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Is American Nonviolence Possible?

Monday 3 June 2013

By TODD MAY

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

The choice is not between violence and nonviolence but between nonviolence and nonexistence.

— Martin Luther King Jr.

We are steeped in violence.

This past week was of course a searing reminder: Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon and the ensuing manhunt that ended on Friday with the death of one suspect and the capture of another, his brother, dominated the news. But there were other troubling, if less traumatic reminders, too. On Tuesday, a 577-page report by the Constitution Project concluded that the United States had engaged in torture after the Sept. 11 attacks. On Wednesday, a turning point in the heated national debate on gun control was reached when the United States Senate dropped consideration of some minimal restrictions on the sale and distribution of guns. Looming above all this is the painful memory of the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Now is as good a time as any to reflect on our responses to the many recent horrors that seem to have engulfed us, and to consider whether we can hope to move from an ethos of violence to one nonviolence. Facing ourselves squarely at this difficult moment might provide a better lesson for the future than allowing ourselves to once again give in to blind fury.

We might begin by asking the question, Who are we now?

Clearly, we are a violent country. Our murder rate is three to five times that of most other industrialized countries. The massacres that regularly take place here are predictable in their occurrence, if not in their time and place. Moreover, and more telling, our response to violence is typically more violence. We display our might — or what is left of it — abroad in order to address perceived injustices or a threat to our interests. We still have not rid ourselves of the death penalty, a fact that fills those in other countries with disbelief. Many of us, in response to the mindless gun violence around us, prescribe more guns as the solution, as the Republicans sought to do during the gun debate. And we torture people. It is as though, in thinking that the world responds only to violence, we reveal ourselves rather than the world.

Why is this? How has the United States become so saturated in slaughter?

There are, of course, many reasons, but three stand out, one of which is deep and longstanding and the others of more recent vintage. The deep reason lies in our competitive individualism. Americans are proud of our individualism, and indeed it is not entirely a curse. To believe that one has a responsibility to create oneself rather than relying on others for sustenance has its virtues. No doubt many of the advances — scientific, technological and artistic — that have emerged from the United States have their roots in the striving of individuals whose belief in themselves bolstered their commitment to their work. However, the dark side of this individualism is a wariness of others and a rejection of the social solidarity characteristic of countries like Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand and, at least to some extent, France. We make it, if we do make it, but we do so alone. Our neighboring citizens are not so much our fellows as our competitors.

The second reason is the decline of our ability to control events in the world. We might date this decline from our military failure in Vietnam, or, if we prefer, more recently to the debacle in Iraq. In any event, it is clear that the United State cannot impose its will as it did during much of the 20th century. We live in a different world now, and this makes many of us insecure. We long for a world more cooperative with our wishes than the one we now live in. Our insecurity, in turn, reinforces our desire to control, which reinforces violence. If we cannot control events in the world, this must be a result not of our impotence or the complexity of the world’s problems but of our unwillingness to “man up.” And so we tell ourselves fairy tales about what would have happened if we had committed to victory in Vietnam or bombed one or another country back to the Stone Age.

The third reason is economic. The welfare state has been in decline for more than 30 years now. The embrace of classical liberalism or neoliberalism erodes social solidarity. Each of us is an investor, seeking the best return on our money, our energies, our relationships, indeed our lives. We no longer count on government, which is often perceived as the enemy. And we no longer have obligations to those with whom we share the country, or the planet. It is up to each of us to take our freedom and use it wisely. Those who do not are not unlucky or impoverished. They are simply imprudent.

Competitive individualism, insecurity, neoliberalism: the triad undergirding our penchant for violence. This, as much as anything else, is the current exceptionalism of America. Others are not our partners, nor even our colleagues. They are our competitors or our enemies. They are hardly to be recognized, much less embraced. They are to be vanquished.

What would the alternative, nonviolence, look like? And what does it require of us?

