Few are aware that Martin Luther King, Jr. once applied for a permit to carry a concealed handgun.
In his 2011 book Gunfight, UCLA law professor Adam Winkler notes that, after King’s house was bombed in 1956, the clergyman applied in Alabama for a concealed carry permit. Local police, loathe to grant such permits to African-Americans, deemed him “unsuitable” and denied his application. Consequently, King would end up leaving the firearms at home.
The lesson from this incident is not, as some NRA members have tried to suggest in recent years, that King should be remembered as a gun-toting Republican. (Among many other problems, this portrayal neglects to acknowledge how Republicans used conservative anger about Civil Rights advances to win over the Dixiecrat South to their side of the aisle). Rather, the fact that King would request license to wear a gun in 1956, just as he was being catapulted onto the national stage, illustrates the profundity of the transformation that he underwent over the course of his public career.
While this transformation involved a conversion to moral nonviolence and personal pacifism, that is not the whole of the story. More importantly, for those who are interested in how nonviolence can serve as a useful strategy for leveraging social change, King’s evolution also involved a hesitant but ultimately forceful embrace of direct action — broad-scale, confrontational and unarmed. That stance had lasting consequences in the struggle for freedom in America.
A personal conversion
The 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the campaign that first established King’s national reputation, was not planned in advance as a Gandhian-style campaign of nonviolent resistance. At the time, King would not have had a clear sense of the strategic principles behind such a campaign. Rather, the bus boycott came together quickly in the wake of Rosa Park’s arrest in late 1955, taking inspiration from a similar action in Baton Rouge in 1953. (Interestingly, the Montgomery drive was initially quite moderate in its demands, calling only for modest changes to the seating plans on segregated buses.)
King, a newcomer to Montgomery, was unexpectedly thrust into the leadership of the movement, chosen in part because he was not identified with any of the established factions among the city’s prominent blacks. He was reluctant about his new role and its burdens. Soon he was receiving phone calls on which unidentified voices warned, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” After such threats resulted in the bombing of King’s home in February 1956, armed watchmen guarded against further assassination attempts.
This response reflected King’s still-tentative embrace of the theory and practice of nonviolence. In his talks before mass meetings, King preached the Christian injunction to “love thy enemy.” Having read Thoreau in college, he described the bus boycott as an “act of massive noncooperation” and regularly called for “passive resistance.” But King did not use the term “nonviolence,” and he admitted that he knew little about Gandhi or the Indian independence leader’s campaigns. As King biographer Taylor Branch notes, out-of-state visitors who were knowledgeable about the principles of unarmed direct action — such as Rev. Glenn Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Bayard Rustin of the War Resisters League — reported that King and other Montgomery activists were “at once gifted and unsophisticated in nonviolence.”
Both Rustin and Smiley took notice of the firearms around the King household and argued for their removal. In a famous incident described by historian David Garrow, Rustin was visiting King’s parsonage with reporter Bill Worthy when the journalist almost sat on a pistol. “Watch out, Bill, there’s a gun on that chair,” the startled Rustin warned. He and King stayed up late that night arguing about whether armed self-defense in the home could end up damaging the movement.
While today’s NRA members might prefer to forget, it was not long before King had come around to the position advocated by groups like the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Smiley would make visits to Montgomery throughout King’s remaining four years there, and the civil rights leader’s politics would be shaped by many more late-night conversations.
In 1959, at the invitation of the Gandhi National Memorial Fund, King made a pilgrimage to India to study the principles of satyagraha, and he was moved by the experience. Ultimately, he never embraced the complete pacifism of A. J. Muste; later, in the Black Power years, King made a distinction between people using guns to defend themselves in the home and the question of “whether it was tactically wise to use a gun while participating in an organized protest.” But, for himself, King claimed nonviolence as a “way of life,” and he maintained his resolve under conditions that would make many others falter.
In September 1962, when King was addressing a convention, a 200-pound white man, the 24-year-old American Nazi Party member Roy James, jumped onto the stage and struck the clergyman in the face. King responded with a level of courage that made a lifelong impression on many of those in the audience. One of them, storied educator and activist Septima Clark, described how King dropped his hands “like a newborn baby” and spoke calmly to his attacker. King made no effort to protect himself even as he was knocked backwards by further blows. Later, after his aides had pulled the assailant away, he talked to the young man behind the stage and insisted that he would not press charges.
