Past thoughts on nonviolence

Past thoughts on nonviolence April 2, 2009

Am still mulling over Gorenberg's piece, but while those wheels make their glacial turns in my head, here's a snippet I wrote last year on this subject in reaction to one of Mark Steyn's trademark artful-but-intellectually-wanting rants against Muslims.

My thinking has evolved somewhat since then, but it raises some concerns that I think remain valid.

Akram's Razor – "The resurrection of Willie Horton in the age of Islamophobia ":

Then there's how baldly hypocritical Steyn's Gandhi-invoking rhetoric is given his conflict-stoking ways. You have to admire the cheek of hawks who loudly call for no-holds-barred confrontation and who mock peace activists as clueless idealists that can turn around and chide Muslims for not being pacifists like them.

You can be a great admirer, as I am, of Muslim pacifists like Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Jawdat Said while conceding that there are cases today where Muslim peoples are caught between Scylla and Charybdis that makes pacifism–which is never an easy path to walk–ineffective as a means of resistance to oppression.

Were people in most key conflicts involving Muslims today to embrace the noblest ideals of Gandhian non-violence in their struggles it is doubtful that their tactics would work as they have in the past.

The power of non-violent resistance lies in the shame and aversion it inspires in mainstream observers who feel implicated in the conflict. This reaction is only possible in the context of media that attempt to accurately report on the human suffering of a conflict. A partisan or indifferent media shortcircuits the system. (As does one that disseminates bloodless, "Nintendo wars"; or one that eagerly enlists in a wartime government's disinformation campaigns.)

When the media systematically ignore or play down violence against one side of a conflict, folks back home in Peoria never have the chance to get revolted/shamed/irritated/outraged enough for non-violent resistance to have a chance at succeeding. Nonviolence requires vocal public support, which in turn requires public awareness. Yet like the old Zen koan about the tree in the forest, the sicing of dogs on Black civil rights worker by white policemen would never have "happened" were it not for the presence of TV cameras that forced mainstream viewers to confront the evil of the Jim Crow system in which they all played a part as citizens.

As much as one wants to advocate nonviolence, what good would adopting Gandhian tactics do in, say, Chechnya, where the Western media pays little attention to the ongoing slaughter and violation of human rights. Were Chechens to march, holding hands, on the Russian tanks singing Negro Spirituals, their foremost accomplishment would probably be to reduce wasted bullets. By the same token, in the Occupied Territories, unless a camera crews happen to be about the only folks granted the luxury of nonviolent protest are Western tourists. Palestinians who stick flowers into IDF gun muzzles are likely to catch a gun butt or rubber bullet in the face. So their options are a lot more limited than those of protesters in Western societies, where law enforcement and officialdom fear bad press.

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