Untroubled by violence

The major anniversary of this week has been Martin Luther King's remarkable, impromptu speech, 'I have a dream...' that cannot but bring tears to the eyes of all of right heart. Rightly much of the commentary has focused on whether, and by what degree, that dream has been accomplished. To which the answer must be - a work in progress. But less attention has been paid to the underlying, underpinning way that dream ought to be achieved - by the disciplined, sober path of the practice of non-violence of which King, following Gandhi, was to follow even unto death.

This lack of attention chimes in melancholy tone with the major news event of the week namely the use of poison gas in Syria, the ongoing civil war and the threat of armed intervention to 'punish' the regime that almost certainly will go ahead (even if without British participation after yesterday's parliamentary vote). Virtually none of the mainstream commentary (nor the arguments about intervention) have dwelt on or been troubled by violence. That appears always to be a given and what we are discussing is the navigation or management of violence which if 'successfully' completed will bring the conflict to the 'right conclusion'!

Alternative paths are there none - neither now when we are in the midst of conflict (which is more understandable) but also 'then' before armed conflict erupted (which is not). One of the tragedies of the 'Arab Spring' is its apparent spontaneity. There appears to have been no long running preparation for achieving change, no training for it, no ideology of transition (with the possible exception of Islamist movements and there the preparation has revolved more around seizing control rather than liberation). The point about non-violence is that it requires greater discipline (and courage) than the path of violence and, thus, careful preparation within civil society as was born out in India, in America, in the Philippines and in Eastern Europe (where the societies that successfully made the transition to democracy were those with disciplined civil spaces of resistance and change).

If only a fraction of our time, effort and funding were to be channelled into exploring these paths would we be where we are now? I do not know but it might be worth our while to find out. To be troubled by violence and imagine from that troubling alternative routes to change. The history of the twentieth century shows that non-violence can work, not without its own costs, if the foundations are laid well, thoroughly and over time. We might want to pick up our dreams again and get to work.

P.S. I can, of course, hear the objection that peaceful protest in Syria was met by force so how should you respond but with 'defensive' violence? But all the careful study of non-violent change in the twentieth century revolves around three key points - how skilful, directed, organised is the peaceful protest, is it in it for the long haul and what does it do when it encounters its first violent reaction (and if the answer to that is violence then the campaign is lost before it has even begun)? Non-violence is a strategy ever bit as complex, disciplined and reflective as that of war.


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