Nonviolence has become forgotten history
A couple months ago, I visited Jackson, Mississippi with my family. We were eating lunch in a black-owned restaurant, and happened to catch some of the discussion happening among the regulars — a few of them being older veterans of the 1960s Civil Rights struggles.
One of them — an aging, blind man — vented his frustration using an amusing illustration.
“Do you remember the Roadrunner and the Coyote?”
Some of the younger folks didn’t.
“The Coyote, he would always come up with these inventions to catch the Roadrunner — bombs, hammers — some cold-blooded shit.”
I thought “some cold-blooded shit” was a hilarious description of the Coyote’s Rube Goldberg machinations. Nobody noticed me laugh.
“The point is,” he came back around after describing some of the Coyote’s colorful misadventures, “is that he always got this close to catching that Roadrunner.” He used his thumb and pointer finger to press home the emphasis. “But his problem was he never tried the same thing again! He didn’t go back and figure out what went wrong so he could make it better; he would come up with some entirely new crazy thing.”
At this point, he was collecting his things and starting to move toward the door. Holding his cane and a jar of jam the owner had given him to take to his wife, he provided the room his parting thought:
“We was this close in 1964.”
“Now all these young folks — everybody’s gotta try something new!”
He sounded resigned. But the frustration he expressed was palpable. Some of the other older folks nodded their heads, but I think he knew he was being dismissed.
Over the past couple of years I have developed a deep appreciation for Nonviolent Moral Philosophy — a way of seeing and engaging with the world that has been largely forgotten, despite the profound and driving impact it had on the most celebrated freedom movements and victories of the Twentieth Century.
There has been a watering down of the philosophical underpinnings of Nonviolence through the popular media’s conflation of it with “peaceful protest”, which has robbed us of vital vocabulary. When Dr. King’s march to Selma gets lumped into the same bucket as a group of heavily armed militia men marching through a town center (both described as “peaceful protests” because no blows were thrown or shots fired) it creates equivalencies where they don’t exist in either form or substance.
For many who might like to describe their views as “nonviolent”, what they often mean is that they prefer to avoid conflict. For others — mostly younger Left-leaning — “nonviolence” is rejected outright, because it is believed to be a mechanism of the Right and the Middle to dictate the rules of protest. While there are definitely elements of truth to the latter perspective, it is formed from an underlying ignorance of the Left’s own history.
Around the same time that I traveled to Jackson, a friend asked me to share quotes that energize and inspire me. In the process of coming up with a response, I think I was able to capture some of these lost distinctions. Having shared it with a few other folks and receiving warm and positive responses, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to share more broadly.
This is what I sent him.
I love quotes — but they exist, as we do, within a rich tapestry of context. So I’ve editorialized a bit — probably more than you expected, but also less than I wanted to. :P
There is a quote often associated with Gandhi, though it’s likely apocryphal. But it has absorbed an abundance of meaning to me in recent months.
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
- M. Gandhi (Apocryphal)
It is particularly meaningful when taken in tandem with the words of Tolstoy:
“Strange and contradictory as it seems, all men of the present day hate the very social order they are themselves supporting.”
- Leo Tolstoy (The Kingdom of God is Within You)
As I’ve grown my worldview and shifted my mental and emotional energy away from the relentless pace of the news cycle and near-sighted political victories in favor of the slow, regenerative work of community building, I have been rewarded by a sense of peace and calm that has eluded me for the past seven years. That was when my understanding of how the world was ordered was shattered by my exposure to the work that Caitlin was doing in East Oakland — a broken and violent place that, on a clear day, I could see easily from the 500 Startups office in Mountain View.
Over the past handful of years, I think a majority of people have had their worldviews dislodged in ways that can never be unlearned, and it has set their thoughts firmly against their daily actions. What I’ve seen through my own experience, and what these words remind me of, is that helping to bring people’s actions into alignment with their values is helping them on the path to happiness.
Our responsibility to create the future:
My motto in 2020 is going to be “Show, don’t tell.”
