Nonviolence in a New Century

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Everyone knows the central ontological question: “Why there is being, being rather than nothing? But there is another central philosophical question which human race has never been able to find an answer: “Why is there violence, violence rather than nonviolence?”

”When he was once asked if nonviolent resistance was a form of “direct action,” Gandhi replied: “It is not one form, it is the only form.” He called it the “greatest… force in the world” and said that it was “a force which is more positive than electricity, and more powerful than even ether.” Gandhi believed that nonviolence could be put into practice at every level of human experience. Therefore, nonviolence for Gandhi was not just a political tactic but a spirituality and away of life.

We are living today in an era where social, cultural and political spheres are void of spirituality. However, Gandhi’s nonviolence still offers us an ideal that may uphold. As such, Gandhi remains the prophetic voice of the 21st century and his nonviolence urges us to continue struggling on behalf of what we consider to be right and just. The main interest in Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence is related primarily to the concept of self-realization as a process of enforcing civic engagement and empowering civil society vis-à-vis the state.  The dharmic nature of civilization brings Gandhi to compare his concept of Swaraj to a house with its windows and doors open. So, Swaraj means essentially “being open to others”, but it means also building a character for oneself by living one’s life as a moral project. In this sense, civilization is not just a state of self proclamation of freedom. True freedom is not merely the freedom to do what one desires, but also the ability to ensure that what one chooses is the result of a sense of duty and human solidarity. In other words, civilization in order to be an ongoing moral progress has to combine the dynamic and innovative characteristics of the dialogue. This is what will help resolve the dichotomy between the old and the new, tradition and modernity, continuity and change. Therefore, dialogue as a power of communication entailing both ‘speaking’ and ‘listening’ has the capacity of contributing to the survival and growth of civilizations. So, the idea of a “clash of civilizations” is suspicious of man’s capacity to dialogue and a civilization’s possibility to evolve as a living organism. Today in a time when mankind is confronted with a grim scenario involving clashes of national self interest, religious fundamentalisms and ethnic and racial prejudices, nonviolence can be a well trusted means of laying the groundwork of a new cosmopolitics. Though many continue to believe that nonviolence remains an ineffective instrument against dictatorships and genocide, there is no doubt that in the last several decades many democratic initiatives which were premised on nonviolent militancy and an affirmation of human rights and helped to build global civil society on solid ethical foundations, could be associated with a kind of neo-Gandhian quest for peace and justice. It is revealing that in a world such as ours where there are great calamities like terrorism, poverty, illiteracy and fanaticism, history can still be made out of choices. The choice of nonviolence is ours because as Kant wrote over two hundred years ago, we live “unavoidably side by side.” In other words, we live in a world of “overlapping destinies” where the fates of cultures are heavily intertwined in each other. We no longer live in a world of closed communities where tyrannical orders or religious traditions represented the sole layers of historical legitimacy.  Never in the history of the human race has nonviolence been of such a crucial importance to all the inhabitants of the planet. Only the most barbaric and despotic regimes, however, have attempted to prevent their subjects to think and to practice the idea of nonviolence.

People have a tendency not to distinguish between nonviolence and pacifism. Pacifism is form the Latin root for “peace,” and like its root, the term can be applied both broadly and narrowly. In the narrow sense, pacifism is about the negation of possible violence between states and between governments. Usually pacifists in this sense will oppose war and any form of militarism. Many Christian pacifists believe that war is immoral, because it goes against the teachings of Jesus Christ. This does not mean that all pacifists are religious. It is quite possible to adopt a pacifist position without the backdrop of a religious tradition. As for pacifism in a broader sense, it argues generally that violence is inherently immoral and unjust and hence must necessarily be rejected. However, pacifism and nonviolence are two different things. Pacifism is a method of non-aggression, but nonviolence is rather a way of life and a way of understanding and managing the relationship of human beings with each other. The rejection of war and killing as a synonym of pacifism does not cover the whole meaning of nonviolence as a dynamic, active, constructive and forward looking philosophy, working for justice and positive social and political changes. Nonviolence is continuous, a pervasive and quotidian effort. As Gandhi formulates it clearly, “…nonviolence is not a cloistered virtue to be practiced by the individual for his peace and final salvation, but it is a rule of conduct for society….To practice nonviolence in mundane matters is to know its true value.”

