Published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Whenever I write about non-violent theory and practice, I get several e-mails informing me that I’m dangerously naïve and, even worse, that I refuse to acknowledge there is evil in this world.
It’s baffling, really. Not that most readers would know it but I grew up in East Oakland during the ’80s and early ’90s. That was during the peak of the crack and gang-banging era in urban America.
I’ve seen human evil.
So when I get an e-mail that insists I see only the little bit of good in people, unless I decide to respond by sending a mini-autobiography, I have to shrug it off and say to myself: He or she doesn’t really know me.
Who cares, right? You can’t expect people to know details about something they have no reason to care about.
But what’s really baffling about the claim that the philosophy of non-violence overlooks evil is this: The most celebrated practitioners of peacemaking are famous precisely because they stared human wickedness dead in the face and moved forward with a courage even the bravest of the brave must admire.
Jesus, Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Desmond Tutu — to name just a handful — confronted more evil in a week than most of us have seen in a lifetime. The assertion that non-violence doesn’t candidly confront the demonic aspects of “real” life is clearly nonsense.
One thing that’s so unsettling to the orthodox military mind about non-violence is that it raises a different set of questions than does conventional thinking on the use of force.
Here’s a good example of one of those unsettling questions: Given the vast toll of human misery created by wars and violent conflicts, and given the potential (perhaps even the likelihood) that an escalating cycle of military attacks and counterattacks will eventually snuff out humanity in the fiery winds of a nuclear winter, is there an alternative to the fight-or-flight model?
Or to put it another way: Can evil, or certain kinds of evil such as totalitarianism or fascism, be effectively fought with non-violence as a weapon? Must freedom always be defended with violence? These are the age-old questions of peace and, as a casual glance at the daily newspaper will confirm, it’s an inquiry more pressing now than ever.
No doubt, peace is one of those things that everyone — and I mean everyone — is for. I suppose even Hitler wanted peace, which means we shouldn’t be too impressed if some political leader talks a lot about peace but does little about establishing justice. No justice, no peace.
When it comes to peace, there are only two relevant questions: peace under what terms, and how do we get there from here?
Our collective inability to even talk about peace in fruitful ways is largely because the subject, for all its professed importance, doesn’t get taken seriously by our education system.
No, this isn’t a public school-bashing column. America is still a place with a proud tradition of educational excellence and a country full of able teachers.
But I think social critic Neil Postman has it right: The biggest problem facing American education today is that our children are going into school as question marks and coming out as periods.
In other words, most students are being taught to remember and regurgitate what Alfred North Whitehead called inert ideas. Meanwhile, teaching the art of inquiry, the skill of questioning and critical-thinking are no longer at the core of the curriculum.
To ask well is to know much, says the ancient African proverb. A modern rendering of that proverb might read: To task well is to earn much.
Parent-Teacher Associations, school committees, academics and politicians should be aware that standard curriculum ought to include peace studies — the history of non-violent theory and practice.
Why? Because non-violence works. In many cases, non-violent political action has been more effective and less harmful to human life than military might. And students everywhere need to know that.
Teachers should get their hands on Scott A. Hunt’s new book “The Future of Peace: On the Front Lines with the World’s Great Peacemakers.” Hunt gives us a glimpse of what it means to be a peacemaker in his book of profiles on living non-violent leaders.
From the Dalai Lama to Vietnam’s leading dissident Thich Quang Do to Costa Rica’s Nobel Peace Laureate Oscar Arias, this collection of intimate conversations could serve as a textbook, introducing students to a history that is not taught in school.
The book is well worth $25 for the inspiration it provides alone. Treat yourself. I plan to read it for the second time while I’m on vacation in Florida this week.
*Sean Gonsalves is a columnist with the Cape Cod Times.