Giving Peace a Chance — For Real This Time (Part II)

(Follow-up to Part I)

If ever there were a case study in active pacifistic resistance, it would be Mohandas Gandhi. Despite my previous criticism of one of his quotes (“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”) as overly simplistic, I would be remiss if I let the reader suppose I have little respect for him. On the contrary, it is difficult to regard with anything but admiration a person who not only stood against a discriminatory and decadent government in the face of arrest, but did so using a very underestimated form of power — the power of nonviolent motivation. He wisely acknowledged that humans are inextricably social creatures, whose interests depend on each other even if they may not value some other humans as ends.

This is why boycotts work. We need not settle for the false dichotomy that either sociopathy is a myth or the only response society can offer to social parasites is swift destruction, because there are peaceful incentives for which people may change beyond appeal to empathy. For example, Gandhi achieved legislative change for the betterment of his community by going on hunger strikes — his positive public reputation dissuaded lawmakers from making decisions that people could construe as causes of his death by malnutrition. His was a subtle system of psychological politics, which showed that with enough willpower it is possible for disenfranchised communities to earn their own rights, without causing unnecessary suffering.

In sum, Gandhi’s life (as told in this short yet informative biography) was at the very least a challenge to the notion that pacifism is inherently passive. The practitioners of his satyagraha code did not merely take the abuse inflicted upon them, but stood up to it as they conducted peacefully active initiatives to change laws and social norms they refused to tolerate. Such is all well and good, but if we want to make decisions that are best equipped to have the most positive effects for people we care about, we need to assess, in theory and in practice, whether turning the other cheek truly does work in such a large-scale context. Could Pope Francis’s call for Catholics worldwide to protest the Syrian massacres with prayer and fasting effect more than a placebo’s worth of change?

To the credit of the military advocates, there seems to be a large gap between the Syrian government and the British government that eventually yielded to Gandhi’s and his allies’ displays of charity, as in South African Indians’ support of British soldiers in the Boer War (see page 2 of the above link). As I understand it, the historical precedents we have of effective peaceful protests tend to revolve around certainly unacceptable yet lower-priority discrimination, as opposed to outright slaughter of people. Gandhi’s protesters endured attacks, but they were not directly combatting already extant violence. I have nonetheless taken this opportunity to cite the story of Gandhi because of the intriguing possibilities we may strive for in the spirit of his activism. The distinction between pacifism in Gandhi’s efforts and in the context of genocidal injustices may be one of quantity rather than quality, although more research is imperative. I confess some doubts about this conjecture after learning of Gandhi’s all but ignoring World War II, in his endeavor to secure Indian independence.

Having recently read vaguely of successful engagements of diplomacy by certain popes from earlier centuries, I will dedicate the next update to a discussion of what I have found about such claims. If reliable, these accounts would lend greater credibility to peaceful solutions to violent problems. I may also investigate the details of the contributions to justice made by Martin Luther King, Jr., who regarded Gandhi as an inspiration and may be more relevant to the tougher cases for pacifism, as his activism took place in a setting when and where lynchings were not uncommon.

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What’s It All About, Alfie?

I expect the name of this blog to elicit one of three reactions. The first is scoffing dismissal at its audacity: “Gee, here’s another naive kid thinking he can make a difference. What a hack! Moving on…” The second is curiosity: “Gee, I was just wondering how one might go about the massive task of saving the world. What a potentially valuable resource, my cynical doubts notwithstanding! Moving on to the actual website…”

The last is outrage at the idea that I might actually be selling snake-oil to dummies, who think reading my patented manifesto on world peace (endorsed by the Dalai Lama) could protect the Amazon rainforest.

Suffice it to say, if you fall into the first niche of people, feel free to spend your time more wisely, as I am sure your life includes priorities above reading the word-vomit of a teenager on social justice. Seriously. For those of you more gullible hopeful folk who sincerely share my goal of at least trying to make sense of this complex, imperfect world, and who figure you might as well embark on your journey of stupid idealism with a soul-buddy on the Internet, welcome!

Naturally, you will have your reservations. Really, what do I know about improving society? The most honest answer I can muster is, not much more than the average person. Yet. The first warning I can give you to make this project more worthwhile for all of us is that you ought never take this blog to be the web edition of Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save. I am not Gandhi. You will doubtless find people more valuable to the world than I am. If you feel so inclined, read my updates as if they were journal entries from the pen of a young person, aiming for nothing more or less than the expansion of his scope and depth of social consciousness.

That said, I can promise you, most patient reader who I am amazed has stayed with me this long, that in the annals of this blog you will never hear echoes of Lisa Simpson. I intend zero condescension, judgmentalism, self-righteousness, or pretension to know or do things I do not actually know or do. One virtue of this blog that I hope shines through is that it will never propose anything impractical for the majority of people with a shred of desire to make the world a better place. As one of the laziest people I know, I assure you that if, over the course of this endeavor, I find myself capable of saving a tree, then you most certainly can do so too. Chances are I will not get that far, thus I refuse to demand that everyone else match my imaginary moral superiority, lest you appear a despicable apathetic pig in my eyes.

If this sounds pessimistic of me, note that never in this essay have I stated that I will not try, or that no one else should try. Success in this project looks something like this: regardless of whether I earn the Nobel Peace Prize, I will have made the most authentic effort possible to think critically about the issues surrounding the extent to which I, you, and society can actualize the values we share (at least, that I hope we share). Bonus points if someone else finds these musings of mine somewhat thought-provoking.

So, now that we have dispelled any unreasonable expectations for this blog’s content — both positive and negative — let me explain what sorts of topics I may cover throughout my blogger’s career, before you leave thinking this site is pointless. “Saving the world” is basically the same in my mind as in anyone else’s; it’s the details that need sorting out. Most of us desire a society, or multiple coexisting societies, in which every person’s potential to pursue happiness with liberty is maximized. The debates over the means to that end could fill a nation’s worth of libraries, encompassing everything from personal ethics to large-scale politics.

To keep this blog ever on track, I swear to abide by this constant principle: If it has little relevance to the well-being of you or other conscious creatures, it has no right to any bandwidth here. Within the limits of that maxim, be you a passionate feminist or an enemy of malaria, there’s bound to be something of interest to you here if you are still reading this. The most powerful asset in our hands, as people discontent with the status quo, is determination. Apathy tends to shrink when you purposefully hold yourself accountable to others who keep ubiquitous tabs on you, saying to their fellows, “Who wants to start the bidding on how long this New Year’s Resolution will last?” That is the main reason I chose to start this blog.

Are you in?