Recently, nonviolence has evolved from a simple tactic of resistance to a cosmopolitical objective based on global responsibility and international application of the principles of democracy. Some of the events in the past three decades like international terrorism, violation of human rights and environmental degradation  have caused wide spread concern and repercussions around the globe highlighting the grave concern for global politics of nonviolence. All these global issues can best be dealt with at the global level.  Global politics of nonviolence, therefore, is the task not only of governments as such but also of civil society, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and transnational organizations. The way forward for global institutions is to tackle new security threats and violence by promoting the principles of nonviolence and by building a global rule of law and order. They should also manage environmental degradation, emergencies and disasters, clash of religion and culture, unrestrained tide of globalization by using nonviolent means. Most importantly the international community has the moral obligation and duty to control and intervene in countries if they are sliding into lawlessness, violence and unable to protect its citizens from violations of human rights. As such, in a sphere of cosmopolitical coexistence and human solidarity, nonviolence appears as the sole and unique way of taking responsibility to deal collectively with threats and challenges and to provide a better global environment. Only a nonviolent society can work its way up to creating the institutions ripe for development and free itself from injustices and human rights abuses and leading cultures to inter-cultural and inter-religious harmony. In a century that terror has become the institutionalized facets of violence, to the extent that it conditions the life and the mentalities of at least two third of humanity and violence influences directly the various forms of our everyday culture, we can continue no more to practice the policy of the ostrich, having given up inquiring “whose responsibility it is?”

