Friday, June 12, 2009

Pagan Values: Violence, Destruction & The Difference

Is it really the case, as I claimed earlier, that there is no equivalent to the "just war" theory when it comes to understanding our relationship with the natural world? With a moment's thought we can soon list lots of occasions when an individual or group of people have had to hunt or harvest, plow fields for food or cut down trees for shelter, in order to survive. To say that people are not sometimes "at war" with or struggling against their local environment treads dangerously close to the naive view of nature as benign, beneficent, even tame.

The truth is, the natural world is anything but tame; it is wild, it is the epitome of wildness and wilderness. Forces of the natural world--the ferocity of a wildfire, the upheaval of an earthquake, the very barrenness of a desert or the pummeling pressure of a river's relentless current--can be sources of terrific destruction and obstacles against which we struggle every day. Meanwhile, the "red in tooth and claw" reality of predator and prey certainly seems founded on an inherent relationship between violence and survival. How can we choose to live by principles of pacifism and creative nonviolence in light of this wildness? How can we apply pacifism to environmentalism--let alone to our everyday, social and political lives--when violence appears ubiquitous, especially in the natural world?

Violence in Human/Nature

Really, it has always been the apparent violence of nature as a whole--more than that of humanity alone--that has been the greatest stumbling block for the philosophy of nonviolence. Most arguments against pacifism as an unrealistic ideal only rely partially on the actual history of human violence; after all, there are also many examples in human history of our capacity for empathy, kindness and near-infinite adaptability. Opponents of pacifism more often use nature as the best evidence against its practical realization. Projecting back in time an imagined pure or fundamental "human nature" imbued with all the base self-interest of the animal world and drenched in the blood and strife of continuous struggle against competitors for the scarce resources needed to survive, they argue that people simply cannot overcome an innate tendency towards destruction. The closed system of the earth itself means there is only a finite amount of land, food and other resources to go around. We continually find ourselves in conflict, destroying when there is no more room to create, surviving and thriving at the expense of our rivals and our prey. Even those rare individuals, the argument goes, who can overcome or mitigate violence do so through suppression or denial of their own nature. But this requires extraordinary discipline and strength of will not available to most of us. Pacifism might be an option for the inhumanly committed with unwavering focus, but as a general goal for the average person it just doesn't work.

The flaw in this view is that it takes for granted that destruction is synonymous with violence, and where the former exists the latter must also be present. To kill a neighbor to gain his prosperous fields is, from this perspective, hardly different from the act of eating the harvest of those fields, or hunting down a stag, or chopping down a tree to build shelter. In all these situations, one life is destroyed for the sake of another. We might say that killing a fellow human being is worse because, by some unspoken measure, human beings are better or more important than a stag, a tree or a field of wheat. But this objection relies on a rather flimsy judgment of value. To make a distinction between violence against human beings and violence against non-humans misrepresents our own intuitive relationship with destruction. As soon as we acknowledge that humans are not inherently "better" than the rest of the natural world--something many Pagans find obvious already--we lose what ground we've gained towards a nonviolent philosophy and find ourselves again faced with the overwhelming presence of destruction, and therefore (supposedly) violence in nature and humankind.

Natural Empathy & Our Need for Destruction

The more appropriate and useful distinction that we need to make is, I believe, between mere destruction and violence. That is, between destruction as a natural and inevitable aspect of the manifest world; and violence as an intentional form of destructive dishonor or irreverence towards the unique individuality of being. Not only does this subtle shift circumvent the false dichotomy of humanity-versus-nature, but it reflects the difference between destruction and violence that we experience intuitively and reveals exactly what it is about violence that makes it so damaging and undesirable.

