More times than I can count, I have have been engaged in passionate discussions around replacing the word ‘nonviolence.’ Why should we define ourselves negatively?’ People ask; should we really be talking about a “non” something? Neuroscientific linguistics will affirm the suspicion–you can’t tell a person “don’t think of an elephant,” without their thinking of an elephant. So is violence the “elephant in the room” of nonviolence? Can we talk about what we do without talking about what we don’t do?
Surely there are many other words or phrases for nonviolence: empathy in action, love in action, positive peace through peaceful means, soul-force, integrative power, and so on. Oh, well let’s add one more to be really radical: how about our highest human nature? But I’m not one who has a problem so much with defining nonviolence positively rather than negatively. Actually, when my organization, the Metta Center for Nonviolence, was founded over 30 years ago (not by me…), it was to answer the question, “What are we going to do about all the violence?” It was framed in the knowledge that, as Gandhi said, “nothing that is violent can be of lasting benefit.” And the way that we define nonviolence at Metta is, the transformation of a drive that would otherwise express itself in destructive ways, into its more positive channel: hatred into love, greed to generosity, security into courageous security, paralysis into creativity..
My biggest complaint, if you can call it that, about the term ‘nonviolence’ is that people stop short of thinking it all the way through. I don’t think that this is the problem of how it is formed– as a negation or an affirmation–but of the way we are taught, and encouraged to think about things in general. Digging deeper than just the word, we find that the word is just a wrapper for much more. Nonviolence is not a non-anything and it’s more than a word, it’s a concept, a worldview, and a way of life. And I’m grateful for the negative framing of the word, because it’s a kind of conversation starter: through their own experience, what people who try nonviolence have found in practice is not negative. Far from it. And for those who don’t go so far as to put it into practice all the way, at least it gives them a clear guideline and departure point: don’t do violence. Think of it as the Hippocratic oath of social change: primum non nocere, the first principle for doctors: ‘do no harm.’ It’s not an end by any means, just a place to begin, i.e., If not violence, then what? Though Gandhi was positive in every bone of his being, he felt, as common experience bears him out, that if one rigorously abstained from violence — meaning especially, as far as possible, even in thought — one would be forced to discover nonviolence, shall we say, through the back door. Whatever works!
Have that conversation today about another term for nonviolence. Note the richness of the conversation. Can another word do that for this concept?
The Metta Center for Nonviolence, PO Box 98, Petaluma, California 94953 707-774-6299 firstname.lastname@example.org