I’m a fairly nonviolent guy—one of my t-shirts has a tie-dye peace sign, for goodness’ sake. I practiced martial arts growing up, but I always lacked the aggressive instinct I needed to be any good at sparring. If I find an insect in my room I either let it be or bring it outside.
What began as part of my nature has gradually become a part of my philosophy. Pacifism may sound nice, but it is a hard doctrine to maintain: I struggled for years to reconcile my peaceful intuitions with the idea that we live in a violent world, and sometimes aiding those who are suffering might involve lethal force against those inflicting suffering. Something in me refused to believe that fighting violence with violence was effective—as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”—but I also realized I was saying that from a privileged position. Would I be so quick to denounce violence if I were an Iraqi under threat from ISIS? Or alternatively, if I were a Pakistani who had seen my family murdered without evident cause in a US drone strike?
Last spring I found much-needed support in the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, whose doctrine of “Satyagraha,” or “Truth-Force,” I defended in a paper. Loosely, he argues that a cause can best demonstrate its strength through acts of personal commitment, such as civil disobedience. Putting oneself through pain shows firmer belief and dedication than inflicting pain on another. There is a strong element of humility there as well: humans are “not competent to punish,” he wrote.
Perhaps his most compelling point is that advocating violence “is the same as saying that we can get a rose through planting a noxious weed.” How can a movement rooted in violence, and hence in division, destruction, and forceful coercion, possibly lead to a just and equal society?
Unfortunately for my philosophical confidence, my essay still had to deal with Frantz Fanon. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon paints a visceral picture of the oppression that he and his Algerian comrades faced under French colonial rule, a rhetorical masterwork of righteous fury. He rails against the Western intellectual who sanctimoniously condemns violent uprisings while ignoring the awful realities of life under constant subjugation.
Chastened, I ceded his point, but I hid behind Gandhi in maintaining violence was a bad idea. I argued that whether or not the forcefully oppressed have a right to violence, to act on that right is to perpetuate a cycle of bloodshed—planting another of Gandhi’s “noxious weed(s).” But I also felt I was the noxious one. I was painfully, uncomfortably aware that, as I ultimately admitted in the paper, “Fanon would just dismiss me as a naïve and enabling Western intellectual.”
I am a straight, cis, white, male Homo sapiens from the richest country in world history, and whether I like it or not I’m profiting from all sorts of one-sided power dynamics. While I do firmly believe that both sides suffer from oppressive relationships—I’m sure my own non-aggression has sometimes been dismissed as “unmanly”—I am fully conscious of the fact that I am in no way, shape, or form the primary victim. It’s maybe admirable that Gandhi remained a pacifist while pushing his body to the limit through fasting, and watching the British beat and kill so many of his supporters. But what the hell is admirable about an affluent white dude sitting in his comfortable Princeton bed and typing “I’m a pacifist?”
Nothing, I hope, at least not by itself. As Henry David Thoreau argued in “Resistance to Civil Government,” an essay that Gandhi called “a masterly treatise on the duty of Civil Disobedience,” inaction implies complicity. In Thoreau’s eyes, Massachusetts was just as guilty of perpetuating slavery as Virginia, for consenting to the Fugitive Slave Act. The state may have simply been upholding the rule of law, but that is no excuse if the law is unjust. As a result of this, and in opposition to an imperialistic war against Mexico, Thoreau refused to pay taxes and was arrested. I shudder to think at the state-sponsored violence against humans (not to mention non-human animals and the entire living world) that I support with my taxes, but still I pay them. If this position is to be remotely consistent, I must do more with my freedom to dismantle this violence than I could from a jail cell. Otherwise, my pacifism has only served to help those it claims to oppose.
Still, while outright pacifism is uncommon, and in fact military violence is often glorified, a Western aversion to violent resistance exists as a nontrivial fact in the world today. Perhaps we can see this most clearly in America’s steadfast support for Israel in the face of human rights abuses in Gaza and the West Bank. Support for Palestine is often equated to support for Hamas, and who in the post-9/11 US is going to publically side with an Islamic terrorist group?
Well, Jon Stewart might flirt with it, anyway. In a July interview with Hillary Clinton, he speculated as to Hamas’s continued influence among Palestinians. Imagining how they might think had they been born in Palestine, he asked Clinton, “Couldn’t you see yourself thinking, these are our freedom fighters?” (She could not.) Regardless of the reality on the ground in Gaza, I think this provides a useful framework for approaching violent resistance: Stewart was (obviously) not trying to condone Hamas, but to explain why some Palestinians might support it.
