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

(Follow-up to Part II)

Having examined a variety of sources on alleged pacifistic successes of first-millennium popes, the facts are ambiguous at best and antithetical to our hopes at worst.

As the legend goes, Pope Leo the Great stopped Attila the Hun’s siege of Rome merely by going to meet the military leader, warning him of the intercession of Saints Paul and Peter that might befall him if he carried out the attack, and leaving Attila fearful and unwilling to defy divine power. The Encyclopedia Britannica, paraphrased here, provides context to the story that would lead even one taking it at face value to the conclusion that more pressing factors dissuaded Attila than an appeal to mercy. The Hun army was already exhausted at the time, particularly after the Battle of Châlons, and Rome’s recent famine made it an unworthy investment for plundering. Ancient historian Don Keko concurs, adding that Rome had already suffered an attack that satiated the Huns with gold, about twenty years before Pope Leo’s meeting. If papal words of peace did anything to defend Rome, they piggybacked on circumstance and took place at a suboptimal time — why not attempt diplomacy during the Huns’ first pillage?

Gregory the Great fares little better. To be sure, his many charitable contributions can be granted, even ignoring for the sake of relevance the violent measures he endorsed for conversion of heretics (a moral error in a person’s character, however egregious, says nothing about the nature of pacifism itself). These sources nonetheless admit that Gregory’s peace with the Lombards, the act of peaceful resistance in question, was “on-and-off” and “fragile.” I could belabor the details, but even if we could demonstrate this to be an indisputable example of effective peacemaking, the theory of pacifism as a consistently powerful force for conflict resolution without the level of violence typical warfare demands would require more than a single exhibit. That, if nothing else, is what we can take from this admittedly sparse day of research: one case does not a reliable theory make, and stories purported to support an ideology may have a more complex history that nullifies their validity as evidence for that ideology. This only scratches the surface, as I have not begun to touch the matter of nuclear weapons, which deserves a post unto itself.

The promised digression on Martin Luther King may or may not come soon. Again, the arms race warrants discussion in this series as well, and it’s likely that I will postpone updates to Giving Peace a Chance until after more extensive reading and thought than is feasible within a few days, or even weeks. I didn’t expect to solve the problem of world peace willy-nilly, yet I hope these posts so far have underscored the importance of patience, meticulousness, and acceptance of uncertainty in the enterprise of applied ethics. Anyone who tries to sell you the answer to this debate in a sentence or in a single anecdote is, I am sure we can agree in our sober moments, being too rash. That does not mean we cannot make progress at all, but it does remind us to take each part of the whole endeavor — in this case, determining whether nonviolent conflict resolution on large international scales is almost always the best option — as proportionally significant.

If you have any resources to recommend on this subject, such as books or documentaries, feel free to suggest them in a comment.

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.

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

For the majority of my life as someone capable of understanding violence, I failed to see the point of pacifism in its most serious, ambitious sense. Granted, most of us would prefer not to have to resort to bloodshed, and if it did prove necessary we would be better off not taking pleasure in it, yet World War II always seemed a strong counterexample to following John Lennon’s suggestion. I would tell myself I had no objections in principle to society utilizing force to achieve what was truly a greater good. Those who scoffed at “the ends justify the means” only did so because they disapproved of certain ends caused by the means, thereby unwittingly proving that point.

I suspect at least a significant number of readers who affirm the above stance do so, reasonably enough, because pacifism’s spokespeople have not tended to maintain a respectable track record of practicality. The stock pacifist justification for refusing to fight even in self-defense is that of Harry Potter, for whose unwavering nonviolence to the point of risking more lives Lupin scolds him. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” “Why show people killing is unacceptable in society by killing them?”, and other such appeals to moral outrage derail the conversation before it can make any meaningful progress.

Meanwhile, the prominent voice for defensive violence fares no better in critical thinking. It has its own soundbites: “Don’t tread on me,” “Think of the children,” and all species of “They deserve it” rationales. If the error of strict pacifism is that it elevates a maxim (don’t kill no matter what) above victims’ lives, the sin of its opposite is a cruel disregard of the nuances of human psychology. A part of the pacifist thesis worth considering is that showing society’s aggressors the strength of our commitment to peace may, far from revealing exploitable weakness, give them reason to respect and even trust us. The skeptics have mostly ignored this.

Our goal, then, ought to be the transcending of these tunnel-vision biases. The most responsible replacement of dogmatic bumper-sticker policies is rational deliberation on the facts relevant to that which we value. Should it seem as if abandoning our hollow rationalizations for positions on this issue makes the task dauntingly complicated, we know we are doing something right, because if what we aim to optimize are real consequences for people’s well-being, we should afford care to thought that is proportional to the uncertainty of those consequences.

This should be common sense, but particularly in the domain of the ethics of violence, we have the all-too-human tendency to forget that what appears to be “cold logic” is the very instrument of justice Alan Turing used to assist the Allies’ victory over the Axis. Neither purely emotional nor exclusively rational means comprise the whole of ethical judgment, as Spock must have some value-based purpose to think for, and McCoy must have a system of discerning better ways to achieve what he values than others.

None of which settles the peace debate proper, you surely protest. We’ll come to that in time, although if we do this responsibly, the conclusion we reach will never be unduly certain, especially when history has never been in short supply of wrong answers. For today, I hope I have stressed the importance of method, lest the garbage put in become garbage out. Naturally, what I present here can never be totally free from its blind spots, yet we should — as people who, remember, desire a common vision in the most significant sense — find little controversial about the notion that identifying and interpreting the facts is better than talking past each other.

In Part II, we’ll consider what history can tell us about what best deters violence, in both the short- and long-term.