Nonviolent Activism

Be Kind to Those Offended By It

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, July 16, 2020

“Good Morning! Would you mind staying a safe distance away?”

“Hi! Nice mask! Could you please wear it on your face instead of your chin?”

Helping people reduce the risk of spreading a deadly disease requires being willing to offend them.

And as they long for a return to normalcy, you should be preparing to be a lot more offensive.

“That sounds delicious. Does it have any dead animals in it?”

“How’s it going? Could you please not carry a gun around here?”

These are comments of the same sort as “put your mask on” in that they are aimed at helping the people you’re confronting survive, whether they like it or not. The methane and other destruction and pollution of livestock will kill them, not just you. The guns increase the risk of gun death for everyone, especially gun owners.

But if you want to get really out-of-step, if you want to offend in the way actually needed, if you want to truly serve everyone’s interests whether they will stand for it or not, then you have to disrupt, protest, and change public policy.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Mayor, all of these people will gladly get off your lawn and plant it with wild flowers when you support divestment from oil producers and weapons dealers.”

“Nice offices, Congress Members. You can enter them as soon as you agree to end fossil fuel subsidies and shift $400 billion a year from wars to a Green New Deal.”

“No, sir, I do understand that you’re just trying to get to your job manufacturing nuclear weapons, but we’re just trying to give your children a chance to live.”

These, too, are acts of kindness toward those disrupted and inconvenienced and pressured to change their ways. And they’ll hate you for it. But that doesn’t mean you need to forget that you are being kind to them. That doesn’t mean you need to become hateful or start wishing them harm or making jokes about “natural selection” taking care of the non-mask-wearers — a comment easily as cruel and ignorant as not wearing a mask.

The essence of nonviolent activism is helping people who do not want to be helped. Far from hating them, it requires actually listening to them. Sometimes some of them will know something that you don’t know. Acting on the best information, whether popular or not, requires constantly searching for better information. But it does not require inaction or politeness that permits injustice and destruction to continue.

“That looks like a really nice Bible you’re thumping, but outgrowing childish ancient myths would give us a better chance at survival in the times ahead.”

“I’m aware there’s an even worse political party than yours, but we need changes neither of those parties will stand for unless you help us challenge both of them.”

These are fighting words. These are courting hatred, violence, ostracism, and mockery. But they are not doing so intentionally. They are doing so out of independent reliance on facts, and out of caring for the interests of others as you best understand them.

For better or worse, we’re all in the same boat. Making fun of the jackasses drilling holes in their end of the boat isn’t a recipe for survival. Asking boat-patch-haters to start patching up the holes is. One approach is easier and less confrontational. The other is actually kinder.

Perhaps someday someone may recognize that you were being kind to them, but I wouldn’t count on it. It certainly isn’t the point. Nor is getting such recognition from their great-grandchildren the point. The existence of their great-grandchildren is the point.

2 Comments

  1. Gen Agustsson says:

    we cannot ignore the truth, we have to expose the truth right now! expose the truth about wars!

  2. Julia Smucker says:

    Reading WBW’s site as a lifelong pacifist, I’ve had a niggling concern in the back of my mind that David Swanson sometimes has a tone problem, and I’m afraid he’s confirmed that here by arguing that it’s both a kindness and an urgent necessity to speak derisively and condescendingly to people in a way that’s much more likely to either kill conversation or provoke an irrational and heated argument than to persuade anyone of anything. But if the stakes are really as high as our very survival and that of future generations, isn’t that all the more reason to confront people in a way that might actually have a chance of convincing them to change their behavior?

    Note that I’m not saying never confront. I’m saying it’s better to confront dialogically than derisively.

    For example, “Could you please pull your mask back up over your nose?” (as I’ve asked people on multiple occasions, with generally positive effect) is more likely to achieve the desired outcome than, “Nice mask! Could you please wear it on your face instead of your chin?” which has a ring of sarcasm no matter how sweetly one might try to say it.

    Barbed questions about eating dead animals say more about the questioner’s own feelings of moral superiority than about the actual morality of meat-eating. (And yes, I’m willing to acknowledge that I do in fact eat dead animals, as well as dead plants, as omnivores do. And I like to consider and respect the life those once-living creatures, both animal and plant, are passing on to me. But that’s rather beside the point.) If you really want to open a conversation, how about, “No, thank you, I’m a vegetarian. Would you mind if I explain why?”

    Most importantly for me, I am a pacifist because I am a Christian. By sweepingly insulting entire communities of faith, David is alienating even people who agree with him on many things. I’m not even going to try to redeem that one, although I will say that any attempts to sacralize violence in the name of God, or especially of Christian faith, are what most easily light my own fuse.

    From the title, I was expecting this post to be about really radical kindness, perhaps along the lines of Kingian/Gandhian (or for that matter, biblical) nonviolence, returning good for evil. But I guess that’s just one of those childish ancient myths I happen to believe in.

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