Nonviolence as a political weapon
Believers in pacifism often contend that such principled nonviolence represents the high point in a person’s moral evolution. They argue that those who merely use unarmed protest tactically — not because they accept it as an ethical imperative, but because they have decided it is the most effective way to propel a given campaign for social change — practice a lesser form of nonviolence. Gandhi advanced this position when he claimed that those who forgo violence for strategic reasons, rather than ethical ones, employ the “nonviolence of the weak.” King echoed the argument when he wrote that “nonviolence in the truest sense is not a strategy that one uses simply because it is expedient in the moment,” but rather is something “men live by because of the sheer morality of its claim.”
Despite such admonitions, the opposite case can be made: Moral nonviolence without strategic vision rings hollow. And, in holding up King as an icon of individual pacifism, we fail to see his true genius.
It is possible for someone to make a commitment to nonviolence as a point of personal principle without ever taking part in the kind of action that would make their convictions a matter of public consequence. Indeed, this is common, since most people prefer the comforts of private life to the tension of political conflict. Pacifists who do put their beliefs to the test might undertake civil disobedience individually — performing acts of moral witness that pose no real threat to perpetrators of injustice. It is only when the tenets of unarmed direct action are strategically employed, made into effective weapons of political persuasion through campaigns of widespread disruption and collective sacrifice, that nonviolence gains its fullest power.
Martin Luther King did embrace strategic nonviolence in its most robust and radical form — and this produced the historic confrontations at Birmingham and Selma. But it is important to remember that these came years after his initial baptism into political life in Montgomery, and that they might easily not have happened at all.
The road to Birmingham
Following the successful bus boycott, King sought out ways to spread the Montgomery model throughout the South. He knew that there existed strategists who had immersed themselves in the theory and practice of broad-scale confrontation, but he acknowledged that this organizing tradition had yet to take root in the civil rights movement. In early 1957, King met James Lawson, a savvy student of unarmed resistance who had spent several years in India. As Branch relates, King pleaded with the young graduate student to quit his studies: “We need you now,” King said. “We don’t have any Negro leadership in the South that understands nonviolence.”
Despite this recognition, the idea of waging broadly participatory campaigns of direct action fell far outside of King’s organizational frame of reference, and in many ways he remained a reluctant convert to mass action. Founded in 1957, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, was conceived as a coalition of ministers. It thought of itself, in the words of one historian, as the “political arm of the black church.” However, as Ella Baker biographer Barbara Ransby writes, that institution was none too bold on civil rights, and “the majority of black ministers in the 1950s still opted for a safer, less confrontational political path;” even King and his more motivated cohort “defined their political goals squarely within the respectable American mainstream and were cautious about any leftist associations.”
Frustrated that SCLC’s program in the first years involved more “flowery speeches” than civil disobedience, the militant Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham warned that, if the organization did not become more aggressive, its leaders would “be hard put in the not too distant future to justify our existence.”
The next major breakthroughs in civil rights activism would come not from the SCLC’s hesitant ministers, but through the student lunch counter sit-ins that swept through the South starting in Spring of 1960, and then through the 1961 Freedom Rides. In each case, when young activists implored King to join them, the elder clergyman — himself just in his early 30s — held back. When King told the students that he was with them in spirit, they pointedly shot back, “Where’s your body?”
According to John Lewis, then a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, King replied with irritation, making reference to the site of Jesus’ crucifixion: “I think I should choose the time and place of my Golgatha,” he said.
When King’s SCLC did get directly involved in a major campaign of strategic nonviolence, the organization was drawn into an effort that was already underway — one in Albany, Ga., starting in late 1961. Even then, the SCLC did not fully commit until after King and close colleague Ralph Abernathy were swept up in an unplanned arrest. Unfortunately, the effort in Albany was beset by rivalries between different civil rights groups, and it ended in failure. As Garrow notes, the New York Times ended up praising “the remarkable restraint of Albany’s segregationists and the deft handling by the police of racial protests,” while another national publication remarked that “not a single racial barrier fell.”
Nevertheless, the sense of potential he experienced in Albany, combined with the inspiration of the Freedom Rides and student sit-ins, convinced King that the time had come for a campaign of mass action that, in the words of Andrew Young, could be “anticipated, planned and coordinated from beginning to end” using the principles of nonviolent conflict. King had chosen his time and place: Birmingham, 1963.
Big enough to fail, big enough to win
King’s political genius was in putting the institutional weight of a major national civil rights organization behind an ambitious, escalating deployment of civil resistance tactics. In the case of Birmingham, this meant taking many of the approaches that had been tried before — the economic pressure leveled against merchants during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the dramatic sit-ins of Nashville, the fill-the-jails arrest strategy of Albany — and combining them in a multi-staged assault that sociologist and civil rights historian Aldon Morris would dub “a planned exercise in mass disruption.”
