Todd May: This is the week of the tenth anniversary of September 11th. For the last couple of weeks we’ve been treated to a number of retrospectives. What’s it been like for the last ten years? How has the response been? The US response, Europe’s response. To 9/11, to the issue of global terrorism.
And in the course of this response, one of the things that seems to be a common theme, at least among some of the more thinking journalists, is that the US response to 9/11 over the last ten years has been a dismal failure. The US has not succeeded in its own policy goals. It hasn’t succeeded in making life better for the people upon whom its imposed its violence. In short, violence hasn’t worked. And so the question becomes not simply how ought we to have responded—that’s one question. But the question of what ought we to do now. How ought we think about our politics in a world where we’re being told that we’re under constant siege by terror and terrorists? How are we think about how to act, how to move, how to relate one country to another.
What I want to talk about today is going to be on the issue of nonviolence, and the issue of how it is that we might respond differently from what seems to be the standard response, the response of violence. And to start that, what I would like to do is to read a short section from Simon Critchley’s recent contribution to The Stone, again right around 9/11, in which he suggested something that seemed utterly different from the responses over the last ten years. So different that I think people didn’t even understand the response he was trying to make. In the course of the column, Simon writes,
Ask yourself: what if nothing had happened after 9⁄11? No revenge, no retribution, no failed surgical strikes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, no poorly planned bloody fiasco in Iraq, no surges and no insurgencies to surge against; nothing.
What if the government had simply decided to turn the other cheek and forgive those who sought to attack it, not seven times, but seventy times seven? What if the grief and mourning that followed 9⁄11 were allowed to foster a nonviolent ethics of compassion rather than a violent politics of revenge and retribution?
The Cycle of Revenge
What Simon Critchley suggests seemed so out of bounds with how we have been taught to think about responses to terrorism. But I think it either could be seen as the ravings of a madman, or the opening up of a new framework. And I think it is the opening up of a framework, but not a new framework. A framework that has a history, and that will relate this to some of the I think the best parts of recent political action.
What Simon’s talking about is not responding to force with force, but responding to force with something else. Something that withdraws the power of the force that one has been up against. That withdrawal of the power happens not by crushing but rather by we could say sapping its strength.
It happens by responding to violence with nonviolence. And in this sense, I think what Simon has gotten too is what I would call one half of the power of nonviolence. And when I say one half of the power of nonviolence what I mean is that in daring to articulate a framework that goes against the framework that we’ve been taught, right—violence needs to be responded to with crushing violence—he asks us to think in another way. But in thinking in that other way, what I think we need to do is not just think about no response but how to respond nonviolently.
One of the most common misconceptions in nonviolent action is that it is, and this is the term that was often used, passive resistance. That it’s a resistance that works by not doing things rather than by doing something. And Simon’s suggestion, which moves us away from violence, I think still opens up the possibility of seeing nonviolent action as passive resistance. As the kind of resistance that was often interpreted with Tibet. What I think we need to do is dig deeper into the history of nonviolent resistance and to see it not as passive resistance but as active nonviolent resistance. And to begin to see it as active nonviolent resistance, we can go back to Gandhi and to the term he used in talking about nonviolent resistance. Coming from the Sanskrit, he used the term “satyagraha.” Satyagraha can be translated in English either as “soul force” or as “truth force.” I’m going to orient the discussion more toward truth force than soul force.
In thinking about truth force, the question is how is it that we bring the truth out about a situation that’s untenable, that’s exploitative, that’s oppressive. How do we bring out the truth of that situation. We don’t bring out the truth of that situation simply by undergoing it. We don’t bring out the truth of that situation by allowing it to happen. But we also, and here’s where the turn’s made that Simon’s article points to, that satyagraha points to. We respond by reframing the terms of action. And what nonviolent resistance does, when it’s successful, is creatively reframe the terms of action. What nonviolent resistance does is look outside the framework within which we have been taught to respond, toward other frameworks of response—of active and creative response.
