Monday, October 3, 2011

The Other "N-Word"

For a number of years now I have noticed quite a disdain among people who identify as anarchists towards the philosophy and practice of nonviolence. Just mentioning the word "nonviolence" among anarchists pretty reliably will result in setting some people off. The idea seems to be that advocates for nonviolence want people to basically be human punching-bags, willing victims, lambs waiting for the slaughter. There also exists an idea that advocates for nonviolence are highly judgmental, extremely moralistic, and are willing to call the cops when somebody crosses the stark moral lines that they have drawn on the sand. In a number of different instances, this in fact has been the case.

For myself though, I have always had a sense that I have somehow walked right into the middle of this raging battle going on between the "nonviolence" advocates and those who think otherwise. This all has been going on long before I arrived, and I have never felt like I was really a part of either one side or the other. At the same time, I have always felt at least intuitively drawn to nonviolence, but in my own unique way.

Back when I first discovered the philosophy of anarchism and got into it all, I initially considered myself to be an anarcho-pacifist. I've since dropped that phrase, and at different times I have stopped talking about the question of violence altogether. Instinctively, though, I have always been into the idea of a nonviolent anarchism. The reason for this is that as I see it anarchism as a philosophy advocates for people to not use force, coercion or domination within social relationships or organizations. Anarchism instead advocates for a new society based on voluntary cooperation, free association, and people coming together as equals. As I have always seen it violent acts are by their very nature is an instance of coercion, domination, and one person (at least) exerting force over another. I've never seen it as being possible to have a true anarchism be anything other than nonviolent.

Conversely, I have never seen it as being possible to have a philosophy and practice of nonviolence without it being a form of anarchism. As I see it, institutions like the state and capitalism inevitably entail the use and threat of institutionalized violence. What are things like prisons, militaries, and police forces if not organized groups of people committing or threatening violence? Creating social or political change while at the same time keeping those groups of people around is maintaining a steady and constant presence of large-scale violence. Placing the label "nonviolent" on oneself while at the same time overlooking the presence and actions of these institutions have never made sense to me.

For a period of time I openly distanced myself from "nonviolence" and such ideas, and in retrospect that very much was related to my own sense of distrust and exasperation with people and the possibility of real social change. At one point I discovered the practice of Nonviolent Communication, and that re-introduced me to nonviolence in a whole new and different way from what I was familiar with before.

Nonviolent Communication speaks of, and provides tools to work towards, a whole other way to perceive and relate with life in general. It is based on the idea that all human beings share the same fundamental human needs which motivate everything that is thought, said or done. Ideas of "right" and "wrong", "good" and "bad" are abandoned, and in their place are assessments of whether particular actions or ideas are really meeting people's needs or not. Using this perspective, nobody needs to be blamed or judged, and no matter how scary or different the actions of somebody may be. Everything can potentially be understood through empathic listening and dialogue, if the skills and the determination to do so are present.

That is the basic idea behind Nonviolent Communication - in practice it has not been used that much so far in actual social struggles and political campaigns. However, the potential behind it still does excite me. As far as I can tell, the majority of the history of nonviolence has indeed always had a strong sense of moralistic judgements and condemning others who think and act differently than oneself. People had the best of intentions while doing that, but those actions did take place, thereby creating unnecessary barriers and obstacles.

More recently, coming out of the Nonviolent Communication scene is a set of 17 core commitments for living a life of nonviolence. As I see it, these core commitments form a written expression of how nonviolence can be seen and lived in a way differently from what has been the norm before. This particular articulation of nonviolence very explicitly includes a rigorous practice and commitment to things such as empathic presence, authenticity and loving no matter what. This is important because this enables real deep-rooted change to take place.

I say this because I view social dynamics as being inextricably tied together with psychological dynamics, and that social change is very much interwoven with psychological change. Society is after all comprised of people, real human beings with their own individual lives and personal psyches, as well as broad social forces and institutions. Based on this, I have been deeply informed by the work of the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. Carl Rogers had the notion that real and substantial change within people takes places when at least three factors are present within an interpersonal relationship - authenticity, empathic understanding and what he called unconditional positive regard. Without those things present, behaviors such as defensiveness, abstract intellectualizing, and a more superficial examining of one's life will be the kinds of behaviors that will be the norm. As I see it, those kinds of behaviors are the norm in the world that we live in now, but they don't have to be.

Authenticity, empathy and caring can not only serve as a force for positive change, but also can be at the root for nonviolence and anarchism. We don't want people to be hurt, killed, bossed around or dominated because those things completely work against heart-felt authenticity, empathic understanding and true caring being present in relationships. This all then calls for a radically different kind of nonviolence than what we are used to or what we have generally seen in the world up until now. This kind of nonviolence emphasizes things like caring, sensitivity, and deep personal expression. These kinds of things are more the norm in social circles like psychotherapy and self-help, but are not at all the norm in circles based around radical politics and activism. This can be changed.

One way to help to implement a change towards this direction is to intentionally create new social situations where people can openly express and actively listen to one another with care and empathy. To use the parlance of Nonviolent Communication, the appropriate social "containers" need to be created, with the presence of skilled facilitators, where people can be "held" in such a way that people feel safe and secure enough to speak more honestly and candidly about themselves and about life. This in effect is a series of actions that can be taken to more consciously humanize people and relations with each-other.

Dehumanization and depersonalization are two tendencies that have contributed greatly towards both the domination and the violence that exist in our society, and this can be counter-acted by establishing new and public social forms where people can be more openly human together. This is something that can be done, involving skills that can be taught and learned, and it all begins with a choice and a decision to do so.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Thank you for this post, Ian! I especially appreciated the reminder of what we can use to evaluate social structures (in addition to your points about the inherent violence of many institutions): Are they meeting people's needs?

And i envision that this would inform the dialog's you suggests as well. I can see a facilitated exchange between a police officer and an activist - maybe with the outcome that both realize that they share needs for safety and respect.