In creating an engineered conflict that could capture the national spotlight, King took huge risks. It would have been far easier for an organization of the size and background of the SCLC to turn toward more mainstream lobbying and legal action — much as the NAACP had done. Instead, by following SNCC’s student activists in embracing nonviolent confrontation, SCLC organizers and their local allies created a dramatic clash with segregationists that put the normally hidden injustices of racism on stark public display. As historian Michael Kazin argues, the famous scenes from Birmingham of police dogs snapping at unarmed demonstrators and water canons being opened on young marchers “convinced a plurality of whites, for the first time, to support the cause of black freedom.” Likewise, King would later write that, in watching marchers defy Bull Connor’s menacing police troops, he “felt there, for the first time, the pride and power of nonviolence.”
Ultimately, King was a follower, not a leader, in cultivating a new tradition of strategic nonviolent action in the United States. Yet acknowledging this should not diminish his significance. Because when he did commit himself to spearheading the type of broad-based nonviolent protest he had been talking about for years, it resulted in campaigns that profoundly altered the public sense of what measures were needed to uphold civil rights in the United States. The Birmingham model would prove widely influential. Victory in that city sent ripples throughout the country: In the two and a half months after the Birmingham campaign announced a settlement with store owners that commenced desegregation, more than 750 civil rights protests took place in 186 American cities, leading to almost 15,000 arrests.
Given the demonstrated power of mass disruption to shift the political discussion around an issue, why don’t more organizations pursue such strategies? Why aren’t more groups using militant nonviolence to confront pressing challenges such as economic inequality and global climate change?
There is a certain paradox at work here, one that should enhance our appreciation of King’s courage. As veteran labor strategist Stephen Lerner argued in 2011, major organizations have just enough at stake — relationships with mainstream politicians, financial obligations to members, collective bargaining contracts — to make them fear the lawsuits and political backlash that come with sustained civil disobedience. What Lerner says of unions applies equally to large environmental organizations, human rights groups, and other nonprofits: they “are just big enough — and just connected enough to the political and economic power structure — to be constrained from leading the kinds of activities that are needed” for bold campaigns of nonviolent conflict to be successful. As a consequence, explosive direct actions — from the Nashville sit-ins to Occupy to the revolution in Egypt — are often led by scrappy, under-funded upstarts. Such ad hoc groups can risk daring campaigns because they have nothing to lose, but they commonly lack the resources to escalate or to sustain multiple waves of protest over a period of years, a rare and powerful ability that established institutions can provide.
To not merely adopt pacifism as a personal philosophy, but rather to stake your career and your organization’s future on a belief in the power of nonviolence as a political force, requires tremendous determination. It took years of deliberation and delay for Martin Luther King to take such a step. But when he finally did, the result was decisive: King went from being someone who had been repeatedly swept up in the saga of civil rights — a reluctant protagonist in the battle against American apartheid — to being a shaper of history.
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“While today’s NRA members might prefer to forget, it was not long before King had come around to the position advocated by groups like the Fellowship of Reconciliation.”
Why would they mind that? To the best of my knowledge, the NRA has never advocated Kennesaw, Georgia-style mandatory gun ownership laws. Rather, it has (for a short, recent phase of its history) opposed laws restricting gun ownership – that is to say, laws dictating that people with the wrong kinds of guns will be arrested or shot by more people, armed with bigger guns.
This is where a lot of people who call themselves pacifists miss the boat on gun control. If you advocate the violent enforcement of gun laws – that is to say, the kind involving police, courts and prisons – you aren’t a pacifist. And I have yet to hear of any other kind. You may have a strategic approach to a political situation, but it’s a violent one. You can own it, but don’t cheapen nonviolence by calling it that.
By your logic (with which I agree, but most don’t) no form of coercive law enforcement is possible; that is, pacifism necessarily implies anarchism.
As I say, many people don’t see it that way. Certainly, in the pre-Civil Rights rural South, as I know from first-hand experience as a guest of the government for a few years, practically no one of any faith or color regarded the mere possession of guns as violent per se. The horror and abjuration of weapons associated with much of the Left these days is more modern, upper-class, and urban (or suburban, perhaps). Getting rid of or hiding guns was an interesting move which sometimes worked and sometimes got people killed. Under the circumstances it probably worked a lot better than the alternative would have.
