Transformation

Nonviolence and the new story of human nature

How do we get from the world of now to the society we long to live in?

Michael Nagler
30 June 2020
Pro-nonviolence protesters at an anti-globalization protest, April 6 2000.
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Wikimedia Commons/CaroleMooreDC. CC BY-SA 3.0.

What will it take to save the world? Massive protests? Yes, and much more. Protest has its place, but sometimes - much of the time actually - we have to take strategic steps that can lead to deeper change. To bring us to the world we really want, these actions must be centered around nonviolence, because the choice between violence or nonviolence determines the kind of world that ultimately results. The whole reason for protesting an injustice is that we don’t want to live in a violent world.

But to get the full benefit of nonviolence we should be aware that it means a lot more than just refraining from physical force. Nonviolence is sometimes called ‘peace from within.’ If we think of the environment, other beings and ourselves as three essential sets of relationships, then nonviolence really begins as a ‘third harmony,’ where we try to eliminate any ill will we’re holding towards our opponent.

This isn’t easy, of course, but the late Barbara Deming came up with an image that can help us called “the two hands of nonviolence:” on the one hand, ‘I will not put up with your injustice,’ and on the other, ‘but I’m open to you as a human being.’ In the heat of conflict or outrage, we can forget to extend the open hand of nonviolence to others, but the point is not just to express our feelings or show that we’re on the right side of history; the point is to create change, so here are three principles to keep in mind that will help engage those two hands of nonviolence and move forward effectively.

First, always offer your opponent an alternative. It should almost always be possible to find a way forward that meets your opponent’s needs without compromising your own. Nonviolence is nothing if not creative, so take it as our responsibility to come up with alternatives. They may well not be accepted, but we’re in a stronger position for having offered them because we are showing a way out (and our opponent is often secretly grateful). As British historian Arnold Toynbee said of Gandhi: “he made it impossible for us to go on ruling India. But he made it possible for us to leave without rancour and without humiliation.”

Nonviolence can and has been offered by those in positions of power, but social change movements are typically engaging from a lower position on the societal ladder. Yet taking on the identity of victims psychologically - which is what the power holders want us to do - can be a fatal mistake. The antidote is to bargain or protest from a position of strength, and we are in a position of strength when we’re nonviolent.

Second, always keep in mind the humanity of your opponent, the long term and the bigger picture. We keep the long term in view by having a strategy to guide us as we grow from event to campaign to movement. The bigger picture is what I call the ‘new story’ that we are all interconnected in a deeply meaningful universe. It’s a vision that has power, and we get to hold it. That is our responsibility and our privilege.

We’re not just trying to change a given injustice but also the story that brought it into being, so we have to articulate this story to ourselves and our coworkers, and to any opponent who’s willing to listen. A nonviolent interaction is a kind of conversation, not a kind of fight. Ideally, it’s not really a power struggle so much as a demonstration that another kind of power is possible. That’s why Gandhi was careful to avoid introducing ‘fresh issues’ into movements when they gained ground, and urged his coworkers to avoid triumphing when they had ‘won’ (as did Martin Luther King).

When people speak about the ‘end of the fossil fuel era’ they usually mean the end of the economy of extraction and exploitation. But we are actually at the end of humanity’s experiment to find fulfillment in the outside world, to prop up the hollow image of the material human being as a body without inner resources. We are at a point of spiritual crisis, not just a crisis of economics and ecology. We should be aware of and take full advantage of this fact in designing the new story we want to tell to replace the old narrative of materialism and separateness.

When we discover our inner resources, it becomes unnecessary to exploit the resources of the Earth. When we discover our spiritual unity, that exploitation becomes not only unnecessary but impossible, and it also becomes impossible to injure and exploit others.

Playing this role in history gives nonviolent actors a great sense of personal fulfillment. Gandhi called it “a peace and a meaning of the mysteries of nature that I have no power to describe.” In the final analysis, it seems to me that there’s an evolutionary drive in the universe that we can take part in, and that - in the long run - guarantees our success. As Teilhard de Chardin reassures us, evolution has not changed direction; it has always been, and always will be, “a rise toward consciousness,” or as the theologian Cynthia Bourgeault puts it:

“Our postmodern temperament has a well-ingrained tendency to regard the world through a filter of distrust, in which we inevitably view evolution as ‘random,’ disconnected, and certainly impersonal. However, Teilhard encourages us to see our planetary home as a coherent and increasingly compassionate whole, steadily plying its way along an irreversible evolutionary trajectory.”

Third, make full use of everything we’ve learned since Gandhi and King, but nourish and add to this tradition by sharing your own experiences in terms of training, strategic principles, discipline, new organizational forms and other matters. The movement toward peace is marching on. We are all part of it. As well as looking for ways to collaborate with our contemporaries we have find ways to collaborate with the past and keep up our conversation with the future.

When someone warned him that what he was doing was dangerous, Charles Hamilton Houston, whose great work for integration earned him the sobriquet “the man who killed Jim Crow,” said that “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” Similarly, when opponents of the Green New Deal said it was too expensive, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that if we don’t pay to prevent the disasters that lie in store for us, we’ll pay as much or more to recover from them.

When we look at the state of the world right now and the coming state of the earth (unless we act vigorously to head it off), we’re tempted to ask ‘does anyone really want this?’ The veteran war correspondent Sebastian Junger observes that in relieving hardship after hardship, modern society “has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.” In giving people independence from one another, modernity has raised the incidence of mental illness and suicide. Do we really want to live this way?

There are signs of frustration with the status quo even in places we don’t associate with change. A 2016 USA Today article discussed the sad case of two highly popular pro-football players, Ken Stabler and Earl Morrall, who’d been found to suffer from ‘chronic traumatic encephalopathy’ which severely damaged their brains - the latest in a long line of victims. Football concussions have become a scandal. Since that story broke, the results of another brain autopsy study performed on 111 ex-footballers showed that 110 of them had sustained serious brain damage. But that hasn’t made the sport less popular. As the opening lines of that USA Today piece complain, “Nothing ever changes. Not a damn thing ever changes.”

But the reality of the world is exactly the reverse: nothing ever stays the same, so the real question is this: shall we passively endure changes or do our best to steer them in the right direction? Nonviolent action is the best leverage point we have, if we want to do this work successfully.

Professor Robert Inchausti points out that WWII and its aftermath - especially our glorification of that conflict - “have forced Americans to regard their country more as an economic and military power than as a moral and metaphysical experiment, and this has led to a crisis of personal meaning in the lives of our young that is not sufficiently recognized.” In addressing this crisis, the only thing that can overcome war is love, but how can love be organized? This is where nonviolence is essential. As ‘love in action,’ not only can nonviolence be organized, it can also be institutionalized. That’s part of its creative power when understood both as a new vision and a way to get there.

The depth and complexity of the crisis before us is almost unimaginable, but I think we should name it: the extinction of life on earth, or at least, in the nearer term, the end of civilized life as we know it in a deluge of climate refugees, starvation, and the direct impacts of extreme conditions.

It may be too late now to completely reverse the disastrous course that the fossil fuel economy has launched us into, but there’s still time to prevent the worst of the damage through a sophisticated, dogged, and courageous application of nonviolence. That requires a well thought-out strategy: it is only when people see some hope and a plausible path to success that they swing into action.

Michael Nagler’s new book is The Third Harmony: Nonviolence and the new story of human nature, published by Berrett-Koehler.

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