In Defense of Non-violent Actions in Revolutionary Times

It has been said that the most advanced and skilled generals will win their battles without firing a shot and that the most powerful weapon that an army can bring to the field is the high moral ground.

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

I was recently accused on social media of offering up “flowery words” after posting a short call to non-violent activism. I would like to assure all that although non-violence may have the sound of flowery words, these words are also a call to what may be the best strategy and the bravest strategy for living with and responding to a world that has been in the fits of some power struggle or another, throughout the extent of its entire written and I oral history. The struggle for human rights is not new to us here in the year of 2019, although the conditions and environment in which the struggles exist may be.

In this time of ever tightening political oppression, creeping fascism, economic injustice and quickening environmental collapse and destruction, many souls are tried, patience wears thin, lives are lost to shooters, police brutality, poverty, war and climate disruption. We are faced with the most serious and heart-wrenching examples of a world that is going wrong. Feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, anger and despair are widespread and growing. Desperate for answers, solutions and some way to stand, resist and respond to these conditions, anger and anxiety threaten our mental and physical conditions and our position becomes even more tenuous and fragile and some, wishing to, needing to, take that stand, needing to push back in some way are likely to consider the last resort of violent action.

So as it is, even now, we have actors from every side putting their feet down, insisting on their point of view, insisting again on the righteous cause of their particular side. Add to this that millions of folks across the land are armed and loaded. Millions of weapons are in the hands of angry, disenfranchised and emotionally charged individuals while millions more are doing what they can to eliminate guns, war and violence from our society altogether. These peacemakers preach peace while also walking the path of peace by refusing to let fear determine their choice to live in an unarmed society. These are the faithfully unprotected.

The real injustice inherent in racism, classism, and the ever tightening surveillance State continues to grow, this backed by the most unaccountably powerful police and military force ever known to man. The force stands poised, ready to club, taze, gas, shoot, run-over, corral and arrest any number of dissenters.

They are prepared to stand against anything that’s thrown against them if they should choose to unleash the full weight of that force or so it would definitely seem to be when comparing, side by side, the usual tools of force and power available. Sometimes I can’t help but to wonder if the activist community could bring the current government or those over-armed, overly patriotic and overly anxious would- be private citizen enforcers any greater satisfaction than for those justice seeking citizens, such as you or I, to come out and earnestly stand-up for our rights, en masse against them. There has hardly ever been a political and social group, especially one with such a broad and sweeping agenda for change as our own, that has left itself more defenseless against those powers that seek to silence, restrain and defeat it.

In such a tense environment as ours even words can be dangerous tools leading to unintended acts. Chanting old lines such as, “off with their heads” , in times past, have actually led to real beheadings. There is an escalation now of the endless debates and discussions that end in angered division, with over-charged words laid down, between the high walls we’ve built, both in front of and behind our uncompromising positions. Angry words indeed that left unchecked then reformed into hateful action which might and has in times past led to millions of lives lost in political battles, revolutionary war, civil war and world war.

With so much potential for violent consequences, some understandably feeling a need for caution become then overly cautious with their words, silent even at times when they might have spoken up, preferring the false peace for today to the anxious and irritable feelings of passionate, opposing positions.

Yet we know that silence and inaction in the face of injustice and the horror of oppression only allows the tyrant a free range, free, open and wide for its course of oppression, destruction and slavery.

We are caught in a conundrum of shame, humiliation and cowardice of complicity through inaction and silence in that real possibility of pushing what we see as the other side into an escalated response, whether by policeman or neighbor, the man growing angrier and prone to violence when feeling trapped or cornered. It may be that some turn to violence simply because they feel confident in their clear level of overwhelming power when challenged by the sincere calls for freedom and the earnest effort to engage in reasonable debate and discussion.

For those who love the blessings of peace and appreciate the delicate balance between any-action and right-action, political and social activism, in all its various forms and flavors, must be a careful calculation, for as there must be a response and challenge to injustice that response must be first and foremost an action that favors and promotes peace. Peace-keepers and change-makers must act but their actions must not be the spark that lights the fuse of some unforeseen counter-response, unleashing an unintentional reaction, whether it be furthering a yelling match on social media or frustrating an already angry young man to murder or soliciting a counter-response from the government that results in slaughter.

Questioning that fine point of the balance between the false peace of paralysis and all-out battle, riot or war, we might be tempted to find ourselves questioning the validity and wisdom of any response at all to injustice and oppression. This I think, must be quickly resolved in our minds, as standing for human rights and freedom is always the right response to injustice, as being aligned with the tyranny and oppression is always proves to be wrong.