Nevertheless, one should remember, in the case of both colonial India and the pre-Civil Rights South, that alongside the nonviolent liberation movements, there were also movements with similar goals which were by no means non-violent either theoretically or in practice. The innumerable opponents of King and Gandhi, and the huge mass of the uncommitted and unconcerned of their times, were well aware of the existence of such parties in the not-too-distant background, and the behavior of all the participants was influenced by that awareness.
A minority with no allies might find itself treated rather differently.
You have a rather narrow and exclusive understanding of pacifism, which has as many variants as any other moral philosophy. Similarly, there are as many definitions of coercion as there are of violence. Any power imbalance, even within a non-violent movement, can be seen as potentially coercive if one takes it to the extreme, thereby denouncing charisma and special talents.
Most committed nonviolent practitioners are not anarchists or levelers and recognize the need for reasonable institutions of law and order as well as social and role distinctions which inevitably create power imbalances.
Yes, my remarks on pacifism are rather incomplete. The variety of pacifism(s) was in fact the import of my second paragraph — hence my mention that ‘practically no one of any faith or color regarded the mere possession of guns as violent per se.’ I do think that the logic of pacifism and nonviolence leads inevitably to anarchism, but that would be off the immediate subject here.
I was responding to Joe Catron’s comment, but this threading system doesn’t make that obvious.
This article is filled with inaccuracies. King’s dissertation and much of his study at Boston University (where he earned his Phd) was centered on Satyagraha and Gandhian nonviolence. Furthermore, he was NEVER a pacifist nor did he advocate pacifism, not did he ever characterize his nonviolent actions as pacifist. He was a strong advocate of Satyagraha which is nonviolent resistance, not passive resistance. King said many, many times that nonviolence was anything but passive and that nonviolent resistance was first and foremost resistance and that there was nothing passive about it.
King’s dissertation was “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman”
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King urged action consistent with what he described as Jesus’ “extremist” love, and also quoted numerous other Christian pacifist authors.
It appears you’re seeing King through your own filters.
“Among the many misdeeds of British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.” — Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi (Source: An Autobiography, pg 446)
Pacifism does not mean allowing the strong to kill the weak, nor does it mean not defending oneself against armed attackers. A gun in the cabinet harms no one, yet allowing that gun to be removed could be fatal.
Taken out of context, that quote entirely distorts Gandhi’s beliefs. That was from a pamphlet he used to recruit Indians into assisting the British in their hour of need in WWI, in the hope that the British would return the favor by offering India its independence. When, instead, Indian civil rights were curtailed, Gandhi regretted his decision.
He later said :”I draw no distinction between those who wield weapons of destruction and those who do Red Cross work. Both participate in war and advance its cause. Both are guilty of the crime of war.” (he was referring to the fact that he helped to form an ambulance unit at the beginning of the war for the allies).
A gun in the cabinet is an intention to use it. Gandhi never supported an individual right to arms.
If what you say is true, then it is in perfect context. It is in his own carefully chosen words and it is obvious that saw a rightful place for the role of arms in self-defense.
That he spent the rest of his life regretting that early action, called even his support of a non-combatant humanitarian role as a “war crime”, and became the world’s leading proponent of strict non-violence, makes it perfectly clear where he stood.
Gandhi also said “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” But he believed there was always a choice, even if many weren’t prepared to see embrace it.
Whatever one’s stance on non-violence is, this gives me hope. We are not all leaders. But maybe we followers can occasionally be of service.
“Ultimately, King was a follower, not a leader, in cultivating a new tradition of strategic nonviolent action in the United States. Yet acknowledging this should not diminish his significance.”
“It is possible for someone to make a commitment to nonviolence as a point of personal principle without ever taking part in the kind of action that would make their convictions a matter of public consequence. Indeed, this is common, since most people prefer the comforts of private life to the tension of political conflict. Pacifists who do put their beliefs to the test might undertake civil disobedience individually — performing acts of moral witness that pose no real threat to perpetrators of injustice. It is only when the tenets of unarmed direct action are strategically employed, made into effective weapons of political persuasion through campaigns of widespread disruption and collective sacrifice, that nonviolence gains its fullest power.”
Is fantastic. It should be made into a giant poster!
Really great work on this article — I’ve been sharing it all over. And as a part-time consultant with FOR, thank you on their behalf for the historical mention!