I can put the issue this way: If we look at satyagraha as truth force, one way—a more passive way of looking at it—would be to see it as a force that simply allows truth to emerge. We point to what’s happening, we allow people to see what’s happening. The truth emerges, change follows from that. That I think is not how most nonviolent campaigns succeed. They succeed not simply by pointing out but by actively changing the terms to reframe how it is that the situation’s being seen.
We might say that a better translation for truth force is not allowing the truth to come out but forcing the truth. But if we’re forcing the truth, that leads to the question of how does one force the truth nonviolently. We’ve seen over the last ten years, particularly in the US response to terrorism and 9/11, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, the belief that one allows—as it were—the truth to come out simply through violence. Through oppressing—a better suppressing—what it is that we are struggling against. What nonviolent resistance would seek to do is not work by suppression but by alternative means.
One of the most persistent and probably subtlest theorists of nonviolent resistance is Gene Sharp. And Gene Sharp, just for background, is a theorist who wrote a significant three-volume work called The Politics of Nonviolent [Action]. And Sharp’s work was used in Serbia to resist the Serbian government, and then in Tahrir Square in Egypt, where Egyptian activists had clandestinely travel to Serbia, had learn Sharp’s methods, and brought back those methods to Egypt and they were on full display in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring.
And one of the things that Sharp insists on is that nonviolent action has to be creative, it has to render one vulnerable, and it has to work to reframe the context of the situation. At one point Sharp calls it “moral jiu-jitsu.” That you take the power of the enemy that is suppressing you and turn it back against them. But you turn it back against them not by having more violent power but by revealing the power for what it is, by using the violence to show the violence of those who are oppressing you.
We can see this I think very clearly in the civil rights movement in the US. Take what seems to me a great example of moral jiu-jitsu using nonviolence. And that’s…we could pick the Freedom Rides, but I think we can pick the lunch counter sit-ins as a graphic example. In the lunch counter sit-ins, there was the expectation that there might be violence. But that violence was used creatively by the people who wanted to resist segregation. How did they use it? People walked into a restaurant, sat down, sought to order food. They didn’t seek to overwhelm the people who were segregationists. Didn’t seek to overwhelm the people who refused to serve them at the counter. They knew that there would be violence, and they knew that in their response to violence they would be able to reveal something that hadn’t been seen before, or at least hadn’t been seen as clearly as it should. So when they received the violence, by maintaining their own dignity, by not striking back, but at the same time by being recipients of violence in a way that everybody could see, they performed a moral jiu-jitsu. The violence that was enacted against them became in turn something that revealed those who were violent to themselves, or at least to everyone else. And that became then the creative moment in nonviolent resistance.
We can see the itinerary of creative nonviolence if we look further down the road. If we look at what happens that leads to the events in Birmingham. During the…I think it was 1962, there were a series of protests in Albany, Georgia. The goal of protests were again to bring out the violence of segregation. But there was a sheriff in Albany, Laurie Pritchett. And what Laurie Pritchett did was he saw the tactic of nonviolence, and he saw what it did. So he knew he couldn’t respond with violence. What Laurie Pritchett did was he asked all of the jails in all the towns around Albany to receive the prisoners as they were arrested. He instructed his men not to act violently, to be respectful of the protestors, and to put them in jail, never abusing them.
The problem this created for the Civil Rights Movement was it wasn’t able to display the nonviolent resistance. The movement wasn’t able to create the kind of dynamic that it needed to create. So what happened was in Birmingham there was a sheriff, Bull Connor, who we could say, to put it mildly, was not of the same mold as Laurie Pritchett. Bull Connor believed, as years later George Bush believed, that one resists what one finds offensive through violence. Bull Connor no sooner saw the protestors than he turned hoses on the protestors, turned the dogs on the protestors. And what that allowed to have happen was the revelation again of the violence of the segregation through the violence of the protection of it.
And as people began to see what happened, there was I would say a dynamic to have three elements in it. One, was the larger public began to see the violence that was associated with segregation. That it became something that they couldn’t ignore. It became something that revealed its character to them. That was one.
