We know very little about non-violence, although we’re familiar with its opposite. Violence is highlighted on the news, in movies, and video games, and it erupts in our homes or streets. Here’s how we can foster non-violence in our little corner of the world.
By Laura Grace Weldon
You walk through a grocery store parking lot when you notice a woman putting packages in her car. She is screaming at a toddler in her cart and slaps the child as you walk past. If you say anything will you make it worse?
You hear a commotion. When you look out your apartment window you see a young man standing next to a motorcycle, pushing and yelling at a girl who seems to be his girlfriend. Would the police consider this abuse if you called?
You drive past a cluster of youths on a city street, only noticing as you pass that they are clubbing a boy with a piece of wood. It’s safer for you to continue in traffic, but you want to defend this teen from his aggressors. Can your heart and head agree on a course of action?
You leave work late on a dark wintry evening. As you turn a corner you see an ill-dressed man close behind you. He holds out a gun and asks for money.
Are there any options which do not leave a victim?
We’re familiar with violence. It’s highlighted on the news, in movies and video games. It erupts in our homes or streets. Whether present in our lives or brought to us on the screen, the effects of violence are insidious and pervasive.
Yet we know very little about non-violence. We may be familiar with the sit-ins and marches used in the civil rights movement or the passive resistance of Gandhi’s satyagraha. But most people don’t think these approaches are relevant in today’s world. In fact, pacifism is often confused with those who are passive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nonviolence requires a level of conviction and inner strength that makes violence look easy.
The loving force of non-violence is applicable from the personal to the global. As Jim and Kathy McGinnis wrote in their now classic book, Parenting for Peace and Justice, “Peace is not the absence of conflict. Conflict is an inevitable fact of daily life – internal, interpersonal, intergroup, and international conflict. Peace consists in creatively dealing with conflict.”
The tactics of non-violence have worked throughout history. But, as it’s often said, history is written by the victors. Antony Adolf takes on that perception in Peace: A World History. He writes, “The champions of peace, momentous and everyday, intellectual and activist, expert professional and lay, have for too long been considered exceptions that prove this rule, when in actuality without their efforts there may not have been a history to live, let alone write.”
These tactics work today, although they continue to be little known. According to the Human Security Report, from the Simon Fraser University, peacemaking efforts by the United Nations as well as voluntary activism continue to have a powerful impact. Although little reported by the media, the world has seen a significant decline in violence. The overall number of armed conflicts has declined by forty percent since 1992 with the deadliest conflicts dropping by eighty percent. Thirty years ago, ninety countries were governed by authoritarian regimes; by 2003, this number had declined to thirty.
The efforts of individuals make a difference too. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice and Beauty to the World about the efforts of caring people everywhere around the world. Hawkin says there have never been so many people working on behalf of others. There are over a million organizations working for environmental stewardship, social justice, cultural preservation, and peace.
The success of humankind, in fact, is based on peaceful person-to-person, group-to-group interaction. The unwritten span of prehistory makes up ninety-nine percent of our time on earth. Most anthropologists affirm that cooperation was pivotal for survival during this long stage, when people lived in nomadic hunter-gatherer bands. A lone human would not last long. No claws, fangs, or heavy fur protected them. Interdependence was key. Together, our forebears developed language, healing arts, and methods of procuring food. Cooperative efforts in child rearing, protection from predators, and shelter from the elements gave them a survival edge. This entire period of our development was characterized by generally peaceable human interactions. No convincing evidence of warfare exists in this span of prehistory. Planned aggression against others apparently began around the start of agriculture.
From the larger perspective of time, we are barely out of prehistory, adjusting to the complexities of civilization. As anthropologist Douglas P. Fry notes in Beyond War, cooperation and empathy accurately represent our species. Violence is not “human nature.”
A major characteristic of violence is that it tends to escalate. It is most easily reversed at the beginning and becomes progressively more difficult to stop as it spirals into more intense violence. Those who study the effects of intervention in violent situations have found that when others object or actively intervene, their efforts tend to slow or stop the violence. Dr. Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule, reports in The Roots of Evil that the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Nazis in Germany began their campaigns of genocide with small persecutions, which citizens allowed to continue. He reports that action by “bystanders” (those who are not victim or perpetrator) empowers the victim and diminishes the power of the aggressor. But ignoring the suffering of others allows the violence to escalate.
That’s true in our daily lives as well. When we deal with signs of conflict right away, firmly and with compassion, we don’t permit problems to get worse. That’s just one principle of non-violence. The more we know about non-violence, the wider the range of options we have to choose from in each situation.
Let’s go back to the situations you might encounter in a parking lot, near your home, while driving, or coming home from work. All of these situations were actual experiences by people who had studied nonviolence. When faced with these situations, each person recognized that there was something they could do.
The man about to walk past the woman slapping her toddler in the parking lot had an idea. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a ten dollar bill, and covertly dropped it near them. He made a show of leaning over and finding the bill. He held it out to the woman and asked if it was hers. That simple act stopped her from hitting the child. Although she insisted it was not her money, he gave it to her. As they spoke, he made some positive observations about her child. He sympathized with her difficulty, mentioning that when his kids were young he found it easiest to take along a few snacks and small toys to keep them busy. They talked and by the time he walked away the woman and toddler were both smiling. For that moment, he’d brought a positive element to the situation.
The neighbor who witnessed the motorcyclist pushing his girlfriend decided he couldn’t stand by. He walked casually out of his apartment and just as he was about to pass the couple he paused. When the boyfriend noticed his glance, the neighbor made an admiring comment about the bike. It disrupted the violence. He and the young man struck up a brief conversation about motorcycles. His observations on the bike may have been understood later. He couldn’t tolerate the way the woman was being treated and his interruption of the abuse offered her time to leave.
The commuter walking late along a cold, dark street and confronted by a gunman was afraid he might lose his wallet, coat, and perhaps his life. He also empathized with the desperate man. Ignoring the gun and disrupting the man’s plan to make him a victim, he said, “It’s cold. Why don’t you take my jacket?” As he took off the coat he kept talking about the wintry weather. He offered to purchase food, even give the man money. The aggressor was abashed and refused everything offered to him. The commuter insisted the poorly dressed man take the jacket as a gift. He transformed a crime into an encounter of compassion.
The woman who drove past teens pummeling another youth with a piece of wood chose to stop her car in traffic. Standing at her open car door she called to them, telling them to stop what they were doing. They were surprised but held their ground. One jeered at her asking why she would care about some kid who was a stranger to her. Others laughed. She answered that she cared about all of them. And then she said she would stop if she saw any of them being hurt. “Next time I might need to stop for you,” she told the youth who had jeered. Anger defused, they walked away. She left when she saw the youth who’d been hurt walk away in the other direction.
These people chose action over despair. Their creative, unique solutions were peaceful de-escalations of violent situations. They may not have eliminated the causes or “solved” the issue but they pointed a way out.
Our anger and our concerns about violence can be shaped into purposeful, peaceful action. This is the greatest antidote to despair.
Laura Grace Weldon leads workshops on non-violence, creativity, memoir writing and sustainable living whenever she can be cajoled away from the small farm where she lives with her family. She’s the author of “Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything” (Hohm Press, 2010), where some of this article first appeared. Visit her at www.lauragraceweldon.com. This article was published in Natural Life Magazine.