As self-aware social animals, we human beings have developed a natural tendency towards empathy, evident even in early childhood. This ability to connect imaginatively and emotionally with the "other"--not just with other people, but any being that we perceive as animate and aware, from pets, to plants, to landscapes and weather--allows us to function well in supportive communities, but it also means that we feel a visceral discomfort when witnessing others in pain. When cornered by our own urgent needs or fears, however, our capacity for self-consciousness and imagination can come to serve violence rather than empathy, encouraging us to invent convincing justifications for inflicting pain on others. These justifications--self-defense, punishment, deterrence, and preemptive force, to name a few--hold in common a typical diminishment of the "other" into a being less worthy of our empathy, less capable of suffering, against which we can direct destructive force guilt-free.

Sometimes this diminishment portrays the other as a less-than-complete being, not merely an animal but a vicious, repulsive, uncomplicated thing that cannot be trusted to live peacefully and behave civilly, and must therefore be either contained or exterminated. Other times, we diminish the other by viewing it as an abstract destructive power against which we have every right to strive for life. The mugger with the knife looming up out of the dark is as impersonal as the tornado or the virus that threatens us, and we react with a similarly reflexive defense. The criminal condemned to execution is, as Ani DiFranco says, "a symbol, not a human being; that way they can kill [him], and say it's not murder, it's a metaphor." An excellent example of diminishment comes from Jared Diamond's book, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal:

[I]n 1982 one of Australia's leading news magazines, The Bulletin, published a letter by a lady named Patricia Cobern, who denied indignantly that white settlers had exterminated the Tasmanians. In fact, wrote Ms. Cobern, the settlers were peace-loving and of high moral character, while Tasmanians were treacherous, murderous, warlike, filthy, gluttonous, vermin-infested, and disfigured by syphilis. Moreover, they took poor care of their infants, never bathed, and had repulsive marriage customs. They died out because of all those poor health practices, plus a death wish and a lack of religious beliefs. It was just a coincidence that, after thousands of years of existence, they happened to die out during a conflict with the settlers. The only massacres were of settlers by Tasmanians, not vice versa. Besides, the settlers only armed themselves in self-defense, were unfamiliar with guns, and never shot more than forty-one Tasmanians at one time.
Such justifications, listed emphatically one after another, bely the utter absurdity of such attempts at diminishment. As Cobern's explanations grow more and more bizarre and unlikely (the Tasmanians had a "death wish"? the settlers "never shot more than forty-one" at a time?), what becomes obvious is her desperate need to prove that the deaths of the Tasmanians were, one way or another, inevitable.

Choice & Consent

Why this desperate need to prove inevitability? Because destruction really is inevitable, unavoidable. It is, in essence, simply another aspect of creation, that which breaks down before it can build up, making room for the new and letting the old and stale lapse back into the void of potential. We recognize this basic fact at gut-level, so deep is this relationship between destruction and creation, dark and light, winter and spring. Destruction is not always undesirable; sometimes it can even be a welcome relief. And so, what every form of diminishing the other has in common is our need to justify violence by transforming it into a form of destruction.

These justifications would not work so well, or even be necessary, if we did not already understand on an intuitive level that destruction and violence are not the same. We would not need to deny the relevance of empathy and reverence, to deny our own active participation in destruction, if we did not sense on some level that these things make a difference. What we already know is that some deaths, some break-downs, some sources of pain and suffering, are not inevitable. What we already know is that, unlike destruction, violence is always a choice. It is a choice to destroy, to induce pain, to allow our own needs and passions to overshadow those of the other and to force our will upon others without their consent. The word "violence" itself comes from the Latin violentia, which translates as vehemence or impetuosity. Both words suggest the application of force without thought or consideration, without empathy for the suffering it might cause. Related is the verb violare, which gives rise to the English "violate" and means "to treat with violence or irreverence, to dishonor."

