How one approaches the use of violence is a prominent topic within nearly all traditions. I will speak to it from the point of view of spiritual practice; specifically along the lines of contemplative thought, inspired by Buddhist, Stoic, Christian, and Humanistic ideas, since this is a close description of my practice.
When talking of violence, it is tempting to talk about grand social schemes, what and how nations behave, and what other people should or shouldn’t do. But in a spiritual practice, the first and foremost concern is, “what shall I do?” Or, “What kind of person am I to be?”
Up front, I should say that I am not a pure pacifist. The Society takes no official stance between pure pacifism and limited self defense or justice, as people of good intent and will can exist along that spectrum and are welcome here. I think it fair to say that the Society’s emphasis on compassion does rule out violent aggression, retributive violence, and initiating violence for the purpose of unethical gain.
Recently in the United States, there has been a troubling rise of violence against minorities and immigrants, motivated by racism and xenophobia. Some groups and individuals expressing fascist philosophies have been featured prominently in the media. This is cause for deep concern and vigorous political action and voices to be raised in opposition, to say the least.
But it has also made many wonder if there can be positions so bad that the expressing of them in society should warrant preemptive violence. Most notably is a video being circulated of a white separatist being punched on the street during an interview.
The number of people I have seen who find this kind of thing not only excusable but admirable is most unfortunate and disappointing.
People who suggest this don’t seem to understand that the ‘thing’ within them that makes them want to punch a racist is the same thing that feeds that person’s racism. When I feel hostile impulses against wicked people, I try to remember that they come from hate, and most importantly fear, in my heart. But fear, anger, and hate are not helpful tools to address these kinds of people or issues. The belief that they are, even if subconscious, is ignorance.
It is common to think that good people need to “get angry!” and that this frenzied state will encourage action. Indeed, it has and will often move masses, but to what end? For students of history, it is not hard to see the world so often moves like a pendulum of reaction against reaction. There are endless examples of the hypocrisy of saviors from which we later need saving.
Although people naturally get angry as well, the most effective actions against evil have been moved centrally by a sense of duty to great virtues and principles, inspired firstly by love. Anger may satisfy the impatient in the moment, but it is a short fuse and results in short-sighted and unwise responses. This is true in history and in our own lives.
When the ignorant speak their vile racism, sexism, and fascism, they are not silenced through intimidation and violence. Instead it feeds them and their cause.
The idea that violence against those espousing certain ideas is justified, is the same philosophy as that used to justify preemptive invasion of Iraq in the second U.S./Iraq War. It was justified by stoking fears of what another country ‘might’ or ‘will’ do. If I were to initiate violence because of some notion of preempting what they claim to want to do, it would be equally misguided.
Violence is often aptly compared to a fire. Once one begins to advocate it and use it, it is very easy for things to get out of hand. Not only are the results of violence unpredictable, and not only are the reactions to it so; it is also unpredictable how others will pick up, carry on, and distort our original justifications. If it is okay to punch a Nazi, what exactly constitutes a Nazi? How severe can the punching be? Are there other ideas just as bad, that might deserve a beating? The original proponents of these misguided ideas always have clearer borders in their heads than actually ends up being practiced by those who buy in to what they preach.
Some have shown pictures of cultural icons punching Nazis, such as the character of Indiana Jones. But these were uniformed members of a military force that was waging war and in active attack and extermination of innocent people. To compare that to a person in a free and otherwise peaceful society punching another for ideas they are expressing (no matter how offensive) is a much further stretch. It is simply not the case that anyone who is not a pure pacifist has no other basis upon which to critique various uses of violence.
This confusion between self defense against immanent and ongoing harm, and action against speech, also comes from a mistaken and very troubling impression taking root these days – that speech can be ‘harm’. If we buy into that notion, then we begin going down a very dark road and no one is safe.
Another mistaken impression is that those who advocate against violent intimidation, are somehow passive and “enabling” fascism. But equal to the principle of free speech are other principles which would demand our action against theirs. It also demands our speaking up and fighting against harmful ideas with better ones. It is the most disingenuous criticism to conflate a refusal to initiate violence with some kind of capitulation or acceptance.
We must have confidence in the strength of truth. We ought to recognize that free minds, treated with compassion, will not naturally veer toward inhuman ideas. This, especially when the truth is spoken loudly by people who make the distinction obvious by their example. The idea that there is certain information or ideas that are so harmful they must be suppressed with violence and intimidation is, ironically, the very delusion of the fascist. Joseph Goebbels would be proud. But in a free society, freedom of speech must apply to the most offensive ideas or it is of no value*.
Punching a person expressing offensive ideas is the lazy response. We who want to be an effective force against such ideas and movements should do it in a way that works and that matters – a way that demands something more of us. A way that requires hard work, discipline, diligence, and love, rather than merely satisfying our own dark impulses.
In the case of the video mentioned above, the attacker was a black man. Some say that, for people of color or other minorities, the social contract has failed them and it is inherently unfair to expect the same of them. So, if such a person were to take violence or theft into their own hands it is justifiable. They believe this breaks the symmetry of the general principle.
Ironically again, this ‘social contract’ view of morality is hopelessly tied up in a Western viewpoint. There are far more important reasons for all of us to act virtuously or compassionately than the social contract. The reasons are more to do with the inherent benefit to us as individuals. It doesn’t matter whether the ‘rules’ are fair or unfair or whether they are followed symmetrically by society or other people.
These principles are not invented but discovered. They have to do with the nature of any healthy human being, and what kind of mental habits and actions are conducive to his or her flourishing and well-being. We ignore them to our detriment. This is why we cannot let the bad behavior of others determine what kind of person we will be. This is true no matter our race, religion, place, or time.
It has been suggested that, as a white male, those like myself espousing such principles are very conveniently preaching restraint from a position of privilege.
Every one of us has the right and the obligation to express views that we believe right, and to speak out against wrongs, and to practice the best we can in our own life. There is no one whose sense of empathy and limits of experience are so hopeless that they have nothing of value to express or offer.
Many who have make this criticism are themselves white people who don’t seem to recognize that, even while holding an opposing view, they themselves are nevertheless still ‘another white person’ giving opinions on what people of color are ‘ok’ and ‘not ok’ doing.
While it would be flattering to take credit for the principles and practices I’ve described. However, I happen to only be relaying very old and widely held wisdom from people far more experienced and wise than myself. More specifically, I am following the ideas and words of a black man, an Indian, a slave from modern-day Turkey, and a Jew.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon.”
Epictetus warned us against giving way to impulses of violence or anger.
Jesus of Nazareth said, “You have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate you enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies…”
Yes, we can love the most hateful among us, even as we work against them, and ultimately for them. That unexpected love can move the hearts of more people with a force no punch could ever muster. If I remember this in my practice and my impulses, and keep to the wise words of people like this, I think I’ll be a far better actor in the world.
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*Of course, it is agreed that speech which directly conspires to violence should be illegal, such as, “Hey guys, let’s go burn down that house!” But even illegal, there are often far superior ways of dealing with this than mob rule and street preemptive violence.