We must understand first that nonviolence is not passivity. It is instead creative activity. That activity takes place within particular limits. To put the point a bit simply, those limits are the recognition of others as fellow human beings, even when they are our adversaries. That recognition does not require that we acquiesce to the demands of others when we disagree. Rather, it requires that our action, even when it coerces the other (as boycotts, strikes, sit-ins and human blockades often do), does not aim to destroy that other in his or her humanity. It requires that we recognize others as fellow human beings, even when they are on the other side of the barricades.

This recognition limits what we can do, but at the same time it forces us to be inventive. No longer is it a matter of bringing superior firepower to bear. Now we must think more rigorously about how to respond, how to make our voices heard and our aims prevail. In a way it is like writing a Shakespearean sonnet, where the 14-line structure and iambic pentameter require thoughtful and creative work rather than immediate and overwhelming response.

To recognize someone’s humanity is, in perhaps the most important way, to recognize him or her as an equal. Each of us, nonviolence teaches, carries our humanity within us. That humanity cannot always be appealed to. In some cases, as with the tragedy at Sandy Hook, it can even become nearly irrelevant. However, in all but the most extreme cases nonviolence summons us to recognize that humanity even when it cannot serve as the basis for negotiation or resolution. It demands that we who act do so with a firm gaze upon the face of the other. It demands the acknowledgment that we are all fragile beings, nexuses of hope and fear, children of some mother and perhaps parents to others: that is, no more and no less than fellow human beings in a world fraught with imponderables.

Can we do this? Are we capable at this moment of taking on the mantle of nonviolence?

The lessons are already there in our history. The civil rights movement is perhaps the most shining example of nonviolence in our human legacy. After 9/11, after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, and now, in the immediate on-the-ground responses to the Boston bombing, Americans pulled together with those they did not know in order to restore the web of our common existence. We are indeed violent, but we have shown flashes of nonviolence, that is to say moments where our competitive individualism, our insecurity, our desire for the highest return on our investment of time and money, has been trumped by the vividness of the likeness of others. Granted, these are only moments. They have not lasted. But they teach us that when it comes to nonviolent relations with others, we are not entirely bereft.

What would it require for these lessons to be become sedimented in our collective soul? There is much work to be done. We must begin to see our fellow human beings as precisely that: fellows. They need not be friends, but they must be counted as worthy of our respect, bearers of dignity in their own right. Those who struggle must no longer be seen as failures, but more often as unlucky, and perhaps worthy of our extending a hand. Those who come to our shores, whatever our policy toward them, must be seen as human beings seeking to stitch together a decent life rather than as mere parasites upon our riches. Those who are unhealthy must be seen as more than drains upon our taxes but instead as peers that, but for good fortune, might have been us.

None of this requires that we allow others to abdicate responsibility for their lives. Nor does it require that we refuse, when no other means are available, to defend ourselves with force. Instead it calls upon us to recognize that we, too, have a responsibility to more than our own security and contentment. It commands us to look to ourselves and at others before we start casting stones.

Would this end all senseless killing? No, it would not. Would it substitute for the limits on guns that are so urgently needed? Of course not. While the recently rejected limits on guns, however timid, might have provided a first public step toward the recognition of the requirements of our situation, our task would remain: to create a culture where violence is seen not as the first option but as the last, one that would allow us to gaze upon the breadth of space that lies between an unjust act and a violent response.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that the core of morality lay in treating others not simply as means but also as ends in themselves. Nonviolence teaches us nothing more than this. It is a simple lesson, if difficult to practice — especially so at a moment like this when our rage and grief are still raw. But it is a lesson that has become buried under our ideology and our circumstances. We need to learn it anew.

Learning this lesson will not bring back the life of the Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell or the other murdered victims in Boston. It will not return to health those who were injured on that day. It won’t bring back Trayvon Martin or the children of Sandy Hook. But it will, perhaps, point the way toward a future where, instead of recalling yet more victims of violence in anger and with vows of retribution, we find ourselves with fewer victims to recall.


Todd May is Class of 1941 Memorial Professor of the Humanities at Clemson University, and the author of, most recently, “Friendship in the Age of Economics.” He is currently working on a book on the philosophy of nonviolence.

See online: Is American Nonviolence Possible?