Whose Side are We On?
And Who is Defining These Sides?
As Robert and I have called attention amongst peace/social justice/ environment activists to The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World, some people have responded with fears that in criticising countries that the US elite is seeking to overthrow as part of their efforts to achieve global economic, political and military domination, the Charter in some way assists US elite propaganda.
I think it is a natural human emotional response to sympathise with those who are being bullied. And when one can see the utter immorality of the US elite’s position, and know of the enormous effort they put into manipulating public opinion for their own destructive ends, it can be easy to become inclined to distrust any negative information received about the people they are currently demonising.
Obviously, it is important that people do their own research on particular issues to do their best to discover whether violence and injustice is in fact occurring, who is perpetrating it and why. Sometimes this is not easy, given conflicting reports, and at some point it is necessary to make a judgement about who seems more trustworthy in that particular context. However, I am extremely distrustful of the notion that any person or group should not have their violence ‘called’ simply on the basis that they are currently (or previously) the victim of someone else’s violence and demonising.
I believe that nonviolence can only be pursued by focusing on people’s actual behaviours in context. Some of these may be destructive and some of these may be constructive, but there is nothing about any individual or group that makes them inherently likely to be behaving in ways that are functional (and therefore not worth ‘calling’ on their dysfunctional behaviours).
I think most humans are taught to be loyal to other members of their social group as children – and this means siding with one person or another in a conflict, and being asked to ignore or ‘forgive’ many acts of violence and dysfunctionality, without holding the person they are siding with to account. And it can be very emotionally distressing to openly disagree with the person who is demanding your sympathy and support, and upon who you depend emotionally and/or physically. I think these emotions and difficulties are often carried over into political activity as adults. Certainly mainstream (authority based) politics is based on the notion of noncritical loyalty – one is supposed to support a person, a party, a dictator, a king and/or an ideology as if they are inherently and wholly good, and considered disloyal if you tell the truth about their dysfunctionalties. Unfortunately, it is also the case that these emotions and difficulties are sometimes transferred into progressive politics – where feminists may not wish to acknowledge the actual violence of people who happen to be women, socialists may not wish to acknowledge the actual violence of governments that are socialist/communist, or anti-racists may not wish to acknowledge the actual violence of people who happen to be black, for example. The problem here is often that the defender is so used to the victim being attacked massively and unfairly, that effective defence against demonisation is seen to hinge on promoting the idea that the victim is in fact wholly good, because any negative (if truthful) information seems to imply that the aggressor is ‘right’ about the victim.
I guess for me the power of nonviolence is that it moves beyond the notion of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ who deserve loyalty or aggression, to identifying the functional and dysfunctional in every individual, in all social relations, and within in all social groupings. There are no sides to take, except to try to be aware of, tell the truth about, and act on the truth wherever you can identify it. To take China as an example, I am interested in whether or not each individual person living in China has their needs met. Currently the social relation that places members of the Chinese Communist Party in an elite position, inflicting violence on and stealing resources from other Chinese people and monstrously damaging the natural environment, prevents individual Chinese people (including members of the CCP) from having their genuine emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual needs met. The fact that the US elite is in conflict with the Chinese elite (and playing their usual games of alliance, opposition and preparation for military conflict), and that the US elite currently forms the most powerful empire in the world is irrelevant to my judgement of the behaviour of the Chinese elite. Violence is violence and the US elite certainly holds no monopoly on it.
Similarly, I do not excuse my mother’s violence against me because she was a victim of her father’s violence, and I do not excuse Israeli Zionists’ violence against Palestinians because they or their parents have been the victims of Nazis, and may continue to be victims of anti-semitism. I have no problem being critical of the political/religious elite in Iran, while being absolutely clear that the claim that it is in the process of making nuclear weapons has no evidential basis whatsoever, and is being invented by the US/Israeli elite to justify war against Iran. I think positive prejudice is as damaging as negative prejudice and as far as possible I try to simply listen to my feelings tell me about individuals and groups according to how they behave. This is not always easy. It is a lot easier to think of people as simply ‘friends’ or ‘enemies’: dealing with the more complicated truth requires a lot more conscious intention and emotional effort on my part.
However, the truth is that people everywhere are corrupted by their own terror – it can cause them to deny reality, and to be greedy, violent and obsessed with control (among many other things) to their own and others’ detriment. There is always a good reason to tell the truth when you can see these things occurring in yourself or others: the problem cannot be dealt with if it is not consciously identified. I believe there is no greater act of love or courage than to acknowledge the truth about destruction/self-destruction in circumstances where it is painful or potentially risky to do so.
In essence, I believe that it is possible to identify the perpetrator of violence/injustice and the victim of violence/injustice in any particular conflict, and it is very important that I stand in solidarity with the victim in this circumstance. However, it is also important not to uncritically support any individual person or group in all circumstances, as this decreases opportunities to work towards fully truthful and just relations between people.
23 October 2012