Many turn to violence in desperation, and it is a dangerous form of nonviolence that simply condemns this without providing an alternative. Fortunately, Palestine today is producing alternatives, and two nonviolent activists recently came to Princeton. The first was Ali Abu Awwad, who was first jailed at age 17 for throwing stones at IDF soldiers. During his second stint in prison he discovered Gandhi, King, and Nelson Mandela, who convinced him that violence against violence was fruitless. Despite the obvious humiliation he felt under military occupation and the resentment he felt at being deprived of his rights, he found real meaning in changed tactics. “Nonviolence for me has become the art of being a human being,” he explained. “Show the enemy that you don’t deserve this suffering. You don’t threaten him…you fight his thoughts, his anger, his fear, you don’t fight him as a person.”
Awwad’s newfound convictions faced a significant test when soldiers killed his brother. He found his heart thirsting for revenge—a revenge he felt he had every right to—but his mind told him no. “How many Israeli women have to taste the same tears as my mother?”
This recognition of shared humanity has made Awwad a strong advocate for dialogue. (Encouragingly, his talk was co-sponsored by not just the Princeton Committee on Palestine and Muslim Student Association, but J Street U, the CJL, and Tigers for Israel.)
Awwad is not always welcomed with open arms. Once, speaking in front of 50 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, at least one settler became outraged at Awwad’s very presence. “Why did you bring this baboon? Why did you bring this monkey? We don’t speak with animals.” Four hours later, after hearing Awwad out, the settler apologized. He had only associated Palestinians with the ones who once killed his best friend, and had not bothered to know any of them as individuals.
Awwad understands why so many of his fellow Palestinians can be so angry and hateful, even violent—he was once there himself. But he found his humanity in prison, a humanity that had been robbed of him as a child, and he has refused to give it up. Sitting in the audience, I was moved and inspired. All the world needs, I thought, is for everyone to hear Awwad speak, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be solved.
About a week later, activist Bassem Tamimi came to pick up where Awwad left off, in a talk called “Do Gandhi’s Teachings Have a Place in Palestine?” Tamimi, too, was committed to nonviolence, and multiple times invoked Jesus’s call to love your enemy. “Free their mentality from the bad mentality that they have, that they can be more human,” he urged.
Awwad and Tamimi share many of the same beliefs. They have both lost family members to soldiers, they have both been imprisoned, they both feel they have earned the right to violence yet refuse this right out of principle. But this talk had an edge that the previous one did not. Whereas Awwad speaks of horrible, painful events with almost preternatural calm, Tamimi’s voice rings with frustration. Part of this may simply reflect their speaking styles, and their respective comfort with English.
But much of it reflects their respective current roles in the conflict. Awwad espouses non-violence to Palestinians and travels the world promoting dialogue, while Tamimi remains in Nabi Saleh, a small village in the West Bank. For several years, Tamimi has helped lead weekly protests in his village that are regularly confronted by the military. At least one protester has died after being shot in the face with a tear gas canister, while many of the protesters resort to stone-throwing.
Tamimi, in what is probably a not-quite-Gandhian stance, was adamant that throwing stones should not count as violence. He maintained that in Palestinian culture stones are a tool of defense, not of aggression. While listening, I was acutely aware of my own discomfort with this stance, even as he called this discomfort a product of my cultural elitism. Was my gut disapproval justified? In the face of armed soldiers with tanks and body armor (much of which was funded by my own tax dollars, I should remember), are ragtag bands throwing stones really even on the same level?
This is what Tamimi asked me, and to be honest I don’t know. I cannot imagine myself throwing stones, but I also cannot imagine having my land illegally confiscated, as happened to the people of Nabi Salih. There was a time when college campuses were hotbeds of police confrontation, but I cannot conceive getting tear gassed at Princeton, no matter how fiercely I may protest. So I am wary of being too quick to judge the morality of stone-throwing, but also quite conscious that, from my own position, the idea makes me very apprehensive—and I suspect it does the same for many of you. While I had left Awwad’s talk full of positivity, I left Tamimi’s feeling encouraged, yes, and full of respect, but also vaguely uneasy.
Taking a step back, this American discomfort with violent resistance seems strange for a country that worships the commanders of its own Revolution. Also strange for the only country outside of Asia and Africa that carried out executions in 2013, the country with 2.3 million people locked up in prison, that gives tanks to its police, sends drones and human soldiers abroad with abandon, and—lest we forget—laid claim to its territory through genocide, slavery, and war. If even Gandhi did not feel himself competent to punish the British soldiers who murdered his comrades—and we commend him for that fact—then how the heck do Americans stay so self-assured? How can all this violence be an acceptable part of life but we start to sweat when somebody throws a stone?
