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:
- Jumping out of a trench and running toward a machine gun in an effort to kill another human being despite the near-certainty of being killed yourself, all because you’ve been told by someone in authority that everything important to you depends on you doing this act. (The guy manning the machine gun has been told he must kill you for just the same reason—or lack thereof.)
- Hitting someone in the face because they called you a name you find insulting.
- Calling someone a name because you have decided you don’t like them.
- Fighting a war to end all wars.
- Killing a fellow human being so that you can take a few dollars from him or her.
- Killing a fellow human being so that you can show others that killing people is wrong.
- Killing yourself because of the end of a romantic relationship, a financial setback, a bleak mood, or some other temporary state of affairs.
- Poisoning the environment you live in for a few extra dollars in your bank account.
- Invading a country, killing its inhabitants, and destroying its resources in order to “liberate” it.
- Invading a country, killing its inhabitants, and destroying its resources in order to “liberate” it because that country has itself invaded another country, killed its inhabitants, and destroyed its resources in order to “liberate” it.
- Allowing your fellow human beings to become sick and die for lack of care despite the fact that only a few dollars out of your pocket would be required to prevent it.
- Shooting a fellow human being because he or she worships God in a different way, speaks another language, holds different political opinions, looks different, wears different color clothes, belongs to a different social group or tribe, or shares genetic material with people who you feel did something “wrong” hundreds of years ago to people with whom you share genetic material.
- Committing physical or verbal violence against someone because of who they love.
- Spending more money on ways to kill people than to educate them.
- Fomenting the belief that some people are deserving of ever-lasting torment because they do not share a specific set of religious tenets.
- Waging war and occupying a country because a small group of people who were not from that country committed an act of violence against thousands of people who had not committed any act of violence against them, but because these people, for the most part, A) did not share their particular religious beliefs, and B) were citizens of a country whose government was responsible for acts they [i.e., the small group of people] found objectionable—specifically, waging war and occupying a country . . .the same country against which war was waged and which was occupied in retaliation for all of this, despite the fact that none of this small group were from this country!
Violence is insanity. Despite its omnipresence in society, I’d suggest that no one in her or his right mind would engage in it. The fact that violence is so prevalent suggests not that it is natural or understandable or inevitable, but that we are to a great extent, individually and collectively, not in our right minds.