Second, for those who were willing to see—not Bull Connor, but for many others. For those who were willing to see, what happened was they became revealed to themselves. They thought of themselves as living in a civilized and well-ordered society. But what happened was they began to be revealed to themselves as a society that was undergirded by violence. Undergirded by the suppression of people that they were telling themselves were better off in the South than anywhere else.
But the third thing, and this is central, was that the people who protested, the people who were involved, were able to display for others and for themselves their own dignity. Rather than being seen by others and by themselves simply as victims, they began to be seen and to see themselves as full human beings with a dignity that in fact is hard to match except with extraordinary discipline, and with the willingness to face violence without lashing out.
And I think it’s that dignity that removes us from the realm of simply passive resistance—what we can take, into active resistance: placing oneself in a position, acting in such a way, as to allow not only the violence of one’s oppressor to be review but the dignity of one’s response to the oppressor. And that I think is the core of nonviolent resistance. Those three elements: what it reveals to the public, what it reveals about the identity of the oppressor, what it reveals about the identity of the oppressed. And in thinking about nonviolence, we need to think about how it is to create those kinds of dynamics. And those are the dynamics that Gene Sharp talks about, the dynamics that give I think that we could say not just the dignity but the creativity to nonviolent resistance.
One more historical example then I want to turn back to 9/11. In Denmark during the German occupation, the Germans decided—as they decided all over Europe—that Jews were going to be wearing yellow stars. Jews would be identified as those who wore a yellow star. Question is, how do you respond to an oppressor of this kind, against whom not only would force be we could say…tactically a bad strategy, it would be a suicide mission.
What happened in Denmark was that everyone started wearing stars. The king of Denmark wore a yellow star. And so it became impossible to distinguish those who were Jews from those weren’t Jews because everybody had a yellow star. That made everyone vulnerable, but at the same time gave everyone the dignity of a response that allowed them to see themselves and allowed others to see them in a light that challenged the framework that was being imposed by the Germans on the Jews.
But, that’s an example from World War II. An example I used before was an example from the Civil Rights Movement. Now we’re in a situation years later, post‑9/11. How is it that we might think about nonviolence and violence in a post‑9/11 world, right, ten years after, twenty years after.
We could say there are several lessons we could take with us from what’s happened in 9/11 to how we should act now. One, most obvious, but one that we can never forget, is the failure of violence. The failure of violence not simply in the terms that folks on the left might say violence has failed. But the failure of violence in its own terms. George Bush did not accomplish what he set out to accomplish with violence. Even if we find what he wanted to accomplish as abhorrent, even he didn’t succeed in his own terms. Forget about the suffering that he neglected, or that never became an issue for him. The suffering that his generals showed their own callousness toward by saying, “We don’t do body counts.” The policy of violence as a response to terrorism has failed on its own terms. That’s the first lesson.
The second lesson, and I think one that follows from this although one that governments seem never to learn, is that the orientation of governments, and particularly the US government, is toward violence. This has been continuous between the Bush administration and the Obama administration. The Obama administration has not, we could say, engaged in the same degree of violence. It hasn’t initiated the wars that George Bush did. But it continued them. And it continues to engage in a policy which continues to fail, even on its own terms.
If governments will persist in this. If, in particular, the US will persist in this, and this is a history of course not unique to the US, right, this is what empires do. Empires dominate people. And when empires are challenged, they respond with violence. If we can expect this, then the first step in nonviolent resistance, nonviolent solidarity, is recognizing that we don’t appeal directly and at first to governments. We have to be able to develop movements on the ground. Movements of solidarity that can in turn develop the kind of strength and the kind of creativity that can challenge governments, challenge them nonviolently, rather than asking them to respond nonviolently. So to take Simon’s question, it’s not just an issue of what if the US government had not responded. We can go further and say how is it that we ought to respond to the fact that the government did, and we can expect to continue to respond violently to challenges to its authority. And in doing that, how ought we to think about nonviolent solidarity.
