founded specifically to destroy it.
And in another vein, I also link Judith Butler’s present-day exploration of the strategy of nonviolence as shaping and being shaped by a more relational reality. (I found this link because of her recent interview pushing back against terfs’ efforts to pass themselves off as the face of mainstream feminism: another present-day instance of reactivity closing down the horizons of reality.)
Now wait a minute, you might say. Didn’t you write a book about war in which the characters celebrate the principle of single combat in an arena spectacle? And you’re talking about the superior tactics and strategy of nonviolence?
Because as Judith Butler makes clear, we have refused to frame nonviolence relationally or use it as a tool of vision to reshape social reality, no matter how many times MLK told us that that was the whole point. Individual Ryswyckians may love combat or hate it, but the use of the arena is specifically to frame reality as a place in which people interact with one another in unambiguous mutual equality. The use of the community of Ryswyck is to foster respect for the other, both in body and soul, even if one is obliged to hit them.
The use of institutional violence, on the other hand, is to do mortal harm to the soul, to the human identity, of the other: to insult their existence by using their body as an effigy. Nonviolence isn’t about not-hitting the other, as Butler says. It’s about not using the other’s body as an instrument of insult.
“It’s deadly force that wins wars,” one of my characters says at a turning point in the plot. “But only courtesy can end them.”
So why clear ground for nonviolence now? Because otherwise we will be allowing the horizons of reality to be closed for us. I don’t need to tell you what’s going on outside: we are being treated to a vast spectacle of violence done by people who are so afraid of mortality that they have to pretend that dying is something only bad and stupid people have to do. So they tweet and rage and vandalize and kill and refuse to wear their goddamn masks for the common good. Is this who we want telling us what reality is? Is this who we want setting the tone for our concerted plans and efforts as a (trying to be) civilized society?
With the ground clear, this is my advice: put away any hint of thinking that your opponent’s body is to be used as an instrument of insult. Get with your neighbors in this network of mutuality we’re in, and start making plans now. Don’t wait to react. Start thinking about the reality you want to see acknowledged, and who you need, and who needs you. If you haven’t already, get used to the idea of making common cause with people you don’t agree with.
And stay tuned for one of my other topics on deck, which is: Vote.