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The Funny Thing About Nonviolence


To say "I stand for nonviolence" or "I am nonviolent" are fightin' words. Immediately after the words are uttered the devil's advocate raises several specters, including that of an attacker––What would you do if your grandmother. . . ? Or of a tyrant––Would you have just let Hitler. . . .? Him and a parade of despots in a history stretching from prehistoric times to today?


And speaking of terror, which we all know so much about now, do you do nothing in the face of an "event"? Do you not "take out" the terrorist if you can, for the greater good?––It would require a violent act. Or do you submit and become another casualty, based on the principle of nonviolent refusal?


Then there's the problem of the dinner plate. How is it that so many people who think of themselves as nonviolent have no qualms about taking the lives of other sentient beings? It might have been one thing a hundred and fifty years ago, pre-Darwin and pre-contemporary research, during which time we've learned that nonhuman animals as a group share in the emotional, linguistic, social, and individual traits common among human animals––we've learned we're all related. And yet otherwise peaceable people, many who treat pets to the Life of Riley, have no qualms about supporting an ag industry that creates unimaginably brutal conditions around the births, lives, and deaths of the animals that end up on their plates. Jacques Derrida, an Algerian Jew, referred to it as a holocaust. We're still so antiquated in our awareness of the issue that it's acceptable to call anyone who draws attention to the problem a kook, a pain, an extremist, or a snowflake.


Here's what I wonder: if it's so easy to look the other way in the case of violence against nonhuman animals, why wouldn't it be equally easy to turn one's gaze from the suffering of other humans different from ourselves? But isn't violence violence, in any form? If it's so easy to blot out, to conveniently not know, forget, or otherwise desensitize ourselves to the suffering of sentient animal-beings, isn't it equally easy for that nonrecognition to become a pattern? When it's fresh in the mind, there on the evening news, for example in the early days of the Russian bombing of Kiev or the Israeli bombing of Gaza––two very different events with two very different sets of dynamics, granted, including their justifications––how easy is it for people to lose interest, throw up their hands at the problem and proclaim, Well, what can I do?


But violence is violence. The final fifty deaths in a war are as tragic as the first fifty, even if people are no longer paying attention. Forty-six million turkeys raised in nightmarish, industrial conditions and slaughtered for a single meal on a single day in the American calendar––forty-six million––it appears to me a case of mass amnesia or indifference if ever there was one, not unlike turning our eyes from the suffering of Yemenis, Syrians, and Ukrainians, the main difference being we can do something about it.


The number of people willing to recognize violence as violence has been abysmally small among humans, despite all the kumbaya talk. One could point to India, to the fact that forty percent of the billion-person population there is vegetarian, and that animals roam, uneaten, at their leisure in the streets. But I've been there and seen how those animals live, right under people's noses, and I understand Gandhi's complaint that the lives of street animals in that country are horrific due to neglect; they're brutal, difficult, and short.


Speaking of Gandhi, he many have been one of the rare individuals truly committed to actual, lived nonviolence. He honored that creed in his politics, his writings, and on his plate. He wasn't a part-timer when it came to nonviolence––Emerson might have called him a nonviolent doer and not merely a nonviolent thinker, not a nonviolent wannabe but the real deal. Which is why I always find it interesting when people go on about him and say they emulate him. The first thing I want do in a case like that is sit down for a meal with them and ask, What are you ordering?


I was at a dinner not that long ago with a bunch of people who referred to themselves as Buddhists, self-declared devotees of nonviolence. Meal orders were taken days in advance of the event, and I was my usual, pain-in-the-ass self, requesting a veggie burger, or was it fake meat? Out of about twenty of us at the meal, one at which the table conversation was about an ashram that several attended, the beauties of nature, meditation, and mindfulness, there were only two of us not chowing down on animal flesh.


The truth is that one can aspire to nonviolence, as I do, but it's complicated, almost impossible to practice if we're talking the real thing. Next time someone tells you they're a vegetarian or vegan, ask them what they feed their dog or cat, if they have one. Or ask them if they ever take a pill or benefit from modern medicine in any way, almost all of which relies on animal testing. I have a dog, and I do what I have to when I'm ill––draw your conclusions, and your condemnations. When mice get into our garage, leaving traces of themselves everywhere, I know what to do then as well. I say I go for the quickest method, which is to say not-poison, but even the quickest method is violent. And later that evening when I see examples of violence on the news I say, How could they?


The point being that nonviolence isn't so much an identity as an ideal to aspire to. There are degrees of nonviolence, shades toward which anyone can move if they have the will and motivation, the insight and self-awareness as well. In J.M. Coetzee's book Elizabeth Costello, which features a female academic giving a farewell address after a storied career, the protagonist laments her failure as a vegetarian and proponent of nonviolence. The address turns confessional, in which Costello expounds on her failures in the effort toward an ideal. Coetzee implies that there's no such thing as a good conscience among human animals.


But Coetzee's broader point is we must try––aspire to––nonviolence, against every living and even nonliving thing. Landscapes and ecosystems suffer violence too, including non-sentient entities like minerals and rocks. It's a matter of a footprint, how to minimize it, the damage. I would argue things begin at the dinner plate and move out from there.

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