And the first step, and I would call this the third lesson, is that we think of one another as equals. We think of one another not simply as identities of this, or identities of that, but as equals. It seems to me that one of the great failures of the 1990s has been identity politics. And identity politics failed I think not because it was ill intentioned. Not because it was based on nothing. I think identity politics emerged out of a set of insights, which is that not all struggles are the same struggle. But what happened was that the identities of those in struggle became more significant than the equality that binds us. And as the identities became more significant than the quality that binds us, what happened was the struggles fractured and we began to lose the sense of our common solidarity, and we moved into we could say individual politics of recognition.
What we need to do, what the civil rights movement understood, what nonviolent movements have always understood, is to see one another first and foremost not as particular identities but as equal human beings. As beings that recognize one another as capable of forming lives, as we could say opportunities for solidarity, opportunities for respect. When we can begin to see each other—or, not begin, we can continue to see each other and deeply see each other as equals first and foremost, then we’re in a position to engage in a collective struggle against the forces of violence that seek to impose themselves on us and upon those against whom the wars have occurred. Governments have always been the last to figure out how it is to quit oppressing folks. What we need to do is pull together a movement that shows itself in a way to reveal the government’s violence and to reveal the dignity of those who struggle.
And how do we do that. What we need— It’s not difficult to find levels of oppression around the world. What we need to do is find the ways in which we can act collectively to resist that oppression in a way that reveals its character to the wider public. And one struggle— I think it’s a more local struggle, but it’s a struggle that I think can serve…if not as a model then as an example of how it is to think about nonviolent resistance. And this is the move— We could call broadly the anti-foreclosure movement. People whose houses have been foreclosed upon, refuse to move out. People in their neighborhoods support them. And when people come to move them out they just say, “We’re not leaving.” They stay in their homes.
And what does this reveal? It’s not a passive resistance. It’s not a resistance that says “You can take me out of my home, I’m not going to do anything about it.” It’s a nonviolent refusal. But in this nonviolent refusal, what gets revealed is A, the dignity of the people who stand up for their homes; B, the conditions that people have been forced to live under such that they foreclose. And this is important in revealing to the public because I think there’s a tendency to see people whose houses have been foreclosed upon simply as people who’ve made bad decisions. They should never have taken the loans, they should’ve known they could never afford it. But when you see who it is that’s engaged in the struggle against foreclosures to their homes, who do you see? Well you families with kids. Folks struggling, who are very much like the folks whose homes have not been foreclosed on, except they find themselves in a different set of conditions.
And what this reveals is the— We could it— I suppose we could—a cliché. It reveals a common humanity between those who are struggling and those who see the struggle. And then, in doing that it reveals the violence of the oppressor. In this case the banks who encourage people to take the loans in the first place, who misled people about the terms of the loans, who misled them about what was going to happen. And then seeks to turn them out of their homes and turn those homes around. It seems to me that the struggle against foreclosures shows us a way in which nonviolent resistance can reveal again the three elements, right: the dignity of the oppressed; can take the violence of the oppressor, turn it back upon them; and can reveal to the public the character of the struggle and the character of the oppression.
The question comes up: If this is the case; if nonviolent struggle can do this; if the anti-foreclosure movement is doing this, why isn’t it happening more? Why is it in a situation where so many people are oppressed in so many places, where the policies of neoliberalism have impoverished more people over the last thirty years than were impoverished before the policies began, why is it that there’s so little resistance to these policies, to their applications, to the people behind let’s say the war machine? Why is there so little resistance?
When I talk about this, one of the answers that I get—and I think it’s an adequate one—is that people are apathetic. People are tied to their machines. They’re tied to their iPads. They’re tied to the Internet. They’re tied to their email. And they are isolated from one another and don’t care what’s going on. And that’s why they don’t resist.