There are enough people out there shouting about what policies will be best for people and promises candidates say they will deliver on if they are voted into office. Widespread cynicism toward this ritual isn’t going to be slowed by any political outcome in 2020. I think the only ones who can truly inspire are the people who are out there, who have been out there, and who will continue to be out there showing us what is possible by doing the slow, creative and regenerative work that brings real dignity to real people and their communities. I aspire to be one of them, and this quote from Tolstoy continues to agitate me in this direction.
“The conditions of the new order of life cannot be known by us because we have to create them by our own labors. That is all that life is, to learn the unknown, and to adapt our actions to this new knowledge.”
-Leo Tolstoy (The Kingdom of God is Within You)
Related to this is a quote from Dr. King that casts a similar message in poetic imagery:
“It is not enough to say, ‘We must not wage war!’ It is necessary to love peace and to sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the eradication of war but on the affirmation of peace. A fascinating story about Ulysses and the Sirens is preserved for us in Greek literature. The Sirens had the ability to sing so sweetly that sailors could not resist steering toward their island. Many ships were lured upon the rocks, and men forgot home, duty and honor as they flunk themselves into the sea to be embraced by arms that drew them down to death. Ulysses, determined not to succumb to the Sirens, first decided to tie himself tightly to the mast of his boat and his crew stuffed their ears with wax. But finally he and his crew learned a better way to save themselves: they took on board the beautiful singer Orpheus, whose melodies were sweeter than the Sirens. When Orpheus sang, who would bother to listen to the Sirens?
So we must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?)
It helps me to think of my actions as music I am putting out into the world.
Nonviolence as a Systemic Lens:
Nonviolence as a Moral Philosophy (distinguishing it from Nonviolence as a Tactic and Nonviolence as a Discipline) asserts that actors within oppressive systems, regardless of the specific roles they play, are all victims of those systems. Even those who ostensibly benefit from systems of oppression lose something of themselves. Unlike in retributive moral philosophies, this leaves the door open for restoration and redemption. There are a few stories I often reflect on when stepping back into this larger view. One comes from Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped into and subsequently escaped slavery.
In Twelve Years a Slave, he reflects on an event that pierced the genteel veneer of Southern aristocracy.
“About the time of which I am now writing, an event occurred in our immediate neighborhood, which made a deep impression upon me, and which shows the state of society existing there, and the manner in which affronts are oftentimes avenged. Directly opposite our quarters, on the other side of the bayou, was situated the plantation of Mr. Marshall. He belonged to a family among the most wealthy and aristocratic in the country. A gentleman from the vicinity of Natchez had been negotiating with him for the purchase of the estate. One day a messenger came in great haste to our plantation, saying that a bloody and fearful battle was going on at Marshall’s — that blood had been spilled — and unless the combatants were forthwith separated, the result would be disastrous.
On repairing to Marshall’s house, a scene presented itself that beggars description. On the floor of one of the rooms lay the ghastly corpse of the man from Natchez, while Marshall, enraged and covered with wounds and blood, was stalking back and forth, “breathing out threatenings and slaughter.” A difficulty had arisen in the course of their negotiation, high words ensued, when drawing their weapons, the deadly strife began that ended so unfortunately. Marshall was never placed in confinement. A sort of trial or investigation was had at Marksville, when he was acquitted, and returned to his plantation, rather more respected, as I thought, than ever, from the fact that the blood of a fellow being was on his soul.
Epps interested himself in his behalf, accompanying him to Marksville, and on all occasions loudly justifying him, but his services in this respect did not afterwards deter a kinsman of this same Marshall from seeking his life also. A brawl occurred between them over a gambling-table, which terminated in a deadly feud. Riding up on horseback in front of the house one day, armed with pistols and bowie knife, Marshall challenged him to come forth and make a final settlement of the quarrel, or he would brand him as a coward, and shoot him like a dog the first opportunity. Not through cowardice, nor from any conscientious scruples, in my opinion, but through the influence of his wife, he was restrained from accepting the challenge of his enemy. A reconciliation, however, was effected afterward, since which time they have been on terms of the closest intimacy.