Are tyranny and oppression always wrong? Yes, of course! We needn’t spend time here moralizing or debating on that question as we’ve already had that conversation and seen this truth. Tyranny and oppression are always wrong. We all know and understand the limit of what we would bare or tolerate in tyranny, oppression, violence or injustice leveled against ourselves and we know too that there is no right or reasonable argument one can make to justify denying that same wealth of security and comfort to every other. Say what you will, there is no sound argument for tyranny, injustice, violence or oppression against another soul.

Throughout our long history, revolution and political change which began with noble intentions of freedom and shared resources, have so often been co-opted by, then led and directed to ultimately benefit those clever individuals who were able to stay alive through the chaos of upheaval and the carnage of war while wreaking havoc on the entrenched, dominate power. In this manner, kingdoms, countries and nations rise and fall.

Wishing an end to the on-going cycles of violence, vengeance and trauma and what we have seen as the inevitable advancement of ever more hideous empires, that are resurrected from the ruins of the fallen, some now look for another way, another method of advancing the revolution of liberty, freedom and self-fulfillment. Social change through political revolution can, most certainly be achieved through non-violent action. In fact, any truly enlightened or lasting positive revolutionary change must be achieved through non-violent action. For the end of tyranny is peace, the end of violence is peace and the end of oppression is peace. Peace is justice, tranquility, equality, now.

As we commit to the strategy of a life of winning without warring and tap into the motivational force of the power of simply doing the just and right thing, the vision of our goal becomes clear and what was possible becomes what is real. How then do we advance justice in a world so drawn to violence? What we would all do to have the easy answer when the real answer is hard, difficult and long, it’s an ever ongoing fact of our lives. Yet we know that peace, truly is, the only avenue to peace and the power that is in peace and we find also that power reveals itself in the personal growth of each individual, intertwined with the community and the public good. Justice then, arising first from the personal domain, rises up to empower communities and nations.

There appears to be no substitute for personal responsibility in our own actions. Those who would be the masters of their own world would find it prudent, imperative even, to commit too and adhere too, the resolution of victory through reason, right action, peaceful action and a necessary love and respect for our fellow humans, no matter their state, stance or condition.

We do not stand for or become the vehicles and stewards of justice with the permission of the oppressor but their injustice does stand with ours.

A call to violence however, as a response to these times is at best, the work of a stunted imagination and at worst the road to certain destruction, defeat and an escalation of the very oppression we so long to free ourselves from.

There remains sympathy and some empathy for those who are brutalized by a deadly, militarized force that comes to fight them. There remains a love for that common desire for a life of peace and safety. There remains that shared knowledge of what is right and just and desired by people across time and throughout every land. The high moral ground should be, must be, the strength and goal and desire of any revolution worth having. But to have a successful revolution we must know what is meant by the high moral ground and a successful revolution.

A successful revolution, like the moral high-ground, is a revolution that actually advances beneficial social and political objectives, as well and along with healthy personal objectives. Today we must also be careful to include environmental concerns and conditions in any serious effort of reform. The end result of a revolution then is considered along with the ways and means and that high moral ground. Did the revolution advance beneficial social, political, environmental and personal goals or not?

We know for certain from examples of several fairly recent large and catastrophic revolutions that for all the effort and sacrifice of revolution the people can find they have changed a lot of things, circumstances and structures at great cost for very little gain in those even more important things like political and social justice in the long run and big picture. Millions and millions of lives have been sacrificed and slaughtered in the noble name of revolution only to actually achieve little more than facilitating the robbery of the nation’s wealth by the latest grand victors of the struggle that lies behind. A rotation from king to dictator or from tyrant to despot is hardly worth fighting and dying for. The people remain disenfranchised, oppressed and unfairly ruled only under a new flag and a new set of corrupted codes and restrictions

A revolution that brings nothing more than new masters pushing new terms of oppression is not a thing that a people of sound mind would ever want to fight and die for, especially when we consider, as we must, the real cost in human lives, the intense trauma for those still left alive in the aftermath of such a struggle and the inevitable environmental destruction that comes from all hate-filled states of war and violent action. But we know that mobs and masses and individuals do not always act from the place of a sound mind or even according to their own best interests.

If our influence in this world is to be no more than to push anger, vengeance and revenge back and forth between opposing power-mongers or to wrest power from one corrupted government to another it might be better to refrain from any activism or interaction at all. Any revolution then, worth having, is a revolution that moves us beyond those ideas and circumstances, those structures that support all that is wrong with governments and rulers and finally against the idea that might is the only right and that justice, wealth and freedom are just for those at the top of the pyramid.

