Monday, September 12, 2016

Deep Assumptions about Power (4 of 7)

This is the fourth post in seven-part series called "A Pragmatic Case for Pacifism." For a link to the table of contents for the entire series, click here.

We have arrived at the halfway point in my blog series about pacifism. For the first three posts in the series, I argued that violence is ineffective. [E1] I cited a number of studies showing that it is not an effective tool for disciplining children, protecting oneself, reducing crime, or overthrowing oppressive governments. I offered an analysis as to why the threat of violence creates moreresistance than cooperation and why individuals and nations cannot seem to eliminate their enemies by killing them.

But that was the easy part of my project. Anyone can point out flaws in people or systems. However, for my blog series to have any value, it has to do more than that. I have to offer constructive alternatives to violence: nonviolent ways of disciplining children, protecting oneself, reducing crime, etc. that are plausible and effective alternatives to violence. The goal of this series is not to criticize those who make use of violence, [E2] but to make the case that there is a better way to fight for good in the world. [E3]

Unfortunately, I’m not ready to present these nonviolent alternatives to you yet. Why not? Because I fear they would fall on deaf ears. For those of us who have been immersed in the logic of necessary violence, [E4] every nonviolent solution or proposal initially strikes us as unrealistic. It doesn’t matter such a proposal has statistical support, scholarly backing, or a track record of success. One can always attribute the past successes of nonviolence to something else. The critics of nonviolence are fond of saying, “Just because nonviolence works some or even most of the time doesn’t mean we can rely on it all of the time. And it is in those cases when nonviolence doesn’t work that violence is most needed.” [E5]

Perhaps I sound defensive here, for I am anticipating negative reactions before I have even presented the argument. I shouldn’t presume to know how you, my reader, will react to what I am about to say, but I’m making an educated guess based on my own gut-reactions. The logic of necessary violence is so widespread in our society that I myself, as a committed pacifist, have a hard time accepting them.  Often times, when I hear a nonviolent solution to crime or oppression or war, I think, “How na├»ve! There’s no way that could work.” Now that I’ve been looking at this for a while, I have come to see that these gut reactions are not based on empirical evidence, sound reasoning, or even philosophical objections. Instead, my distrust of nonviolence is a result of the way I have been taught to think about power.

The deepest reason why most people have a hard time embracing pacifism is because they believe that violence is the ultimate form of power. To them, the call to nonviolence sounds like a call to become weak and helpless in the world, which no one is completely willing to do. After all, all of us seek power. Perhaps that sounds cynical, but I don’t mean for it to be. I’m not suggesting that power is a bad thing, or that everyone seeks power as an end in itself. I realize that not everyone wants to be in charge, and not everyone feels comfortable with power when they get it. Still, I would maintain that everyone seeks power, because power is the ability to influence people or events toward desired outcomes. In order to pursue any goal in the world, we must also seek the power we need to achieve that goal. For example, the kindest and humblest person you know might want nothing more than to make children happy, and so they will pursue training and credentialing that allows and enables them to make children happy. That is still a pursuit of power. Similarly, an Anchorite monk who wants nothing to do with society may run into the wilderness so that no one can disturb him. That is still seeking power – the power to live life undisturbed. Seeking power is not intrinsically good or bad, but it is inherent to the human experience. Consequently, all humans have developed beliefs early in our lives about what power is and how one can acquire it.

In Western society, we have been conditioned to believe that the most powerful force in the universe is violence. [E6] We are taught, in various and subtle ways, that violence created us, [E7] that violence is the glue that holds society together [E8], and that violence is the only weapon strong enough to save us from evil. [E9] [E10] These beliefs are not conclusions that we have deduced after careful study and analysis. They are the assumptions that we begin with. They are what philosophers call mythical beliefs. [E11]

I know that I promised to keep my argument for pacifism grounded in evidence, statistics, research, etc., but no amount of evidence can persuade us to adopt nonviolence so long as we are filtering that evidence through our mythical beliefs about violence. For me to persuade you to be a pacifist without challenging those beliefs would be like trying to purchase a car at a U.S. dealership with Japanese yen. It wouldn’t matter if I have enough wealth to afford the purchase – in the context of mythical violence, my arguments don’t have any currency.