MLK had carried a gun in his boot. When he met Rev. Glenn Smiley, who had come from the FOR to consult him on the movement in regard to use of nonviolence, Martin told him of the gun. Glenn said he should carry it until it was too heavy. Martin took the gun from his boot just before the Montgomery bus ride, laid it on the desk and told Glenn it had become “too heavy.” Glenn told me this story before he passed away in 1993. Glenn, knowing the “rumors” that blood would be shed the following day of the ride, asked Martin to be “paid”~ which was to sit next to Martin on the bus (the most dangerous seat) and to go and get their favorite lunch together, “pig-ear sam-wiches” which they did. If you look at the old photos, you will see Glenn next to Martin on the bus, with his Hamburg hat on his head…Glenn, one of the quiet heroes of the movement. On Ralph Abernathy’s deathbed, according to his daughter Donzaleigh, he told her to go look up Glenn, their teacher in use of nonviolence for the movement. So Glenn, along with his friend and colleague Baynard Rustin, were the to links between Gandhi and MLK.
Little known to history, so was Wally Nelson, son of an Arkansas share-cropper, WWII conscientious objector who walked out of the Civilian Public Service camp and spent the rest of the war in federal prison, including an 88-day hunger strike which resulted in the desegregation of the federal penal system, participant in the first “freedom ride” organized by FOR in 1947, co-founder of The Peacemakers (the nation’s first militant secular pacifist group), and first national field organizer for CORE.
I appreciate the article and this site in general, and am inspired about reading related books, articles, comments from the WNV community and other materials. But please answer.
(1 ) Did King talk about love more than he talked about nonviolence ?
(2 ) In the spectrum of human conditions, what moral framework is more resilient, love or nonviolence ?
(3) Love and nonviolence are often related, but to what degree have you considered that there may be situations in which, by refraining from engaging in violence ourselves, we help enable other, maybe worse, acts of violence ?
To me, love is a motive, whereas nonviolence is a method, so they are in different categories. Lovers, whether of self, persons, family, country, ideals, gods, etc.) might or might not practice violence on behalf of their love, sometimes with remarkable ironies: consider Jesus versus the Crusades and the Inquisition. Nonviolence might be practiced not only out of love but reason or moral conviction.
Your third question invokes Just War theory, which has well-known arguments for and against, and many ramifications. There must be few practitioners of nonviolence who haven’t heard about it in considerable detail. There are also mixed views, such as that (minimal) violence is permissible in immediate, material self-defense.
I believe that King spoke of love as the root of nonviolence, which does not allow for hating one’s enemy.
But I also believe you misunderstand nonviolence, which is neither merely an attitude (such as love) nor an abdication of violence (i.e. pacifism), but a commitment to active and often militant confrontation of injustice without resorting to violent means and methods, and with the goal of converting, rather than eliminating, one’s adversaries (or, at least, forcing them to refrain from injustice).
It is not a passive response, but a forceful one – Gandhi used the term “Satyagraha” or truth force.
Thanks Robert. Maybe I don’t understand nonviolence. I’ve read books by King, Gandhi, Sharp, and I read Why Nonviolence Works, and plan to read some of Lakey’s work. Please recommend others. Thanks
Robert Riversong, is nonviolence, as you describe it, possible without love?
For what my opinion may be worth, I suspect love makes nonviolence possible, and that with love we have the clarity to engage in violence when there is no acceptable alternative.
I suggest love is the core solution, not nonviolence, per se, and hate and indifference comprise the core problem, not violence, per se.
I like some of the content of your website. Thanks for corresponding.
For most practitioners of strategic nonviolence (which is what Stephan and Chenoweth claim has been successful twice as often as violent civil resistance), love plays no part.
The late great folk troubadour, Utah Phillips, said that he was committed to nonviolence precisely because otherwise he’d be killing people for what they’ve done.
For authentic Christian nonviolence, such as Jesus (and, perhaps, MLK) preached, it is not human love but agape, or spiritual love, that guides the will. But that love must also extend to oneself, and would never allow one, therefore, to become an agent of violence for any reason (turn the other cheek), as that merely increases the violence in the world and denies the divinity of one’s adversary.
The only “love” that allows one to resort to violence, is attachment to self, family, nation or ideology – and, as every great spiritual teacher has taught, that is false love. All attachments rob us of our clarity and our divinity.
And, as many wise ones have instructed, the opposite of love is indifference, not hate. Or, perhaps, while the opposite of love is hate, the absence of love is indifference.
On the other hand, if Nature is the expression of the order of the Universe, then Nature is entirely indifferent to individuals and tends only to preserve the integrity of the Whole.
While we moderns, particularly Americans, idolize the self, and place individual “rights” above all others (including the allegedly inalienable right to self-defense), we forget that the idea of “self” is a very modern one and not in any way inherent in our human cultural DNA. For most of our cultural evolution on the planet, it was the tribe, or community, and often the place which sustained us, that was sacrosanct, while the individual’s role was to serve the greater whole (and the very word “health” derives from ” hǣlth” or wholeness).