When trying to understand a philosophy of pacifism or nonviolence, therefore, we can define the word "violence" broadly, without making the absurd claim that all destruction should or can be avoided. Personally, I define "violence" as: a rejection or denial of the unique and meaningful individuality of a being. Rejecting that another being has a unique and meaningful individual existence independent from our own can lead us to impose our wills or passions on them by force. Such force can be physical and cause physical injury or even death, but it can also be emotional, psychological or even spiritual. In her book Living With Honour, Emma Restall Orr talks about the Welsh and Gealic words for "face," and invokes the notion of "being face-to-face" as at the heart of what honor means in Celtic society. An act of violence against another is an act of dishonor, refusing to come face-to-face, diminishing and disempowering others, alienating and isolating them and denying them relationship with us, denying our interconnection.

We can also act violently towards ourselves; this kind of self-violence is more often emotional or spiritual than physical and so less often acknowledged. But if we remember the definition of violence, then we realize that any time we reject our own individuality as unique and meaningful, any time we deny our capacity for creative engagement with the world, we commit an act of spiritual violence against our own beings. This diminishment of our own being is why we so often seek to justify violence, insisting that it is actually inevitable or necessary destruction in which we had no choice or active participation. When we have the capacity and opportunity to choose, and yet forfeit that choice thoughtlessly, rejecting our capacity to act as a unique individual "face-to-face" with another, we act violently not only against the other, but against ourselves. For every act of violence, both victim and violator become "faceless," both are dishonored and diminished.


  1. Ali, this post is so moving... it flows with an inexorable force, with a logic and rightness that can't be denied. And I'm very glad it's right, because it's a powerful message of optimism -- that pacifism, nonviolence, isn't just possible, isn't just practical, it's an integral part of our makeup. It may be subverted or corrupted, but it's there, and undeniable. Bravo!! :-)

    I found the section on how our natural pacifist tendencies are sabotaged to be particularly moving.

    I was also very interested in your definition of violence. I have spent some time trying to nail down what it is exactly and unequivocally -- especially emotional violence / manipulation -- because I personally have a very strong need to make sure I can identify it, defend myself from it, and prevent myself from doing it subconsciously. I haven't really been satisfied with any definition. What you have here resonates with me strongly -- I can FEEL you are right -- but I find myself wishing for more detail... Thinking out loud here: threats, destructive criticism, guilt trips -- trying to incite negative emotions -- these are relatively easy to identify as violence, I think. (And sometimes inciting non-negative emotions -- like propaganda that creates a false sense of superiority -- surely this is violence, too.) The emotional manipulation disrespects the individual's right to make their own choices, attempting to manipulate those choices via fear or pride. So it seems to me, anyway...

    Thank you!!!

  2. Your post brought reminded me of Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Kurlansky. In 25 lessons this book illustrates the difference between nonviolence and pacifism, which came to mind when I read your post.

    Many people see Nature as quiet, soothing and peaceful, and that She is. But she is also a fighter, a warrior who will fight back if we continue to hurt, consume and waste. I read all the current news about scientists trying to figure out global warming and how to end it and I ask myself: Do we really need to get that scientific to find a solution? What about looking at our past as a race? For, if we did, it wouldn’t be so hard to see that the minute humanity started believing that we could masters of One that can not be ruled, our history started to change. We need to go back and search for a symbiotic relationship with our Planet. That’s the only way we can stop the violence against Nature, which might end up killing us otherwise. When we are violent against others, it always comes back to haunt us. Eventually…

  3. Jeff,

    Such an enthusiastic response--thank you! :) I'm glad the post resonated so strongly. I think sometimes it's difficult for me to write about pacifism because it's so ingrained in my very thought-processes and has been for so long. Really, the ideas I outlined above--that nonviolence is not just practical but natural--are distinctly pacifist in outlook. Pacifism is, essentially, the belief that no form of violence is ever justified, and this view quite naturally leads to the conclusion that our desire to justify violence stems from our awareness of violence as both "wrong" and avoidable (you don't need to justify something that's inevitable, after all). I guess people who believe some violence is justified think that.... well, you got me. I have no idea what they're thinking!