Such occurrences, which would bring upon the parties concerned in them merited and condign punishment in the Northern States, are frequent on the bayou, and pass without notice, and almost without comment. Every man carries his bowie knife, and when two fall out, they set to work hacking and thrusting at each other, more like savages than civilized and enlightened beings.
The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them, has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering — listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave — beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash — bitten and torn by dogs — dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin — it cannot otherwise be expected, then that they should become brutified and reckless of human life. It is true there are many kind-hearted and good men in the parish of Avoyelles — such men as William Ford — who can look with pity upon the sufferings of a slave, just as there are, over all the world, sensitive and sympathetic spirits, who cannot look with indifference upon the sufferings of any creature which the Almighty has endowed with life. It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him.”
- Solomon Northup (Twelve Years a Slave)
No one could escape the brutality of Southern life, even the wealthiest oppressors, and the price paid for a planter’s status was nothing less than his humanity.
A similar story comes from Nelson Mandela’s reflections on his time imprisoned on Robben Island, in Long Walk to Freedom. In this story, he and his fellow prisoners had earned enough political support to win concessions from the government, including the removal of their most cruel prison commander, Colonel Badenhorst.
“A few days before Badenhorst’s departure, I was called to the main office. General Steyn was visiting the island and wanted to know if we had any complaints. Badenhorst was there as I went through a list of demands. When I had finished, Badenhorst spoke to me directly. He told me he would be leaving the island and added: ‘I just want to wish you people good luck’. I do not know if I looked dumbfounded, but I was amazed. He spoke these words like a human being and showed a side of himself we had never seen before. I thanked him for his good wishes and wished him luck in his endeavours.
I thought about this moment for a long time afterwards. Badenhorst had perhaps been the most callous and barbaric commanding officer we had had on Robben Island. But that day in the office, he had revealed that that there was another side to his nature, a side that had been obscured but still existed. It was a useful reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency and that, if their hearts are touched, they are capable of changing. Ultimately, Badenhorst was not evil; his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system.”
- Nelson Mandela (Long Walk to Freedom)
Dr. King sums up this aspect of his philosophical framework in Strength to Love.
“…Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Strength to Love)
On the proven success of Nonviolent Moral Philosophy in the Twentieth Century:
This is a curveball, but Dave Chappelle put it super succinctly and powerfully in his Netflix special The Bird Revelation. The end of apartheid was unprecedented in human history, and it marked the final triumph of Nonviolent Moral Philosophy in the Twentieth Century.
“The end of apartheid should have been a fucking bloodbath by any metric in human history and it wasn’t. And the only reason it wasn’t is because Desmond Tutu and Mandela and all these guys figured out that if a system is corrupt, then the people who adhere to the system and are incentivized by that system are not criminals. They are victims, and the system itself must be tried.”
- Dave Chappelle (The Bird Revelation)
In his final book before his assassination, Dr. King wrestled with the opening of a new chapter of the civil rights movement which had erupted in northern and west coast cities, defined by the hostility toward nonviolence displayed by a new generation of urban youth. Now relegated to the sidelines of the movement he had helped carry across so many milestones in the South (or at least to the sidelines in the popular media’s portrayal of it), he pleaded his case in a chapter titled ‘Black Power’.
“It is not overlooking the limitations of nonviolence and the distance we have yet to go to point out the remarkable record of achievements that have already come through nonviolent action. The 1960 sit-ins desegregated lunch counters in more than 150 cities within a year. The 1961 Freedom Rides put and end to segregation in interstate travel. The 1956 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, ended segregation on the buses not only of that city but in practically every city of the South. The 1963 Birmingham movement and the climactic March on Washington won passage of the most powerful civil right law in a century. The 1965 Selma movement brought enactment of the Voting Rights Law. Our nonviolent marches in Chicago last summer brought about a housing agreement which, if implemented, will be the strongest step toward open housing taken in any city in the nation. Most significant is the fact that this progress occurred with minimum human sacrifice and loss of life. Fewer people have been killed in ten years of nonviolent demonstrations across the South than were killed in one night of rioting in Watts.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?)
It’s time for us to remember: we were this close.