Tuesday, December 26, 2006

James Lawson on Non-violence

Non-violence tries to create a different configuration of power so that the opponents come to recognize that they can do nothing about the movement that is intervening with their daily life. In the city of Nashville in 1960, the incidents of the white thugs beating up on us, throwing rocks at us and all the rest of us, and all the taunting and the name calling we responded not with attitudes or behavior like that. We responded with our own dignity and with insisting that the problems needed to be faced and could be solved.
- - James Lawson, 12/26/2006 NPR Interview

Check out the Vanderbilt Professor's NPR interview on non-violence. The NPR reporter's conventional blinders on non-violent resistance are as interesting to me as James Lawson's view points. The mainstream media has a tendency to bifurcate responses to social conflict into either active or passive roles, and then to lump non-violence with the latter.

Advocates of non-violence, like Lawson and Walter Wink, tend to see it as more active, but unlike violent action, undominating. Wink himself argues that non-violent fighters are closer to soldiers than to pacifists; they are willing to fight strategically and tactically in order to win, but without resorting to actions that only beget a widening circle of domination among victors and resentment among the defeated.

Between active violence and passive submission, non-violence is more like the first, but it also a third way distinct from the dominating ways and goals of violence. Rather than actively pitting violence and brutality against violence and brutality, it is moral jujitsu: taking action that makes domination trip over its own clumsy weightiness.

The reporter's bifurcated bias shows in his loaded question to Lawson on why he thinks (which Lawson in fact does not) that the tactics of non-violent protests have seemingly been less effective in recent years. Lawson deflects the question and points out that it is academia and the media that have kept people from receiving the information about non-violent struggle.

Lawson also alludes to the irony of violence: in fact, the bloodiest century in history, the 20th, indicated the failure of violent action to bring peace and order to the world. At the same time, non-violent struggles just started to take off in the last century, in Eastern Europe (e.g., Solidarity), North America (e.g., the Civil Rights Movement), the Middle East (e.g., the Intifada--the non-violent wing; the media exclusively focused on the rock-throwing teenagers), and Asia (e.g., China's Tiananmen Square). Wink has an exhaustive chronology of non-violent resistance in Chapter 13 of Engaging the Powers.

Lawson effectively chides the NPR interviewer for journalism's failures to interrogate violent practicioners and "political realists" with the same skepticism and critical edge that it applies to non-violence. In the case of the application of non-violence to the current conditions in the Middle East, Lawson says:
All violence does is determine who gets killed and who may survive with enough power to take control of the situation and shape it .... why of all the power groups in the Middle East has there not been a call for all the parties putting down their weapons and declaring a moratorium on suicide bombing, on missiles being shot at people, at houses being destroyed, at people being killed?
Why? Because that would require that the dominant forces (including the Bush Administration) in the Middle East be put on an equal moral plane as every other party and be judged accordingly. The Powers will not stand for that.

However, it is fair to demand that journalists--who seem interested in embedding their own influence in halls of power--apply their skepticism to the failed policies of violence as quickly as they do to the relatively untried tactics of non-violent resistance.

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