    As far as a definition for "violence," yes, I know what you mean about the urgent need to know what it is so that you can better avoid it. One benefit of recognizing "violence" as demeaning and damaging to both victim and violator is that it gives us a useful tool in figuring out if we're doing violence to someone else: if what we're doing demeans or diminishes us or denies our relationship with the other, then we can be pretty sure that it diminishes the other, too. This is just as true when we elevate a person to the status of personal idol or cult leader: when we diminish ourselves by relinquishing our free will or self-respect to another, we also diminish that other person by transforming them into a flat stereotype of power, perfection and control (instead of recognizing their unique imperfections as regular human beings). (This is different from, say, the healthy child-parent relationship, where a child attends to the parent's restrictions and guidance out of trust, and the parent chooses which restrictions and guidelines to apply out of love and an understanding of what will help the child grow and learn.)

    So pacifism requires us to be constantly attentive not just to other people, but to ourselves, so that we can more honestly assess how our actions speak to our relationships. Plus, it helps us to connect with and understand better people who commit violence against us, seeing how their violence also demeans them and seeking for the betterment of our "enemies" at the same time that we seek our own. Pacifism: it's far from "passive"! :)

  4. Magaly,

    That's very interesting! Obviously I've been using the terms "pacifism" and "nonviolence" pretty much interchangeably (though usually I accompany "nonviolence" with qualifiers like "creative" or "loving," to be sure to get the idea of active participation and engagement in there). I'd be interested to hear what the distinction that Kurlansky makes is exactly. Does he dislike the word "pacifism" because it sounds too much like "passive-ism"? Or does he dislike "nonviolence" because it can be taken to mean that one's only goal is merely to avoid violence? Hmm...

    Also, I totally agree about Nature as both peaceful and warrior-like, soothing and challenging. I actually started to get into that a bit more in this post, but then realized it was getting outrageously long! So that'll be the next segment in the series (I'm working on it right now, to get it published Monday or Tuesday). Come back and share your thoughts once it's up--I'd love to hear them! :)

  5. a "warrior" is a woman giving birth. There's nothing pacifist about giving birth! If there is no fighting, no struggling, there is no life.

    For some while evolution, according to Darwinism, is one of "survival of the fittest," used by many to justify a "dog eat dog" or "every man for himself" mentality.
    I do not believe that human society is something to "survive" in. If we are truly civilised then society doesn't become a place to test your wits, strength, skills and adaptibility, there's enough of that in nature, but a place to collaborate and be creative.

    With the Gaia Hypothesis a new vision of evolution is being presented, where collaboration and symbiosis is the rule rather than the exception and that competition is just one dynamic within the whole. This can have implications on how we view the world and behave within it.

    Humanity as a whole has reached a global level; global technology, global culture, global communication, global military, global government, global business, global economy etc etc etc
    In order for humanity to survive we need to embrace a collaborative and creative way to live on this planet. Not just on this planet but with this planet.

    This isn't bereft of struggling or fighting, it just means more fighting FOR (creation) and less fighting AGAINST (destruction).

    Thank you for such an inspiring post. I think I've just written a blog myself, now all I need is an appropriate quote lol.
    Adam AKA Treegod

  6. Adam,

    Thanks for your comment! I completely agree that we need to learn to struggle and fight for creation and creativity (and connection and freedom and all those good things :) rather than merely against destruction. Destruction is a part of life, after all, and spending our whole lives trying to avoid it can actually cause us to stay narrow and focused on fear, unable to take risks or explore new possibilities.

    I think one reason pacifism gets laughed off is that people mistake it for "passive-ism," they think it means being passive, just sitting quietly and not doing anything. That is not what pacifism is! Pacifism is active and engaged and creative, it requires us to go out and connect with others, to work and struggle and fight (through nonviolent, creative means) for our goals and aspirations. The warriorship of a woman giving birth, struggling through pain and difficulty in order to create a new life, is a wonderful example of pacifism in action! The woman accepts the pain and even the potential destruction of her own body for the sake of another being--that is the very definition of pacifist! :) And it's amazing!