The term non-violence is thrown around in activist circles quite liberally and most have a pretty well thought through and nuanced understanding of what they mean when they say it. It is true to say we will never all agree on a single definition of what is or isn’t violent, but the aspect of it that there is a broad consensus on is that it is not about avoiding conflict or about being passive. Non-violence is about actively challenging violence in situations where it is likely to occur, taking preemptive steps to conduct ourselves in a way that limits the amount of violence that may happen and being prepared to deal with it in a peaceful way that avoids further violence. Pacifism is not passive-ism. It is an important element of the training that many activists that engage in non-violent direct action go through, it is considered important to ‘live’ the principles we want to create in the world. What is rarely discussed in as much depth or detail, or given as much time, is issues around anti-discrimination.
I have been involved in activism for about 10 years and in that time I have been involved in a lot of different groups with different ideologies and agendas. The issue of “what is non-violence” is something that crops up again and again. I could not possibly count the number of times I have been in a ‘non-violence spectrum line’. I can, however, count the number of times I have taken part in identifying privilege or anti-discrimination training and exercises. If I had a better memory I could count the number of times it had come up in discussions, unfortunately I don’t but I do know it was not nearly as often as non-violence, yet this is a principle most would agree was at least as important as non-violence. It is a principle that every activist group has claimed to uphold, they all say they embrace people of all gender-identities, sexualities, classes, races etc. yet when it comes down to it, do these groups of mostly middle-class white men (of which I am one) and women have as nuanced an understanding of what anti-racism, for example, means. I would imagine not. It is assumed that everyone ‘gets’ it. But we don’t. I certainly don’t. I don’t consciously judge a person one way or the other based on the colour of their skin but I am not sure I really know how to be actively anti-racist in the same way I understand how to be actively non-violent.
In a society where we are bombarded by negative stereotypes and taught to mistrust people with different skin colours or different religions or ideas of gender or sexuality to say that this doesn’t on some level affect us is not only factually incorrect but beyond arrogant and extremely counter-productive. If we really want to “be the change” (forgive me the Gandhi quote), then we need to understand what it is we are trying to change and to what we wish to change it. And how can we know what we want to change it to without first challenging what it is that currently exists?
I recently offered to run an exercise on privilege with a group of students to which the response I was offered was “well that just brings up issues of guilt which isn’t helpful”. To some extent this is right, guilt is not helpful, but if we want to challenge privilege we need to understand how we experience it. Those of us with privilege need to experience, or at least have some knowledge of that guilt in order to understand how unhelpful it is and to get beyond it to create a more nuanced understanding of solidarity and anti-discrimination. We need to learn how to embody these principles in the same way we do non-violence, not just pay them lip-service.