Therefore, in my next post, I will offer an alternative "myth" about what constitutes true power [E12]. To do this, I will draw deeply from another tradition in the West – the Christian tradition – to show how it offers an alternative understanding of power. [E13] Indeed, I think that one way that we can frame the Christian gospel is that it is a revelation about what constitutes true power in the universe. [E14] After laying that foundation, I’ll actually present the nonviolent principles and practices to which I have been referring, and I’ll end the series by considering how Christian pacifists might respond in the face of the most ruthless kind of violence.


End Notes

[E1] – Just for the record, I also believe that the use of violence is “immoral,” but as my ethical philosophy has progressed, I have come to see concepts such as morality and effectiveness as interconnected. Besides that, it is hard to make the case that any action is “immoral” to a general audience in our pluralistic society, so I decided to approach it from the angle of effectiveness.

[E2] – Also for the record, I believe that most citizens of the United States are guilty of “making use of violence,” even if we ourselves aren’t the ones who carry it out. For example, when the general public “calls for blood” in response to a terrorist attack, that puts pressure on government officials to order military officials to launch airstrikes and invasions and other forms of institutionalized violence. Although soldiers often end up being the ones who “pull the trigger,” they don’t usually make the decision to shoot or kill, but are following orders given to them from officials who are elected by the general public. Thus, in a democracy, we all have to share some degree of responsibility for the actions by representatives of the U.S. government.

[E3] – Yes, you heard me correctly. I said there is another way to fight for good in the world. I am not one of those pacifists who avoids using martial or confrontational metaphors because they contain “violent language.” Instead, following the example of the New Testament, I want to appeal to the good impulses that can drive one to engage in warfare (justice, courage, sacrifice, etc.) and employ them in a more appropriate setting.

[E4] – The logic of necessary violence is my way of referring to all of the public dialogue, private conversation, entertainment and thought that flows from the uncritical assumption that the only way to protect yourself or do good in this world is through the use of violence. Hence, it is the logic of necessary violence. Whenever a presupposition like this is repeated often enough, even if it is implied more often than it is stated, we find ourselves believing it.

[E5] – This is a hypocritical argument, as the critics of nonviolence rarely apply this same principle to the “necessary” use of violence. After all, there are many circumstances in which violence has failed: attempted coups, botched assassinations, friendly fire, etc., and yet none of these failures are taken as evidence that violence only works some of the time. Instead, when violence fails, most people try to understand why it failed so that they can try to use it more effectively the next time. Why can’t this same principle be applied to nonviolence?

[E6] – “Western society” (i.e. the United States, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand) is not alone in thinking this way. In fact, I would argue that pretty much all of the nations of the world today are committed to the logic of necessary violence, partially because they have been influenced by the West. But that has not always been the case. Archeologists have discovered some ancient societies such as the Hrappan society in Ancient India and the Norte Chico civilization in ancient South America which seemed to have developed advanced societies without institutionalized violence. Apparently, as their communities sought power, it did not seem imperative to them to seek the power of violence. As it so happens, both of these societies have left written languages that have yet to be decoded, and I hope that we will someday decode them and learn a lot from them.

[E7] It is difficult to trace the exact origins of “Western Civilization,” but most people would identify the Greek city states as one of the places where it emerged. For the Greeks, violence or chaos was the fundamental substance of the world. According to Hesiod, the first substance to exist was Chaos, and out of Chaos came Gaia (the Earth), and from them came everything else. Their children had the Titans and then the gods, whose bloody battles spawned the world order in which we now find ourselves. ( Similar accounts can be found in Babylonian, Assyrian, Sumerian, and Roman myths.

