Intuitively we all realize a simple truth — eventually somebody has to be brave enough to stand down and risk the consequences in order to break an escalating cycle of violence. This idea is represented endlessly in our fictions and mythologies, and as a plot device it delivers the precise amount of tension to make a story work. That is because we, the outside observers, can see that the solution is almost always as simple as somebody deciding to stand down, and that sacrifice in the name of peace is more noble than slaughter in the name of safety.
Yet even while we subconsciously and intuitively recognize, understand and accept this, there is a strong tendency to get sidetracked by narratives of heroism and self-defense. The most people peaceful we know are easily overruled in their non-violence when presented with a scenario (real or imagined) that appeals to their bylaws of bravery. We pay lip service to peace only up until the point that some ideology or cause triggers a loophole. And this feature, or rather bug, of human psychology allows us to be exploited by those who have forsaken non-violence altogether as a means to their selfish ends.
Without going into a full psychological breakdown of how we go from virtue to hypocrisy, let’s just clear the air about the relationship of pacifism to courage, as opposed to heroic violence. To do so let us work from a simple premise that violence never ends violence, but only displaces it, escalates it and/or validates it. Every violent act is a prelude to future violence.
That being the case, is it more courageous to be willing to die that you may not feed the cycle of violence, or to risk death in a killing that, no matter how deserved or noble, will inevitably lead to more violence?
In other words, is it braver to surrender and die in the name of peace, or to kill in the name of preservation and justice?
Is it more courageous to sacrifice our principles, or our lives?
To me the answer seems incredibly obvious. In fact there is no logical argument that suggests otherwise. Only a fear of death and loss can provide justifications for violence, but this is not rational or reasonable. The sanctity of life is not intellectually sound, especially when it is used to discard all of our other principles and virtues.
The existential buzzkill of our mortality is not to be dismissed so easily. Neither are the historical frameworks which make self-preservation an instinctual drive. I can certainly understand how dealing with the great unknown can drive us to abandon our loftiest beliefs about peace and non-violence. I am not saying anybody is wrong for having a desire to continue existing, even if it costs us our personal truth along the way. But what I am saying is that maybe that is an urge to we need to fight, and not reinforce with tales of heroism and noble violence.
Maybe if we can change our most fundamental attitudes about honor, sacrifice and courage, we can prevent ourselves reaching the inevitable catch-22s of violence which force us to abandon our principles in the name of self-preservation and protection. That urge is so strong in us that we need not defend it. We need not become advocates of it, and use the public sphere to reiterate its tired rhetoric. It will continue unchallenged for as long as we can only see its self-serving truth, and not the bigger picture of humanity.
What would happen if we were to all embark upon a mission of pacifism? Is it not possible that by being more cavalier about dying than killing, we might eventually eradicate the psychological choke hold that mortality exerts on us? If we can conquer fear itself, what motivations would there be left for violence? What narratives would be left to justify it, and therefore cause it?
Could we extinguish the needs for heroic acts, self-defense and protection merely by being more audacious about dying than we are about killing?
I believe so, and if not, it is worth a try. It hasn’t been done on a sufficiently large scale yet. Seems a prudent experiment.
Like violence itself, our narratives about it create a cycle. That cycle is driven by fear, and in turn gives us something to be afraid of.
If it seems that the cycle of violence is impossible to escape, it is driven by the subconscious fear that our fear itself is impossible to escape. Yet there is nothing to suggest a predetermined state of the human mind in perpetuity. We have, and undoubtedly will, evolve in numerous ways and continue to do so.
Yes, it will be incredibly hard. Everything worthwhile is. You can’t just be expected to go cold turkey. Start by dipping your toes in. Fake it til you make it. Stop telling yourself or others that violence is ever justified, even if you feel it is. Do not give that part of you a voice. That part of all of us has had too much voice for too long. It is our master, and we its subordinates.
The path to freedom is not out there. It is in each of us. To become free we must conquer the little voices that ask us to undermine the ideas that give our lives meaning and purpose. And perhaps if the world seems so bleak, it is because we have abandoned our meaning and purpose for extended emptiness. To just survive is not to live.
Pacify yourself, and the rest may follow. And if not they get to live brutishly with their existential terror and you get to rest in peace with your dignity and virtue intact.