Questions surrounding non-violence

Gandhian non-violence gains its power by putting an oppressor’s hidden violence out in the open where it cannot be denied. Not so much so as to counter it by non-violent means, but so that it must be confronted by the oppressor, for what it is, in its naked form.

Every oppressor has layers of self-justification to protect them from shame at what they routinely do, or allow to be done in their name. Resistance, especially armed resistance, does nothing to penetrate this armor. If anything it only makes it stronger, more effective at insulating a perpetrator from responsibility for their actions. Opportunities for indignation at the effrontery of an opposition proliferate. Questions of physical self-preservation come into play and cloud matters even further, trumping any curbing influence shame might provide.

But, when violence is not resisted, when it is instead met with compassion, the justifications for that violence begin to crack. If the pressure of non-violent resistance – which is, in essence, providing the oppressor with ever more transparent opportunities to choose between escalation in cold blood (since no opportunity for them to feel themselves threatened is provided) or to begin to feel the shame welling up inside them at what they have been doing.

An abuser’s first reaction to being exposed is to double-down, to up the ante, to force the other to stop “making them do it!” If the non-violent stance is maintained, that fury has nothing to beat against but itself. This wears it down and wears it out over time.*


*In practice, we may have surpassed a watershed of efficiency at destruction and oppression that may not allow classic non-violence the space to work. As the means of oppression have become more efficient – this is truly the end of any quest for efficiency – the time and space and scale of an oppressive act and its ability to impress itself on the oppressor as something to be ashamed of has been disappearing. When all it takes is a dissociated act, like pressing a trigger or a button, that results in mass death and violence and destruction at a distance, both physically removed from and emotionally distant from the perpetrator, this dynamic has gone out of balance.

An early and potent example was as, I think Gunter Grass may have mentioned, giving machine guns to potato eating peasants in World War I. This created a condition for mass-death that had been unprecedented. The trivial nature of the physical act needed to kill at a distance, and the lack of a developed sense of ethics sophisticated enough to see past it, virtually guaranteed vast carnage. It’s a short distance from there to the Holocaust. This isn’t to say that those who established those conditions, those putting such powerful guns in those hands, were unable to sort out their responsibilities. Although in practice few, if any, ever did.

This is an order of magnitude of destruction and moral distance beyond any of the instances of what Gandhi himself had to deal with in confronting the British in India. There, there was time. The effects of outrages got out to those in whose name they were being perpetrated. These outrages were, as bad as they were, relatively contained, and not so horrendous as to permanently alienate those involved to the point where they felt they had nothing to lose by continuing. The same could not be said of the European Holocaust, where efficiency ruled and where denial was protected within the wider struggle of total-war.

These are open questions. Still even we have room to doubt whether the retaliation against such a powerful aggression with total war might have been the best or only response….


The trump held by the non-violent is in their compassion. Eventually shame and guilt overwhelm the oppressor and they eventually turn to the compassion offered them as the only chance to redeem themselves.

This process could be said to be a struggle for respect. It begins with a lack of respect by the oppressors and ends when they turn to the oppressed to restore their own respect in themselves.

An interesting question this poses is whether this is a classic power-play by other means, or is it something else?

Is a “War for Respect” just another example of the “War on Everything?”

A way into this question appears when we ask, “Why is there this struggle for respect?”

Respect is not your common commodity. It can’t be bought. It can’t be coerced, though it can be sold – and thus lost – and we do say it cannot be liquidated like a commodity without destroying it, here’s to you Malcolm Gladwell! It is outside the realm of negotiation. Reluctantly given respect, grudging respect, is no respect at all.

If it can’t be traded, like a spoil of war, “What is it good for?”

You could say it lends authority, but then again, not as a form of authority that can be cashed in. It is an opening into trust. Through trust it leads to the possibility of dialogue. It is a mutual declaration. We do not respect those who don’t respect us back.

Is this a quid pro quo? Can we play grudge matches over respect? Probably not, not and still maintain any.

Respect, regard, these are forms of attention. “A worthy adversary” does demand respect, even if just because of a temporary, even accidental, power imbalance that makes them dangerous. But, they do not hold our attention beyond the circumstances that posed that threat. We don’t trust them. We are wary of them. We might negotiate with them, but unless something fundamentally changes, we wouldn’t consider entering into dialogue with them. For that, our attention would look elsewhere, to those we do regard with respect in a way that breeds our trust.

Is it possible to maintain an adversarial stance towards an opponent in a struggle and still develop or maintain respect? This is asking, “Can there be a path from conflict and negotiation through to respect and trust?” This is asking perhaps the greatest question around the possibility for a radical dissensus.

Dissensus asks of us to withhold ultimate judgement of those we are opposed to so that we don’t fall into the trap of righteousness. It implies the possibility of a relationship of respect between those who would otherwise see each other as enemies. It even implies that in a one-sided asymmetric power relationship that, even if we find ourselves on the weaker side, we will remain open to the possibility that we are wrong.

This essay seems to be returning to where it began. This last implication of dissensus brings us back to Gandhian non-violence. It implies that we trust even those who we have every reason to distrust, as they are our oppressors. We trust that by giving them every opportunity to vent their violence on us, unopposed by mirroring violence, we are breaking the cycle of justification. We are trusting that this may lead them to find their compassion.

The key here is in the qualifiers. “This may result in…” Not, “This will!”

In this, it is a radical stance in favor of the truth over desire.

I would rather live than be killed or maimed, or have all that matters most taken from me. But, if I realize that this cannot be assured, that there is no added certainty of this outcome to be garnered by renewing a cycle of violence, then this acknowledgement of my vulnerability – to myself – is the beneficial heart of all that proceeds from acting out of empathy and compassion.

This is another case of seeing through the rationalizations that pass for pragmatism and finding the lazy justifications that prop them up so that they may be seen as what they are, lies.

Nothing can be done that is truly effective without first finding, developing, honing; an instinct for truth.

Is this not justification taken to another level? Is there a difference between this stance regarding truth and a pose to uphold righteous indignation?

I think there is. Justification implies a willingness to accept whatever emotional intoxication is required to maintain a desire in the face of a countervailing truth. It insists on the Egocentric view and rejects anything that sets aside the primacy of “I.”

Is it possible to be in a dialogue within a state of dissensus? Can parties who disagree, even to the point of violence from at least one side, be in dialogue in some meaningful way?

Theses are the questions, not only surrounding non-violence, but the questions that may lead us through the stagnation and paralysis of our time.

Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

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