The question of facing one’s responsibilities in today’s world is not just a matter of observing ethical principles. Finding remedies to the global violence in which we are all involved can not remain anymore a mere academic subject. There is an urgent need not only to conceive of a global politics of nonviolence, but also to work out together practical means to implement it. In the efforts to understand and to actualize such an agenda, it may be adequate to look for concrete models of responsibility and practice of nonviolence in the largest sense of the word. Today, in the context of globalization the Gandhian message of nonviolence has become largely relevant, and in most cases effective when it comes to proposing nonviolent alternative to the violence that has taken horrible proportions, running into collective massacres, communal animosities, political and religious terrorism, etc. The tsunami of violence that has held much of the world in its grip in the recent years leaves more questions than before about how people can respond effectively and in nonviolent ways to the violence of our age, and how we can build a better world that struggles against the causes of war and terrorism. How is it possible to transform nonviolent action from an admirable ideal to an effective vehicle for social and political change? This is the most essential question for our century. Gandhi’s message lays the foundation for a renewed vision of nonviolence as an antidote to terrorism and unilateral politics in our world. While Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence is well known, one has to go a step deeper to what inspired Gandhi to take the path of Satyagraha. To Gandhi Ahimsa or nonviolence was not an end in itself, rather it was Truth  that was the end and nonviolence was the most desirable means for him to attain it in his day and age. And the conclusion he came to in his endeavor to attain Truth was to become selfless and that without practicing non-violence he could not become selfless. Therefore Gandhi’s message was that one must act selflessly to succeed in the fight against violence. This selflessness must be from a sense of duty to protect rather than a desire to kill. According to Gandhi, the greatest moral duty was to fight the unjust even though it may cause us to suffer, because through our suffering we can show others the mistake they are making. Gandhi knew that violence unlike anger is not a natural phenomenon and it ultimately robs us of our humanity. Therefore he invited us to change our life style and our way of looking at things in order to be able to change the world. He said: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” The power of these words, spoken over 60 years ago, is often drowned out in the social and political violence of today’s world. But Gandhi is probably the most important thinker whose precepts could guide the crisis ridden world of 21st century. Relevance of Gandhi has been discussed by many people and in many ways. Some question whether the Gandhian principles of nonviolence, simplicity and self-reliance still survive in the “morally reprehensible” conditions of political society today. No doubt, despite all the violence our world is facing Gandhi’s ideals are not all lost to deaf ears. He still serves as a pillar of the nonviolence, living on in leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Dalai Lama. His visions of Satyagraha, Sarvodaya, and most importantly religious harmony are still relevant and applicable.  Today, Gandhian Satyagraha has become a source of power to the powerless and of hope to the hopeless. Gandhi demonstrated to a world, weary with killing and destruction that adherence to nonviolence is not meant for private sphere alone but can be applied in international affairs too. Gandhi most certainly spiritualized the global political arena, by setting ethical standards of universal conduct. By doing this he managed to straighten mankind’s moral backbone and to suggest a new ethical paradigm in global affairs. Though appearing as a small candle flame, the Gandhian paradigm dispels the darkness of wars and warms our wounded souls. It confronts the brutality of naked powers with simplicity and humility.  It is , therefore, to ask whether Gandhian noinviolence is feasible in today’s world. The Gandhian paradigm of nonviolence has been a model and an inspiration to many political leaders in the past 50 years. Mandela, who spent 28 years in prison for fighting white rule before leading South Africa to multi-racial democracy as the country’s first black president in 1994 was inspired by Gandhi. According to Mandela, Gandhi’s philosophy “contributed in no small measure to bringing about a peaceful transformation in South Africa and in healing the destructive human divisions that had been spawned by the abhorrent practice of apartheid.”  For Mandela, “In a world driven by violence and strife, Gandhi’s message of peace and non-violence holds the key to human survival in the 21st century.” In the same tradition of thought His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been promoting non-violence and dialogue as a more practical solution to conflicts in our world. What the Dalai Lama suggests as practical politics is completely at odds with the logic of the real geopolitical world in which we live. In his Acceptance Speech, on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, on December 10, 1989, His Holiness the Dalai Lama suggested that, “the conversion of the entire Tibetan plateau into a Zone of Ahimsa, a sanctuary of peace and nonviolence where human beings and nature can live in peace and harmony.”  He accepted the prize as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, whose thought and life inspired him. According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “Mahatma Gandhi needs to be reinvented in today’s world because his principles and ideas of truth and non-violence are more relevant now.”  Gandhi and his Satyagraha has also been an example of political action for leaders like Vaclav Havel. Havel once introduced himself as an admirer of Gandhi and he affirmed, “that a reflection of Gandhi’s work might even be seen in the attempt he  and his friends made, in Charter 77, to create a nonviolent opposition to the totalitarian regime in our country.”  For Havel, “Gandhi’s act was a triumph of human charisma over mob passions. It was a great victory for the ideas of nonviolence, tolerance, coexistence, and understanding. It was a great victory for what I would call the moral minimum, which links people of all cultures, over mutual antipathy springing from differences of faith and cultural traditions.” More importantly, Havel suggests the idea of a “global moral minimum” that could be adopted as a basis for the rules and norms of the coexistence of nations and supranational communities in the future world. Havel’s piece of wisdom is a minimum rule for the dialogue and coexistence among cultures and stands at the heart of the issues of the 21st century. When differences in values are seen in this context, it is not difficult for the East and the West to come up with modus operandi of relating to each other while still respecting each other’s cultures and traditions. As such, the politics of mutual recognition cannot go without a certain common minimum values which serve as a starting point for humanity’s moral coexistence and dialogue on this planet. This is accompanied with a deepening sense of a global human responsibility. This is a responsibility which could confront all the major issues of today’s civilization.  In order to have a deepening moral progress of humanity next to the technological progress and the advancement of instrumental rationality, humanity needs to feel responsible for the biosphere and toward the biosphere. It is this sense of belonging to the world and the responsibility which goes with it that seems to be pressing all cultures and religious traditions ever closer together. Tolerance and nonviolence are the key words here. However, there are things that cannot be tolerated, or should not be excused away. Auschwitz, Gulag, genocides in ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda and Darfur are good examples. In such instances, there can be no room for tolerance and dialogue. As Thomas Mann says in his novel, The Magic Mountain, “Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil.” Could there be a dialogue with Auschwitz or Gulag? Dialogue with those who do not believe in a dialogue is difficult, but it is not impossible, otherwise, nonviolence does not have any significance in human destiny. Certainly, Auschwitz and Gulag represent the end of dialogue. Therefore, one should only be silent and listen to the history of victims. Dialogue at the threshold of Auschwitz does not only start with silence, but also with an interrogation on the nature of human violence. By far the simplest explanation for Auschwitz is that there is no limit to human violence. The perception that in Hiroshima and Auschwitz human violence attained a maximum from which it had to retreat if the human race were not to destroy itself defines the fragility of human happiness and the imperfect destiny which allows him to continue his quest for truth. Violence can only be contained by truth and truth can only be maintained by nonviolence. If humanity chooses nonviolence as the paradigm for human coexistence, humanity should also choose truth as its principle. Certainly, there is no “one way” of being in truth. There are as many truths as there are individuals. As Gandhi said: “A tree has a single trunk but many branches and leaves, there is one religion– human religion–but any number of faiths.”  This idea, that everyone holds within them a piece of truth, leads to a questioning, for how we are to interact with each other. If we believe that every person has a piece of the truth, we need to listen for it and allow ourselves to discover that truth. This will hopefully lead to communality and dialogical exchange between individuals. This is one of the greatest strengths of Gandhi’s idea in practical terms, as it allows for more creative and effective solutions particularly in conflict. If we take Gandhi seriously, in a global context, we shouldn’t be surprised that hope is located in the otherness of the other, the hither-side of not only the living-present, but also beyond the concept of politics as domination. That is, if we take Gandhi seriously, we should not be surprised to find the hope of the world against violence in nonviolence.