(Warning — this is a digression.) While it is true that the modern concept of the Individual is a modern creation, we do experience conscious life as individuals (unless we possess group mind, which I do not) and I suspect that the disindividuation noticed among non-Western cultures may have something to do with the invention and wide imposition of slavery and the state. Greater obedience can be obtained from people who have ceased to believe in the significance of their own existences. But some of the material I have read about pre-civil peoples suggests a kind of individualism among them as well. For example, I read that one conflict between Europeans and American indigenes occurred because, after the chiefs of the latter had signed a treated with the European authorities, members of the band/tribe/nation failed to observe its terms. When they were questioned about this failure, they replied that they, themselves, had not signed the treaty and were therefore not bound by it.
If the idea of being a significant individual completely disappeared over a long period of time, I would expect certain changes in language, like the disappearance of signifiers (pronouns, verb endings, etc.) indicating what we call the First Person Singular (‘I’, ‘me’, etc.), yet I don’t know of a language in which this has occurred.
You (as with most moderns) ignore that 99% of human evolutionary experience was prior to what we call civilization, beginning 10-12,000 years ago, and that early European contact with indigenous peoples very quickly changed those cultures.
There was no “disappearance” of the notion of separate self – it simply never existed in the post-“enlightenment” sense. When a Native American was asked to introduce themselves, rather than giving a personal name and job description, they gave a long narrative about the people and the land which defines them.
You’re making the typical Eurocentric post-“enlightenment” mistake of projecting modern ideas onto “primitive” (i.e. more whole and healthy) cultures and peoples.
I believe that most indigenous languages followed Buckminster Fuller’s notion that “I seem to be a verb”, in that the “subject” was inherent in the action, not distinct from it.
I’d be interested to hear of a language, non-Western or not, which lacked a morpheme for the first person singular person. The fact that the morpheme is included in a verb does not detract from its significance. For example, in Latin, ‘I love’ is ‘amo’, where the -o ending indicates a first person singular subject. This does not mean the first person singular signifier has disappeared, because we notice that when the ending changes (amas, amat, etc.) the signification of the person of the subject changes. Just so, in Inuit, -nga indicates the first person singular subject in what is predominantly a verb. (See ‘Inuit grammar’ in Wikipedia.) It is true that in some cultures, formal speech requires the substitution of a noun phrase for the pronoun (‘this most humble person’ when speaking to an overlord) but the concept remains.
In my wayward youth I read much of Buckminster Fuller’s works, and talked with him personally, and he was one of the most individualistic, egotistical persons I have ever met, and proud of it, too. His willingness to go his own way benefited us all, at least for entertainment and stimulation; and geodesic domes aren’t so bad, either, although they tend to leak.
Again, I’d be very interested to hear of a community whose culture and language lacked the concept and signifiers for the first person singular.
I hope this winds up in the right place, and not out of time order.
Anarcissie: If you can show me a single indigenous pre-contact language that includes a term and concept equivalent to “morpheme”, I might concede your point.
Otherwise, you need to acknowledge that you’re simply forcing indigenous cultures and languages to fit the concepts and categories of modern Western “enlightenment” culture.
Such an imposition of entirely foreign concepts and categories onto indigenous cultures, not only indicates a disinterest in understanding those cultures by their own terms, but is a form of cultural imperialism no different from that of missionaries forcing native spirituality into Christian concepts of god, heaven and redemption.
Modern grammatical concepts and analysis arose at least by the time of Pāṇini in India in the 4th century BCE. (I say ‘at least’ because he had predecessors whose works are less well known.) The West did not catch up until the late 19th or early 20th century. Not knowing Sanskrit, I don’t know what word he used for ‘morpheme’, but I’m pretty sure he had the concept. Sanskrit has both first person singular pronouns and verb endings.
In any case I don’t think the mode of analysis necessarily creates or controls the things analyzed or the framework (in this case, culture) within which they occur. Specifically, if some people have elements in their language which refer to the speaker alone, what we call the first person singular, the fact that we describe these elements as ‘morphemes’ doesn’t change the phenomena being observed, or at least it doesn’t change the one I’m talking about. As I said, though, I’d be very interested to hear about people whose language does not or did not permit them to signify themselves alone, since one would think that would indicate a radically different worldview and culture from ours and most other people’s.
Sanskrit is an Indo-European “high” language of liturgy, scholarship and literature – it is hardly an indigenous tongue.
