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Monday, May 21, 2012

The Case for Pacifism and Against Self Defense

Recent discussions have reminded me that pacifism is not popular. Being a pacifist or making arguments against violence and aggression is often met with eye-rolling incredulousness, as if believing that violence is destructive even when used in defense of self is naive.

It is not.

My pacifism is far from naive. It is not a theological or even philosophical construction. It is a practical reaction to learning and experience. My pacifism rises from three basic personal truths that, in the face of yet another peaceful protest derailed by the black bandanna crowd whose actions are regularly defended by people I love and in places where they should know better, I want to share.

I am a pacifist, not because I am a stranger to violence and danger, but because I see too much of it.

I live in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles and have since long before it was cool. I teach in Watts and most of my kids have come up on the streets. I have had to take cover from bullets both at home and at work and I know first-hand the power of PTSD. I have seen it in others and I have felt it myself.

There was a shooting a block from school on Friday. One young man, a friend to some of my students and an enemy to some others, was killed. Several of my kids saw it happen and watched three young men bleed out in front of a barbershop. One of them told me today that the shooter had been shot previously by the victim. "If you gonna shoot somebody," she observed, "you gotta shoot to kill or it's just gonna be bad news."

Our attendance was down today because many of our kids were afraid to come to school. Our discipline issues were up this morning because everybody's on edge.

All the violence takes a toll. I've written about it before but I need to say it again: Violence, whether it be at home, on the streets or at school, is the capital distraction for children and unless we can become a society in which violence is rare, we will continue to raise children who live in fear.

Fear is the enemy of progress and nowhere is this more true than at school.

I am a pacifist because I have seen too many good people with righteous causes destroy both themselves and their message through a poorly-timed closed fist.


Cases in point: Occupy Oakland, Seattle WTO, Chicago on Sunday. There are others. Many many others. In each of these, though, a small group of people who wanted to see the cities burn used violence to incite a police force who was more than willing to engage and return the favor. In each case innocent people were beaten by police. In each case, the instigators of the violence got what they wanted but the message of the protesters was lost in the scuffle.

Rightly or wrongly, when these acts of violence on the part of the protesters are not condemned by the community that supports them, the message of the protesters is dismissed because of the violence. We must decide which is more important to us: Our tribalism or our desire for change. If we desire change, then we must not only avoid violence, but condemn it. We must not only condemn violence, we must work to prevent it.

Passive resistance works. It is painful. It is dangerous. It is anti-instinctual, and it does not satisfy the animalistic urge for blood. But it works. The passive resistance shown at UC Davis, in the Indian independence movement, and throughout the civil rights movement in the American South engaged in true passive resistance and became heroes and martyrs for their causes.

They also created change.

When one thinks of this in terms of long-term goals, it is obvious that, unless one is working for the total and complete violent overthrow of the existing order (such as in Syria or Libya), violence, even in self-defense, is a losing strategy.

Discipline, organization, training, dignity, and an understanding that every injury suffered is a blow to the side that delivers it are the true tools of civil disobedience and social upheaval.


I am a pacifist because self-defense and revenge breed only further violence.



Aeschelus was one of the first to point this out when he wrote the Oresteia about the destructive power of vengeance and its role in the fall of the House of Atreus. Since then, though, we seem to have lost the message.

Regularly in discussions at places like Daily Kos and in daily conversations around the water cooler, people argue vehemently for their right to defend themselves when they are attacked, especially when the attackers are the police.

We tie respect to "holding our own in a fight," and "not taking shit from nobody" even when what that means in the long run is that we are more easily control.

Controlling people who are willing to fight is simple and effective. It is the reason the FBI and other controlling powers in other nations have employed agent provocateurs.

If you are angry and you will fight me, all I have to do is provoke you and you lose because you are aggressive and violent. If, instead, you refuse to raise your fist and instead raise your voice, I must either strike you first or listen to you. Either way, I am disempowered.

And if power is disempowered, change is possible.

The right to defend oneself is hard to argue against, especially since so many people in our society are raised being told that if they are in a fight, they'd better win it or they'll be beat twice.

And what I would do in defense of family, I do not know. Philosophy cannot outmatch love.

But I do know this:

Self defense only leads to self defense. If I use violence to protect myself, then I permit you to use violence to protect yourself. This is the rationale for "Stand Your Ground," and I find it difficult to listen to people who seek justice for Trayvion while simultaneously defending the black-bandanna crowd when they instigate violence against the state.

To advocate for the rights of one group to defend themselves against counter-aggression while denying another group that right is hypocritical.

And to take arms against a government force, whether it be at Ruby Ridge, at Waco, or on the streets of Oakland or Seattle, is self-defeating and stupid.

My students are all very clear on this point and they have plenty of experience with abusive authority to back it up: No interaction with the police is ever made better by talking back or fighting back. A badge number and a cell phone camera go a hell of a lot farther in ensuring justice than a mouth and a brick. Anybody who's actually spent time in neighborhoods where regular and rampant police abuses actually do occur would ever argue otherwise.

Arguing in favor of fighting the police is the stand taken by somebody who has truly nothing to lose or who has never actually been on the wrong side of police power. Or somebody who doesn't plan on being present when it all goes down.

And I truly believe that until we take violence off of our half of the table, we cannot and we will not progress as individuals, as a people, as a nation, or as a world.