Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Nonviolence: Lesson 1

I’m rereading Mark Kurlansky’s Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea. If Kurlansky sounds familiar, it’s probably because he was the guy who taught us about the role of cod and salt in history.

In an appendix to the book, Kurlansky lists what he feels are 25 lessons about non-violence that emerge from his overview of its history. As a sort of mental exercise, I thought I’d write a brief post about each of the 25 lessons, on a more or less daily basis for the next month.

The first of Kurlansky’s lessons is this: There is no proactive word for nonviolence.

If you pick up just about any book about nonviolence, this topic comes up. Nonviolence, as the word itself suggests, is defined negatively as an absence of violence. But this isn’t true. Nonviolence in the way practiced by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others is an active act, a positive one. Satyagraha, a word coined by Gandhi for his actions, translates to “truth force.” Unfortunately, it has never caught on (although I’m pleasantly surprised that, as I type this, Microsoft Word apparently acknowledges this word's existence, since no yucky red squiggly line shows up below it when I type it).

What we do and don’t have words for reveals something about our culture. Like the semi-mythical assertion that the Inuit peoples have a gazillion words for “snow” because its so much a part of their lives, perhaps we have so many words for various kinds of violence (and none for nonviolence) precisely because violence is such a part of our culture, while active, peaceful confrontation is so rare.

At the risk of verging into the esoteric, though, I’d suggest there is a word for nonviolence.

Consider the following actions:

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Synecdoche Gaza

We’ve now learned that an American citizen was killed on the Turkish ship boarded by Israeli commandos.  Furkan Dogan was shot four times in the head and once in the chest at close range.

Everyone from the Pope to the Secretary General of the UN has criticized the forcible boarding of a humanitarian aid ship in international waters. But many, particularly in the United States (even those critical of Israel’s actions) wonder why the criticism is so one-sided. After all, although those on all but one of the ships used non-violent, passive resistance, the commandos did face physical resistance on the ship where the shootings happened.

There are a lot of reasons for this. First, all of the dead were members of the flotilla. While some commandos were wounded, none were killed. Then there’s the obvious David/Goliath issue, with the well-trained and well-armed Israeli commandos playing Goliath (ironically enough) to the David of a crew of unarmed men and women trying to deliver humanitarian supplies to Gaza. And then there was the fact that the boarding took place in international waters. While it would have been ideal for all members of the flotilla to practice nonviolence, it isn’t surprising that some would have tried to defend their ship when armed men dropped from the sky to take it over.

If any of these variables weren’t in place, I suspect the reaction would be a bit more nuanced and conflicted.

But there’s also a symbolic—even rhetorical—part of the answer as well. The vision of armed Israelis seizing control of a ship and shooting civilians serves as a synecdoche of the situation in Gaza.