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February 2012

February 8, 2012


Quote of the month:

Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It’s a tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. Love: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man. The right hand: the hand of love. The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that’s right. Ooh, it’s a devastating right and Hate is hurt, he’s down. Left-Hand Hate KOed by Love.
-Radio Raheem, from Do the Right Thing.

Faun says:

The film from which Miriam’s chosen quotation originates also features quotations from two famous civil rights leaders during its end credits. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are used throughout the film’s storyline as echoes of the tension that frames the movie: is violence an acceptable, or even an escapable, tool?

Setting the film aside (I don’t expect everyone here to be familiar with it) let’s take a look at the two quotations.

“I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defence. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defence, I call it intelligence.”

– Malcolm X

“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Now, when I saw these, the first thing that jumped out was the phrase “it leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue” because I was certain that I had seen it before. I had, in fact, in a lecture on colonial theory. Aimé Césaire, French writer and politician wrote (this of course is a translated version) “… all this wreckage, all this waste, humanity reduced to a monologue, and you think that all that does not have its price?” in his Discourse on Colonialism

In reading Discourse, one begins to notice that Césaire’s themes match up with King’s in more than one way. This is a long quotation, I know, but remember at least the first three lines:

“First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilization acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and interrogated, all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been instilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery.”

It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.

While there are many arguments against nonviolence (such as Malcolm X’s) mostly to do with inefficacy, I can’t help but think that Césaire’s/King’s point is nearly insurmountable.  If violence (and I will add hatred, though you may disagree) is self-corrupting, and thus self-perpetuating, then it becomes harder to justify. And sure, I don’t have the experience to say that if I were in a life-threatening situation, I wouldn’t resort to violence. I’ve never been overtly oppressed, I’ve never faced violent discrimination, I’ve never lived through a civil war or a military occupation, but the point is that I should never need to, and nor should anyone else.

Even though I’ve argued with Miriam many times about her all-exclusive commitment to pacifism, our dedication of this space to responsibility (both to the world and to the self) makes nonviolence one of the most important things we can be talking about.

Miriam says:

There is an aspect of Malcolm X’s set of beliefs that I comprehend.  That aspect is anger.  Downright fury, even.  The world we live in is often not a good world.  Since our beginning, humanity has created terrible problems.  Humanity took a fertile garden and created the Sahara desert. That practice has not stopped.  We have enslaved each other and killed each other countless times. Neither has that practice. It seems sometimes that the optimism required to commit oneself to nonviolence is unreasonable simply because optimism itself is suspect.

I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive, however.  I think that nonviolence crumbles into passivity if righteous anger does not back it up.  The people protesting on Wall Street, in Washington D.C., on the University of Alberta campus, and around the world are angry people, angry that they have had so little say in how the way things are going, and angry at the way things have gone.  Every day I am angry at something in the world.  And as long as that anger fuels me to do something, I welcome it.

But why nonviolence?  Why not solve the problem with violence, a belief that permeates much of the world.  I believe that Faun created a very logical, watertight argument.  I particularly like her phrase: “If violence (and I will add hatred, though you may disagree) is self-corrupting, and thus self-perpetuating, then it becomes harder to justify.”  I’d like to add to this an argument I believe I first heard from Joan Baez.  We have tried violence as a solution for many many many years.  And we do not have any semblance of world peace.  Even if you do not feel that it will work, maybe we could give nonviolence a try for a change.  Just to see.

Another point I’d like to discuss from Faun’s post is her use of Césaire’s argument that violence in one part of the community will eventually affect your immediate community, and ultimately, yourself. I’d like to add that I believe the same argument can be used in reverse.  Violence found within an individual will eventually affect the community as a whole. Nonviolence as a way of interacting with people depends upon the whole community, and therefore relies on each individual to practice a peaceful way of living.

“The first step in the direction of a world rule of law is the recognition that peace no longer is an unobtainable ideal but a necessary condition of continued human existence. But to take even this step we must return to a calm and responsible frame of mind in which we can face the long patient tasks ahead.”

Margaret Mead

As a kind of coda, I’d like to use another quote of Christian origin.  (Although Christianity can be a frame of reference for me, I completely understand that some of you who read this may have some aversion to using Christianity in an academic discussion. If that is the case then feel free to not read the quote below.)

 The key to the good news is that we are freed from prolonging the chain of evil cause engendering evil effects by action and reaction in kind. By refusing to extend the chain of vengeance, we break into the world with good news. This one key opened the door to a restructuring of the entire universe of Christian life and thought. There developed from it a critique of economic exploitation, of military and imperial domination, and of westernization.

—John Howard Yoder

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