Similar abstract concepts and categories emerged in Greece during that period, and all such constituted the basis of modern “enlightenment” thought.
You’re merely proving my points.
Anarcissie, how do I sign up for your site, 1freeworld.org ? Interesting home page. I”m reading Luis now. Even your digression was good. That speaks to the high bar set within the site WNV. Thanks
Robert Riversong, I signed up for your site.
I posted comments from both of you into a post on my blog. I’d like to think some more about what both of you wrote.
At 1freeworld.org, there is nothing to sign up for. It’s not updated very often, so there is no RSS or email function. At some point I might try to concoct a forum sort of thing, but outside of some genial right-wing mockery, the material has not gotten much attention in the 15 years or so it’s been there.
(Robert Riversong) “For most practitioners of strategic nonviolence (which is what Stephan and Chenoweth claim has been successful twice as often as violent civil resistance), love plays no part.”
How do you know this ? If not love, (that is, empathy and compassion for oneself, one’s fellow community members, and other sentient beings in general) then what motivates nonviolence ?
(Robert Riversong)”The late great folk troubadour, Utah Phillips, said that he was committed to nonviolence precisely because otherwise he’d be killing people for what they’ve done.”
But if not for one’s love for oneself, friends, family and people and other sentient beings in general, why would Phillips or any of the rest of us be concerned about whatever harm is done? We wouldn’t be enraged or hurt if we didn’t care, and caring is another word for love.
(Robert Riversong) “For authentic (1) Christian nonviolence, such as Jesus (and, perhaps, MLK) preached, it is (2) not human love but agape, or spiritual love, that guides the will. (3) But that love must also extend to oneself, and would (4) never allow one, therefore, to become an agent of violence for any reason (turn the other cheek), as (5) that merely increases the violence in the world and (6)denies the divinity of one’s adversary.”
(1) Nonviolence is not limited to Christians. It’s relevant to people of all religions as well as atheists. (2) The distinction between human-derived love and spiritual love is based on faith, not provable fact.
(3) But even if we assume there is a type of love that comes from a supernatural being, if that love applies to oneself, it would seem congruent with using violence when there is no viable option for self-defense.
(4) Human beings, inescapably are “agents of violence” in one form or another, directly and/or indirectly. Due to human limitation, we can’t possibly foresee all possible consequences of our actions, but we can make a reasonable assumption that in some cases, if we refrain from engaging in violence, we thereby allow other, maybe worse forms of violence to occur.
This leads to (5) your point that if we engage in violence, “it merely increases the violence in the world.” That’s not necessarily the case if violence is the only way to stop a particular person or group of persons from inflicting harm on others.
In reference to saying that something “increases the violence in the world,” how do you measure that ? Is it by the number of individuals that are inflicting the violence and/or the number of people on the receiving end of it ?
And is it also a matter of magnitude in terms of severity of injury and psychological wounds in the aftermath ?
I’d suggest that not all instances of violence have the same value on a scale of good or bad. For example, a petite, physically disabled woman who shoots a physically powerful and unreasonable man intent on raping and killing her is not the same morally as a woman who shoots her unfaithful husband while he lies sleeping.
The wrong is not the violence, per se, it’s the intent behind the violence. In this example, the woman defending herself from being raped and murdered is using violence to protect her physical and psychological well-being, and to maybe stay alive not only for her own sake but for the sake of friends, family, and others who likely would be adversely affected by her injury and/or death.
This is why I am skeptical about focusing on nonviolence, as if it, in and of itself, were what’s good, and as if, violence, in and of itself, were bad. As the example above illustrates, the violence of the woman defending herself is morally right, and the violence of the would-be rapist and murderer is not.
But this moral distinction applies beyond interpersonal conflict. For example, the violence of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was not morally the same as the violence of the Nazis intent on inflicting suffering and mass murder.
I’m still trying to bend my mind around Gandhi’s claim Jews should have committed mass suicide to resist the Holocaust, as described in Louis Fischer’s Gandhi and Stalin: Two Signs At The World’s Crossroads.
Instead of disparaging Gandhi as some skeptics, if not cynics, of strategic nonviolence have. I will keep an open mind because some of the most compelling writing I’m reading lately comes from advocates of strategic nonviolence.
But to say that the violence of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was not nearly as morally bad as that of the Nazis, or that it wasn’t bad at all, doesn’t necessarily conflict with the claim that there could have been means better than the violence the Jews used in that uprising.
(6) As an atheist, I ask how is using violence in interpersonal self-defense against an attacker or in community self-defense against oppressors, as you say, “denying the divinity of one’s adversary” ?