Nonviolence is still an unexplored territory and humanity has such trouble grasping its relevance in 21st century. If civilization is the name of a process whereby humanity undergoes a moral change from a condition of violence to one of creating and obeying dialogical rules of civility, therefore nonviolence is the generic constituent for any definition of civilization. Nonviolence is a fundamental object of any civilization. Therefore, dialogue, democracy and civil intercourse can only be guaranteed in society when every member gives up the use of violence. A democratic community is, thus, a community that brings its members into a condition of dialogue and civility. Before that can happen, a culture of nonviolence needs to be publicized and promoted among the citizens of each community. This is a necessary condition for an intercultural and inter-religious dialogue. The most urgent task, then, is to challenge fanaticism, prejudice and hate that hide behind a barrier of assumed civilized traditions. So long as nonviolence is thus held prisoner of cultures of intolerance and hate rejecting the ideas of solidarity and hospitality, the culture of violence will have the upper hand in our life in common. But it would be equally difficult to perceive a culture that could continue living and creating without others. There is no humanity without others.  We feel human because we know that the others exist and we belong to the human race. As Rousseau writes admirably in Emile: “  I do not conceive how someone who needs nothing can love anything. I do not conceive how someone who loves nothing can be happy.” Solidarity, hospitality and dialogical coexistence are, therefore, morally preferable to prejudice, hatred and violence. To become conscious that the aim of human history is not power and domination but recognition and coexistence, can permit us to think and act in a way that nonviolence would be the maxim of our life in common.  Here lies the start of moral self-improvement of humanity. It has to be recognized as being beyond the political. Thus it indicates the limits of politics.  Where politics does not take place against and in spite of ethics, common life is lived under the banner of peace and in accordance with the commandment: Thou shalt not kill. It is a sober, clear and inspiring idea that distinguishes between democratic and despotic ways of instituting a society. The way of democracy, despite all its weaknesses, provides the opportunity for individuals to become mature into responsibility and thinking. This process of self-realization has its ground in the absence of violence. To despair of violence is to despair of democracy.

It would be a folly to expect nonviolence to become effective and durable by a few individuals while the great majority continues thinking politics in terms of the use of violence. It is true as Karl Jaspers affirms that: “In morality moral conviction is decisive, in politics it is success.” But it is also true that there is no long term success in politics in the absence of morality. Thus, the political is dependent on the “over-political” , which remains independent from politics. If politics does not remain dependent on the “over-political” it may end in ruin. That is to say, political events bring moral responsibilities, and in turn ethical views place their imprint on political decisions. Politics without ethics is pure exercise of power. It is only in relation with ethics that politics can be elevated as a public virtue. Terrible crimes have been committed in the history of mankind by a political practice which tried to teach and impose moral behavior to others. Spiritualizing politics, as Gandhi understood, is not about moralizing politics. It’s more an effort to redefine politics in terms of civic responsibility in an explicit public sphere. Politics is the morally conscientious and socially responsible exercise of the civic roles. Nonviolence is the core key to a responsible and conscientious politics. Power politics in the late century was the best illustration of the dangers of using means contrary to the ends. Violence is normally considered a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Very few people desire a world with war, crime and terrorism. However, in the case of nonviolent politics, nonviolence is the means and nonviolence is the goal. When we examine where we are today, given the politics and technology of violence, we can only conclude that we live in a world with no wisdom. The time has come for humanity in the new millennium to renew its commitment, politically, economically, and culturally, to the wisdom of nonviolence. If we are going to survive and develop, we need to learn to live together nonviolently. Gandhi said, “There is no hope for the aching world except through the narrow and straight path of nonviolence.” If we want to reap the harvest of dialogical coexistence in the future, we will have to sow seeds of nonviolence. Fifty years after Gandhi’s death, we are faced with a choice. It is up to the 21st century to take hold of it.

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