In this guest post, University of Glasgow PhD researcher Gaston Bacquet explores the principle of non-violence through history and offers an understanding of the challenges our current societies face today with regards to achieving harmonious human relations. This topic forms part of his ongoing doctoral research and personal worldview.
A recent article by The Washington Post titled “How Tucker Carlson became the voice of White grievance” made me reflect on the impact of violence (including violent rhetoric) in our social relations and how it continues to polarize us. Beyond a personal non-violent worldview shaped by my Buddhist beliefs and yoga studies, I intend for this post to provide an overview of non-violence as a philosophical principle through history, link it with our present day and draw some conclusions that can help us take greater hold of our humanity in spite of the challenges we face in doing so.
Although the principles of non-violence have been around for thousands of years, the first recorded non-violent organizations in the West, according to Losurdo and Elliott (2015) were formed in the early 1800s in the United States, rooted in the principles laid out in the gospels and whose view and effort were directed at non-violent abolitionism; this is important because it illustrates that in the West, non-violence had from its inception a) a spiritual thread and b) was aimed at challenging social injustice. In fact, the first recorded document available on this is an 1812 essay titled “War inconsistent with the Religion of Jesus Christ” by David L. Lodge, and 1828 saw the birth of the National Non-Resistance Association, formed to oppose slavery and which aimed for perpetual peace amongst people (though ironically, as Losurdo and Elliott point out, slavery was abolished through the war, the ultimate form of violence).
This early advocacy of non-violence assumed two forms: one advocating armed rebellion as a way of eliminating violence against the oppressed, and which was seen by even the most non-resistant within non-resistance abolitionist movement as the lesser of two evils, and that originating from Henry David Thoreau, who called not for a rebellion rooted in armed conflict but on what he famously called “civil disobedience” (1849). It was in fact this latter, through his writings, that inspired Gandhi as early at 1906 to shape his forming of ‘Satyagraha’, the particular form of nonviolence for which he became famous. Gandhi’s views on non-violence, influenced as well by his own studies on world religions, present us with a series of notions that are of particular relevance today, in a world where democracy is being threatened by racist and divisive rhetoric; these are universal love and non-violence towards all living beings through the practice of ‘ahimsa’, Sanskrit word for nonviolence as envisioned in Hinduism: causing no injury through word, thought or action. We begin to see, then, a common thread of how the spiritual element, regardless of its origin or root belief system, permeated non-violence from its inception: a political action of disobedience rooted in a compassionate mindset that seeks not to exclude or separate.
In addition to this perspective, some scholars have linked violence and inequality; here I will borrow from Judith Butler’s “The Force of Non-Violence” (2020) and from Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Cosmopolitanism” (2007). Butler argues that we live in a world where some lives are more clearly valued than others, and by reasons of ‘racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, misogyny and the systemic disregard for the poor and the dispossessed’ (p.28), we fail to identify and empathize with those who are different, and thus neglect to acknowledge someone else’s loss and grieve them as we would our own. Complementing this view, Appiah presents us with his concept of cosmopolitanism by identifying two strands: the first one is the recognition of our responsibility for every human being and their lives regardless of gender, religion, race or any other identity construct, and the second is to take an interest in the practices and ideas that make those lives meaningful and significant. Violence does not address our over-identification with our social group, it does not create the conditions for sustained dialogue and enduring change, and it furthers division rather than integration by perpetuating a sense of otherness. There is change, but the polarization continues. There is change, but the unequal practices remain. To quote Martin Luther King from his well-known “I Have a Dream” speech: “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical violence with soul force” (King, 1963). And it is on the ideas of the renunciation of the win-lose mentality and the strengthening of the ‘soul force’ that this project’s ontology is anchored in.
My argument here is that causing injury through violence is not sustainable, as it does not address the root of the problem in human relations. Chinese scholar Hongyu Wang connects these issues in her article “A Nonviolent approach to Social Justice Education”; she argues that while other theories focus on the strength of collective identity or on the individual’s ability to challenge unequal power structures, they are not inclusive by nature, and they stress the sense of ‘otherness’. Non-violence focuses on the harmonious co-existence of everyone and everything, and rather than fostering a ‘win-lose mentality’ and attempts to ‘evoke a feeling of inter-connectedness’ (p.492).
Because what leads to violence, in her view (with which I agree), are the mechanisms of domination, control and imposition, Wang (2013) argues that the eradication of violence lies in building relational dynamics anchored in its opposite; since the determinant factor causing violence is the dualism between self and other, we must build relations based in a sense of sameness that fosters inter-connectedness. This is something that Desmond Tutu himself supports through his concept of concept of ubuntu,or being ‘open and available to others’ (1999, p.29). and by contending that by responding violently to what we perceive as abuse or oppression, we dehumanize the other and, he argues: ‘what dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me’.
The challenge within our societies then lies in building a community based on elements of harmony and friendliness in which each individual is valued and treated equally. As Zen monk and scholar Thich Nhat Hanh said:
We understand that fanaticism in its many forms is the result of perceiving things in a dualistic or discriminative manner. We will train ourselves to look at everything with openness … in order to transform dogmatism and violence in ourselves and the world.
(Thich Nhat Hanh, 1987)
 Desmond Tutu acknowledges the difficulty of translating the word into any Western language, but in his book “No Future Without Forgiveness” he defines it as ‘the essence of being human’ and as the idea that one’s existence is inextricably bound to everyone else’s. (p.49)
Appiah, K.A. (2007). Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton
Butler, J. (2020). The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind. London: Verso
King, M.L., Jr. (1963). I Have a Dream.Speech. Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D. C. 28 Aug. 1963. American Rhetoric. Retrieved at: https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety?t=1623072969608
Losurdo, D.& Elliot, G. (2015). Non-violence: A history beyond the myth. Minneapolis: Lexington Books.
Nhat Hanh, T. (1987), Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism. Berkeley: Parallax Press.
Thoreau, H.D. (1849)[1980). Walden and Civil Disobedience. New York: Signet.
Tutu, D. (1999). No Future Without Forgiveness. London: Rider
Wang, H. (2013). A non-violent approach to social justice education. Educational Studies, 49(6), 485-503.
Gaston Bacquet works as an Associate Tutor at the University of Glasgow, where he supervises master’s dissertations within the TESOL program and where he is also a first-year PhD student in Education. His research seeks to explore the link between non-violence and inclusiveness in Latin American classrooms using an intersection of Critical Pedagogy and non-Western knowledge systems. See his full research profile here, and connect with him on LinkedIn @GastonBacquet