This brings us back to Thoreau: 150 years ago, America again showed its prudishness with regards to violent resistance when abolitionist John Brown, leading a small group of white men and freed slaves, launched a bloody but brief attack on Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. The initial response was to dismiss Brown as a madman, a fanatic. Thoreau, however, was less quick to this conclusion: “It was [John Brown]’s peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave,” Thoreau wrote. “I agree with him.” This same logic is widely used today to justify the Civil War, and he probably would have been frustrated to hear that we view Brown as much more controversial.
Thoreau had no illusions as to the cleanness of anyone’s hands. “We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows!” He does not know how one can in good conscience one can stay silent on the violence of the state, and the violence of slavery, but speak against the violence of anti-slavery.
Both Awwad and Tamimi asked the audience, mainly Princeton students, to stand in solidarity with their cause. For Awwad, a large part of what this meant was open discussion, and diplomatic work towards a solution. This was something I could work with, something that fit into the narrative I’d been told my whole life of how social change happens. He called for more events like the one he spoke at, where groups as divergent as the Princeton Committee on Palestine and Tigers for Israel could get together and exchange ideas. He was confident that only through receptiveness and connection between individuals could all parties realize the gross injustices being carried out in Palestine, and the way these injustices rob both sides of their humanity.
Tamimi was slightly more ambitious, calling for a “global intifada.” (A quick linguistic digression: “Intifada” loosely translates to “uprising,” and is used to refer to several political upheavals in the Arab world, including twice previously in Palestine. The second of these especially was a bloody disaster, and Tamimi admits that Palestinians lost much of their moral high ground in the conflict. He hopes that a third, nonviolent intifada could reclaim this high ground, but others think Palestinians should distance themselves from a word that has come to represent so much pain and suffering in the Jewish world, and justifiably so. Regardless of what he calls it, though, Tamimi’s vision of a third uprising is markedly different from how the first two played out.) Here the global revolution would be partly in solidarity with Palestinians, but also deal with other forms of oppression. We already saw a moving piece of international solidarity this summer when West Bank protesters learned that the same company made tear gas used by both the IDF and police in Ferguson. Many Palestinians took to Twitter to advise black Americans how best to deal with tear gas. Tamimi, in a conversation with Princeton religion professor Eddie Glaude, had no trouble seeing the connection between his own plight and that of African-Americans.
From Ferguson to Jerusalem, there is plenty of reason to rise up. But what is my place, the white Princeton male? In practice I cede to the first-hand experience of people like Awwad and Tamimi, following their guidance rather than taking matters into my own hands.
But this only works because Awwad and Tamimi are non-violent. If they were not, would I be obliged to support them? It seems more likely that, as I was with Fanon, I would be stuck hollowly quoting Gandhi to justify withholding support. Again, Thoreau provides a bit of a way out: “Though you may not approve of [Brown]’s method or his principles, recognize his magnanimity.” It is possible to approve of a violent cause without condoning violence. I ultimately do not approve of what John Brown did, but anyone at the time truly concerned with violence would have been much better served challenging slavery than challenging John Brown. The key is to be consistent. “They who are continually shocked by slavery have some right to be shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder,” allowed Thoreau, “but no others.” The double standard that condemns only revolutionary violence while giving oppression a free pass tacitly supports the existing, unjust structures.
Prison abolitionist Angela Davis, speaking on gun control, once gave an excellent articulation of this sort of consistent stance: “I would say, today, that everybody should be disarmed—and not only civilians: We should disarm the police, and eventually the military.” But in earlier interviews Davis had responded to questions of violence within the Black Panther movement with bafflement. Given the scale of institutionalized violence against black people in America, the idea that complaints of violence were directed solely at those engaged in resistance was absurd to her. This is the same twisted logic that directs so much attention at the small, misrepresentative minority of feminists who legitimately hate men, instead of daring to ask, “Well, can you blame them?”
Pacifists such as myself, especially those of us who have in some ways benefited from and even contributed to various injustices, must keep these dangers in mind. We may critique the noxious weeds within our own movements without reneging on our steadfast solidarity only if we stay focused on where these weeds are truly rooted. Even Gandhi, nonviolent to the core, refused to give up the names of the Indians who massacred several British soldiers. He did not approve of his compatriots’ actions, but he was not about to aid the colonizers in their quest for retribution. So I’ll keep wearing my tie-dye, but I won’t call the police if you throw a stone or two.