I do not like or wish to become trapped in absolute statements. Calls to non-violence are taken as absolute statements. I cannot rightly advise another as to when they must fight back with all they have from a defensive and possibly lifesaving event but I stand firm in my position that violent action used as an offensive tactic for revolutionary change is a death wish for peaceful activists whose goal is to benefit or improve the world. My position is that change through violent action, rather than bringing the desired beneficial outcome will only, if successful in its grab for power, lead to some other new and different authoritarian government that is able to fill the vacuum created in the collapsing structure of the old before it. We risk finding ourselves being overwhelmed or slaughtered by the current tyrant on the one hand or by some other new rising tyranny on the other.

So if violent revolution is not our, answer what is left to us, what can we do? Is there any hope of over-coming injustice and oppression without war? Yes there is. From time to time and moment to moment there is and always have been opportunities for standing against, and for being successful in that stand against injustice and oppression. I would say also that before we throw our fortune into those brutish desires for violence and domination, that we must first, at least try, we must make a sincere effort that is, in the peaceful tactics that are available to us for political and social change.

We must look at and build on the numbers of those who would prefer a democratic society to an authoritarian society. We must find ways of owning the conversations that bring people together. We must participate in our redemption with a number of citizens previously unseen in the workings of what is left of our democratic system, this means not only protesting what is wrong but in making things right by working and volunteering in government and non-profit political and social committees and organizations as if our freedoms depended on it. We must turn out more than just a few candidates that are authentic and sincere so we can honestly drum up support for their campaigns when elections roll around. We must show up in droves at voting time and then follow-up those elected by keeping up with and supporting these public servants in their efforts. We must write letters, we must make phone calls. W Most importantly, we must continuously educate ourselves and one another.

There are rallies, marches, sit-ins, die-ins, and boycotts we can join. There are essays, stories, plays and screen-plays to write. There is street theatre, there is art and graffiti that needs painting, posters to print, songs to sing. In other words we must do the long, slow, patient work of responsible, active citizens who have a government. To raise our fists against our government and each other in this time, before we have even lifted a hand in service to ourselves and our government, whether local, state or national is juvenile, decadent and unconscionable.

The hard work of governing, from the first tribes and clans negotiating the right to choice caves and herds of wild game to our modern systems that eat up trillions of dollars, now burdened under the amazing and fiercely cumbersome task of managing global politics and world trade, once started, never stopped. Through our long history of various social and political systems and arrangements there has never been a break or a stopping place for governing except perhaps in the temporary chaos of war. It goes from one system to another, one ruler to the next, power changes hands but for good or bad the governing never really stops. We need to recognize that truth and act accordingly. When it comes to one of our most important facts of life we tend to act like children hoping for the shining knight or that fantastic imaginary utopia that will bring us that happy ending rather than being the adults we are, responsible for ourselves, each other, our governments and our planet.

The art of politics and governance we’ve come to hate and disregard as if it was the place and province for nothing but scoundrels, con-artists, sociopaths and the most awful dregs of society. If governments have gotten out of hand and I think there is ample proof and little too no doubt that they have, we might take some blame and responsibility upon ourselves for that, in doing so we might learn instead to see governments as the domain of the wise, kind, altruistic, compassionate and sound. We might make our governments the home of those with integrity, courage, foresight and resolve. In reality, if we are to have just societies and beneficial governments, we must grow and evolve into those people worthy of good government and just societies. In the final count, here is no substitute for our own genuine and earnest participation in our political and social affairs. If we give our power to kings and rulers through inaction, then kings and rulers will surely take the reins and they will lead us where they will. The choice, as it always has been, lies with us, the living people of the land.

If there is such a thing as a human right, whether god-given or ordained by the inspiration of man then those rights must , of course, extend to all. Human rights, if they are to be right, do not stop at the door of some while leaving others out. Human rights, those rights as we know them, are the desire and right of every human. These rights, as we know them are for all. Male, Female, gay, straight, black, brown, yellow or red. These rights, if they are to be anything more than a hypocrits dream must be extended to all and across all borders, all divisions, all prejudices and all classes. If they are not, then they are not rights at all, they are instead, privileges.

Scott Owen is an organic farmer and silversmith from the southwest desert who took to writing commentaries and political essays during the Occupy Movement in 2011 after being challenged to “do more” by a local city councilman at an overstuffed, highly charged city council meeting. He was invited to join a newly formed community radio news team in Asheville N.C. where he still volunteers covering city council meetings and local political marches, rallies and protests.