What My Pacifism is NOT September 29, 2012 | 09:48 pm

There are a lot of people out there who want to tell you what pacifism is. This is a noble and constructive project, but it’s not the one that I need most often. Most often, I need a good explanation of what pacifism is not, because most of the reaction that people have towards my pacifist claims are reactions to positions that I do not hold. So let me be very clear about what I do not believe.

  • My pacifism is not passive-ism. Although there are purportedly some out there who believe in the utter non-resistence to evil, I am not one of them, and I don’t recall ever actually encountering a person like that. Often, however, well-intentioned but misguided anti-war rhetoric comes off attempting to portray the world as less bad than it is, or as though we should not act to oppose things that are genuinely evil. This is not my belief. I believe in the active resistence of evil. I’m simply unimpressed with the track record of violence and hatred on solving the problem of evil, and so I look to alternative approaches.
  • My pacifism is not the denial of violence. If anything, pacifism takes more seriously the reality of violence. In every war we have ever fought, our military has killed innocent people. People who had no reason to die ended up killed by our troops. This will happen in every war we fight in the future. That is a violent reality which my pacifism takes seriously, but which is intentionally overlooked when the war drums start beating, and then gets brushed under the rug as “collateral damage”. Yet the reality is that before we deploy any troops, we need to ask ourselves: “How many innocent people is it worth slaughtering to accomplish our goal?” We know innocent people will die when we go to war. We are certain this will happen. We know we will do this, and we will bear sole responsibility. So how many innocent lives is it worth cutting down for our cause? I will not ignore this violence.
  • My pacifism is not the denial of interpersonal violence. I simply prefer risking the possibility of violence happening towards me in the hope that the violence can be avoided completely. Pacifism is not ignorance about violence, but instead the embracing of vulnerability and the faith that human vulnerability has its own amazing power to ensure safety. This sounds backwards and crazy, but it actually works. The vulnerable assertion of dignity—both of yourself and the would-be perpetrator violence—is surprisingly effective in avoiding situations that would otherwise escalate to violence.
  • My pacifism does not reject violence as a solution in some situations. There are times when a doctor has to break bones for healing. This is the “madman with a sword” scenario that Gandhi presented, and even he granted that violence may be a solution in that scenario. If I came across a situation where violence was occurring and violence was truly the only way I had to stop it, I would use violence. To this end, training in martial arts and even martial weaponry can be viewed as in line with pacifism, because they are both learning to minimize the application of violence in the unfortunate situation where it is necessary. (The threat, of course, is that familiarity and availability with methods of violence will entice their use in scenarios where other solutions may be better.) The difference is that pacifism recognizes that my violence is a sign of my own failing (why didn’t I have other options?), as well as a failing of the situation (what was broken that allowed the situation to reach violence in the first place?). The violence is something to mourn, to recover from, and to work to repair. The violence is just the beginning of addressing the problem, and it is definitely not something to be lauded, valorized, and romanticized. It’s certainly not something to joke about or take lightly or treat as though it will actually resolve issues.
  • My pacifism is not an individual claim. My pacifism is not simply something I believe. My pacifism is an underlying reality that demands a response, but which we spend huge amounts of time and effort trying to obscure, because the response is scary, threatening, and counter-cultural. It is, however, also demanded by truth.

  • mcherm

    > My pacifism does not reject violence as a solution in some situations.


    Hmm… Somehow I never considered this. Years ago I stopped calling myself a pacifist (but did not stop practicing the same behaviors) because of just such situations. Perhaps instead I should have used a richer, more nuanced definition of pacifism.

  • http://www.ArticulateVentures.com/ Vance

    “If anything, pacifism takes more seriously the reality of violence.” That is a really profound thought. It is so easy to perceive pacifism as “weakness” or avoiding- but this shows the sophisticated thought process- while I normally don’t like articles that describe something based on what it isn’t this article does a great job of dispelling non-nuanced understanding of pacifism. thank you for writing this.