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Am I A Pacifist?
Dana Williams
“Am I a pacifist?” Why this might not seem the most burning question to many in their daily life, it's a constant factor in mine. I have come to understand, through personal observation and analysis, that we live in a very, very violent world. Knowing this, I must make a decision to “play along” with “business as usual” and be violent myself, or at least complicit in it. Or I must make an intentional and meaningful stance against it that tries to limit my own complicity, involvement, and acceptance of the violence around me.

When I became “political”, this thinking led me to consider myself a pacifist. I thought this because all my personal encounters with violence and my own past violent acts had left me with an utter sense of personal disgust and repulsion. I no longer wished to have anything to do with violence, and for this reason, I thought that made me a pacifist. But, depending on how one defines “pacifist”, this may or may not actually make me one.

For example, Quaker acquaintances of mine define it very purely-- name-calling, mean words (including disparaging jokes of those in power), profanity, and so forth, would all be violent acts, in addition to the obvious punching, shooting, bombing. Many of these same people consider defending oneself and property destruction to be violence, too.

In fact, many peace activists also think that self-defense and especially property destruction is violence. I actually think these two acts are tactical and political questions, not moral ones. For me, the choice to defend myself (by running away, raising my arm to block a blow, pushing an aggressor away, etc.) is simple common sense. And also nonviolent. I value my life, and have no desire to have my body battered-- or others' bodies for that matter. Pacifist activists argue, correctly I think, that not defending oneself can sometimes lead to the aggressor realize the error of their values or shift public sentiment towards the abused (such as Gandhi and MLK most prominently were able to do). This may be true, but it also makes many assumptions that in a moment-to-moment situation will not be effective for the message activists wish to convey.

I think the issue of property destruction is a bit more contentious. First, there is no way, in any philosophical or moral sense, that property destruction can be considered “violent”. Why? Because I consider “violence” to be something that can only be harm done to LIVING beings. Property, obviously, is not alive. To argue that smashing a window or spray painting a wall is “violence”, is to raise the innate worth and value of an inanimate object to the level of a flesh-and-blood, living being. It is insulting to life to argue that such things are violent! Would we actually claim that smashing a window is as violent as smashing someone's face or vertebrae? Is tagging a wall with graffiti that same as scratching words with a razor blade into someone else's skin? This is utterly absurd. Yet, one can argue, the merits of property destruction as an act that can detract from one's message, scare people, cause indirect human harm, and so forth.

For similar reasons, I question the desire of some activists to engage in “street-fighting” with police. I think that the police should be confronted in the street, but do not see the point in locking in battle with them. First, the police are not the true enemy: they are merely the foot-soldiers of capitalism and the State, and they are under orders to do what they do. Second, most cops are working class people who are constantly lied to about the goals and intents of activists, to the point where cops themselves are convinced that only strong force and violence will save themselves from the bomb-wielding anarchists about to “descend” upon their city (or whatever). Lastly, fighting the cops distracts away from our message (unless that message is about police brutality itself), and focuses media attention on street skirmishes instead of the actual reason we're out in the streets in the first place. I'm not there to fight police officers, I'm out there to fight authority, the elites, and oppressors. I'm out there to advocate for a better future. Anything else is a waste of my time.

My most direct issue with the word “pacifism” is that it seems to convey the sense that one is “passive”. I do not desire any action that is at all passive. Even Gandhi rejected the idea of “passive resistance”, saying that he never advocated passive anything! I agree, and think that if we are serious about doing away with the violence in this world, we must challenge and confront those who commit such violence, and not plead, with our tails tucked between our legs for them to do so. Authority needs to be confronted and stopped, not bargained with. Instead of being passive, I think we need to be assertive, very assertive. Passivity is, in fact, what most of American society possesses: the casual, flippant indifference towards violence.

Further, we need to be pro-active in our resistance, as opposed to being reactionary. Thus, I believe as many activists do, that we need to be involved in civil disobedience and direct action to monkey-wrench the system. I think these methods are most effective when done nonviolently. My nonviolence in this respect is more pragmatic than ethical. Then again, I can't really imagine what true good would come about by violent direct action when a movement does not have mass public support. Consider the classical anarchist movement and its brief flirtation with the concept of “propaganda by deed”. Anarchists still wish to propagate their message by their actions, but at the time this referred to the assassination of violent public officials, such as heads of state, police chiefs, corporate leaders, etc. In almost every case, the assassination or attempted assassination of such figures only resulted in greater repression upon communities of resistance and those already suffering-- it did not lead to a mass uprising. Violence by activists in resistance to other violence more often than not allows those in power to justify greater violence in response. Such authority has the legitimacy to use such violence, the power of those resisting is weakened and undercut.

That said, I cannot and will not, criticize those in other countries that don't have our great freedoms of personal expression and resistance who choose to resist through the use of violence. I may be appalled in some ways when leftist guerrillas take up arms to fight against death squads, but who am I to criticize their methods? I'm not there, bearing the brunt of daily atrocity and violence with them, but rather am living my privileged existence in a very free country. For instance, how can I criticize youth who throw rocks or shoot back at Israeli soldiers? Rocks can sometimes hurt, and weapons can kill. But, even though I might be convinced that nonviolent civil disobedience is a more efficient and effective way of ending Israel's illegal occupation of the Occupied Territories, I cannot tell them that they are wrong for resisting what will likely be their elimination from the face of the earth with violent means.

I do not feel, however, that forming armed units in this country makes much sense. It is pointless to try to un-gun the US government and military. We'll lose every single time. We ought to instead use our much stronger and convincing ability to nonviolently resist authority, which will allow for a broad-based political movement of resistance. But, as with Ward Churchill, I will not criticize others who use different methods internationally or even at home, who are resisting. He is right in pointing out that the we are already in a violent situation-- the methods of violence and repression have already been chosen by those in power. Violence is always more extreme and devastating on authority's side, not ours... a truth we shouldn't lose sight of as we question our “violence”.

So, when I reflect on “pacifism”, I find many sympathies, but also many questions and grey-areas. I choose to act nonviolently in all my daily and political actions, but I also intend to be assertive and direct. I also believe in self-defense, and laugh at all and any claims that violence extends to property destruction. I also will not “save” those tyrants from jokes at their expense or even angry words, because my verbal aggression will never ever pierce their shields or hurt them. I don't think of myself as a pacifist anymore, but I've yet to change my mind about participating in violence itself. I see no reason to blacken my heart with cruelty or aggression against other out-of-power people like me.

Violence is a game I want nothing to do with.

03/21/04