I think in fact that misidentifies the symptom for the disease. What looks like apathy seems to me just to be a symptom. The disease I would say is hopelessness. People feel as though they can’t make a change. They feel as though whatever they do, they’re one isolated individual, one isolated group. And although identity politics I think has contributed to this, the reasons lie deeper. They lie in the kinds of individualized movements that neoliberalism has imposed. You’re all on your own, you’re all entrepreneurs, you’re not getting any support, good luck. In our equality, we seek to confront those who would treat us and treat others as less than equal. There’s going to be no substitute for the creation of strategies that reveal this, of strategies that will eventually confront not just banks but full governments. But there’s no clean and easy path.
We see one another as equals. We see the problems that confront us. We form strategies. We form solidarities to confront them. The for specific strategies will be responsive to specific conditions. You can’t dictate them from above, you can’t dictate them from theory.
It will be people in their dignity, in their solidarity, that decide together how it is to confront particular conditions in particular circumstances. Are we capable of forming this “we?” Are we capable of forming the solidarity that will offer, or will open out to creative strategies of nonviolence? Are we capable of refusing to mirror the violence that has become the overriding theme of 9/11 and its aftermath? Are we capable of this? It’s up to us. We have to decide it. It won’t be decided for us. We as individuals and as collectives will decide whether in a period in which we are told violence has to be met with violence and we as the people have no part of this, we will decide whether or not to refuse those terms in favor of other and more creative terms.
One aspect of the contemporary situation which we haven’t challenged are the images that are presented to us of those who are presented to us as others. Those who are presented to us as others are presented as, we could say, irremediably different. Unable to be reached by the kind of discourse that we could say those of us who are told that we are a “we” engage in. How do we challenge that? How do we think about that?
One crucial element in thinking about it is to recognize that that image of the other is reinforced always by appeal, nascent or overt, to terrorism. Those others always at best one step from violence. And we need first to recognize the falsity of that image. In traveling through the Middle East, in traveling through North Africa, I realized that there were times when I was captured by that image. I was surprised to find that when I talked to my guide— I had a guide who took me through part of the Sahara, and asked what my background was, I said that I’m not religious but my background was Jewish.
His response was, “Oh.” It wasn’t significant for him. It wasn’t an element that was important for him. For most people in the countries that we like to characterize as violent or whose populations we like to characterize as at best one step from violence, one of the things we need to see is that most people are trying to conduct their lives and to be able to create something meaning[ful] for themselves in the same way that we are. And this really came out in Tahrir Square, and in a number of movements in the Arab Spring. But I don’t think we’ve learned the lessons of that yet.
This does not mean that all of the values shared, let’s say my progressive folks in the US, will be shared in other populations. So for instance, there are gender issues that are in the Arab world in we could say a starker and sometimes more violent way than in some quarters of the Western world. How do folks in the West, how do progressives in the West, think about this. One thing we need to do is recognize that the attempt to free the women from above through coercion is going to be a repetition of the same problem that we have seen in opposing violence. The link has to be not from above but across, as equals. The question for us then is how do we see not simply the women who are oppressed, but men who are oppressing them, as equals even if they’re engaged in practices that we find either immoral, abhorrent, whatever adjective you like to use. In doing that it seems to me that there are several kinds of strategies that could be involved. There is solidarity with women’s struggles. When for instance women who are subject to clitoridectory come over to the States seeking asylum we have to make sure that they get it in a public another way that folks understand where we stand on issues of oppression of women. That’s one.
Second, there can be education for folks right in countries where women are oppressed. Education not simply of women but education of men. When women have seen openings, and we’ve seen this in Saudi Arabia, we’ve seen this elsewhere, they try to take it. Our job is not to tell them where their truth lies, but to look for the opening for solidarity, and look for ways of engaging with populations, let’s say with male populations, that are on the one hand from our view educational but on the other hand not oppressive. In Arab countries people have heard enough about what the—we could say, the superiority of the West. They don’t need more lessons on superiority. The question will be how is it that we think of strategies of solidarity with women in struggle on the one hand, of engagement with men who are in practices that we reject on the other, without imposing our will in a way that simply repeats the problem.