This may seem like a straw man in my critique of Western civilization today because most Westerners don’t believe in these stories. But I would argue that it still influence us – even after the story itself disappears, the ideas behind it manifest in many ways. For example, the modern account of evolution is often described as creation by violence. I don’t really want to get into an extended conversation about evolution in this post, but I do think that emphasis on violence as creative (via natural selective) rather than on life as the creative force (via mutation and adaptation) reveals something about our Western biases.

However you feel about creation in a big sense, there’s no denying that our national myths all point to violence as the source of our creation. For example, in the United States, we believe that the revolutionary war created our nation. We point to July 4, 1776 as the day that our nation was born, the day when we proclaimed our intent to rebel violently against the English government, and this proclamation is ritually reinforced through the national holiday of Independence Day, in which we shoot fireworks to commemorate warfare and sing battle hymns to the Republic.  

But why is July 4, 1776 considered the beginning of the U.S. nation? I would argue that June 21, 1788 – the day on which our Constitution was ratified and the 13 colonies decided to bind together as one nation in a legal document – would be a better marker of the beginning of the U.S. government. Or if you want to define a nation in terms of the identity of the people living here as Americans rather than British colonists, then you have to go back before the Revolutionary War. What I’m trying to point out is that these claims are not rational but mythical: we look to violence as the creative force that brings nations and perhaps even the human species into being.

[E8] The belief that violence is “the glue that holds society together” has been maintained in the West for a long time. It was perhaps most clearly by Thomas Hobbes in his famous passage from the Leviathan: “Hereby, it is manifest that during the time that men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called war; and such a war as is every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known, and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war… In such a condition… the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  In other words, if there is not a government with enough power to keep all people too terrified to break the law, chaos would be unleashed and people would indiscriminately kill each other. I think it’s safe to say that this view has been disproven by the existence of several stateless societies in the world that do not devolve into sheer chaos. Even so, we find ourselves with this great fear that if the guns were removed, people would take the opportunity to do great harm to each other. (The Purge movies are a modern expression of this philosophy.)

[E9] Violence is also seen as the only tool that can save us from evil (which our favorite word for other people’s violence). Again, this idea has a long tradition in the west – dating back to the Pax Romana of Augustus at least – but it has manifested in our own time as the theory of deterrence. Thomas Schelling was one of the political scientists who developed the theory of deterrence, the more weapons that we develop (specifically, nuclear weapons), the safer the world will become, as the mutual threat of violence will keep nations from acting violently toward each other. This was an extremely formative philosophy during the 60s and 70s, but the leading political figures of that time – including Henry Kissinger – have since rejected it.

[E10] And so, we see Violence as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. Are you picking up on the religious overtones yet?

[E11] By “mythical,” philosophers do not necessarily mean these beliefs are false or even that they are irrational, but that they are “pre-rational” – they are the formative beliefs as the base of all of our other beliefs.

[E12] Remember, I am not using “myth” to mean falsehood here. More like “foundational belief.”

[E13] Although you don’t have to be a Christian in order to be a pacifist, pacifism only makes sense when it is tied to a particular tradition. And so, at this point, I have to abandon my attempt to appeal to a general audience and make the case for my particular version of pacifism, Christian pacifism. Actually, even “Christian pacifism” is not a homogenous ideology. In his book, Nevertheless, John Howard Yoder identifies something like 20 different types of Christian pacifism, and I would only embrace a few of those myself. I mention this because I want to make it clear that I’m not speaking on behalf of all pacifists, or even all Christian pacifists.

[E14] Let me make one more point clear: I don’t think that pacifism (by itself) is the “bottom line” of the gospel. Instead, the bottom line of the gospel is that the world is being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. However, I do believe that nonviolence is one of the implications of the gospel, and there are certain ways to frame the story that bring this to the forefront. If you want to read version of this story, you can see my previous post on the Biblical story of nonviolence here

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