The Dilemma of Labelling Non-Violence


Non Violence by Giorgio Galleoti, used under CC BY-SA 2.0

I am a Pacifist. Ish. Like many others who share my views on violence, I find the P-word an unhelpful label, since for many people it conjures up ideas of cowardice and passivity, rather than a positive and active commitment to something believed to be more powerful than violence. But the problem is, it’s hard to know what other choice I have. ‘Practitioner of non-violence’ is cumbersome, and most other alternatives either don’t describe the full picture, or fail to explain the reasons for my views, thus lumping me in with a whole bunch of other people who have reached the same conclusions for wildly different reasons.

So here are two quotes, which nicely explain the dilemma, even if they offer no solutions. The first is from Mark Kurlansky’s Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea:

Lesson number one from human history on the subject of nonviolence, is that there is no word for it. […] While every major language has a word for violence, there is no word to express the idea of nonviolence except that it is not another idea, it is not violence […] If we lived in a world that had no word for war other than nonpeace, what kind of world would that be? It would not necessarily be a world without war, but it would be a world that regarded war as an aberrant and insignificant activity. The widely held and seldom expressed but implicit viewpoint of most cultures is that violence is real and nonviolence is unreal. But when nonviolence becomes a reality it is a powerful force. […] Nonviolence is not the same thing as pacifism, for which there are many words. Pacifism is treated almost as a psychological condition. It is a state of mind. Pacifism is passive; but nonviolence is active. Pacifism is harmless and therefore easier to accept than nonviolence, which is dangerous.’

…and the second is from Brian Zahnd’s brilliantly-titled A Farewell to Mars:

I actually don’t claim the label of pacifist for this reason: pacifism is a political position on violence. It’s a position one could adopt apart from Jesus Christ – as for example, the great writer and humanist Kurt Vonnegut did. But I am not a political pacifist. What I am is a Christian. And as a Christian, we can talk about how Christ informs humanity on the subject of violence.’