(Robert Riversong) “The only “love” that allows one to resort to violence, is attachment to self, family, nation or ideology – and, as every great spiritual teacher has taught, that is false love. (7) All attachments rob us of our clarity and our divinity.”
As an atheist, I still recognize that in various religions there is the idea that our attachments are a problem in that they keep us separate from God and impede our advancement to higher levels of morality.
But I suggest such attachments are inescapable. We can only reduce them, religiously or in a secular way, via various practices such as celibacy, fasting, meditation, prayer, monastic pursuits, self-flagellation, psychedelics, or what have you.
Consciousness without a body and brain remains an article of faith, not certainty. So, in my opinion, we can only get rid of those attachments by ceasing to be alive. While altering and loosening the hold of some of those attachments thru means mentioned above may be worthwhile to some of us, believing that we can get past them entirely and thereby access the omniscient awareness of the divine is a mistake that leads us to a self-defeating or even destructive degree of certainty.
I suggest our attachments, that is, our subjectivity toward friends, family, community members, home, and our extended sense of place, are the visceral and intuitive foundation upon which to build and extend our goodwill into the broader world where we strive, albeit imperfectly, to apply it to human and nonhumans in general.
(Robert Riversong) ” (8) And, as many wise ones have instructed, the opposite of love is indifference, not hate. Or, perhaps, while the opposite of love is hate, the absence of love is indifference.”
Thanks, Robert, that calls to mind Elie Wiesel :
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
But hate is still problematic, and if we have only indifference, while having neither love nor hate, how much effort do you expect we’d put into strategic nonviolence ?
“( Robert Riversong )—- (9 ) On the other hand, if Nature is the expression of the order of the Universe, then Nature is entirely indifferent to individuals and tends only to preserve the integrity of the Whole.”
(9) It’s not clear to me what point you’re making. But I’ll try a guess. Maybe yours is a theological perspective such that you look for human will or motivation to reflect or otherwise be linked to some type of intentionality behind the operation of nature. Via theology, many of us believe there is divine intention behind the operation of the universe. Via a nontheological approach, some of us suggest the functioning of universe doesn’t necessarily require it to have intention or even awareness.
Whichever may be the case, humans and other sentient animals experience various types of regard for one another such can be generally categorized as love, hate, and indifference. How can a commitment to strategic nonviolence be maintained on hate and indifference ?
(Robert Riversong) “While we moderns, particularly Americans, idolize the self, and place individual “rights” above all others (including the allegedly inalienable right to self-defense), (10 ) we forget that the idea of “self” is a very modern one and not in any way inherent in our human cultural DNA. For most of our cultural evolution on the planet, it was the tribe, or community, and often the place which sustained us, that was sacrosanct, while the individual’s role was to serve the greater whole (and the very word “health” derives from ” hǣlth” or wholeness).”
(10 ) How does this support the claim that nonviolence has nothing to do with love ?
Imagine a social environment in which humans are much more community or tribally minded. What then becomes of empathy and attachments ? Do they diminish ?
In the interest of the tribe or the community, humans won’t necessarily be nonviolent, though in ways that likely differ a bit from those of us in highly complex societies, they will have mental states that can be characterized within the broad categories of love, hate, and indifference.
At least some of the time when there is violence (toward other humans or toward nonhuman animals), it’s regarded as the best response to a threat and/or the best way to promote the well-being of the tribe or community.
It’s interesting you mention tribal settings, Robert, because in my experience those who seem to romanticize ‘primitive’ cultures also seem the ones most skeptical of the efficacy of nonviolence. I’m referring to folk who refer to themselves as anarcho-primitivist or ‘anti-civ.’
Based on my talks with some of them, they regard the emphasis on strategic nonviolence as a fetish on the part of relatively privileged and well-off activists and theorists using it, largely subconsciously, because of their psychological attachment to the status quo.
To me that suspicion is cynical, though at least useful for examining my own motives.
Thanks, Robert Riversong, for the discourse
Tom, if you want to write essays, I suggest you post them on your own blog. This is a comment section.
I’ll offer the following observation from an anarchistic point of view. The most effective embodiment and practice of violence (in the sense of coercive social force) is the modern state. The modern state is sovereign (it obeys no higher ruler or law) and is in principle totalitarian — no aspect of its subjects’ lives is free of its power. History shows that, by and large, no counterforce can overcome a modern state except another state. The state mediates, regulates, and may mitigate coercion, but at the same time it institutionalizes it and makes it a permanent, intrinsic aspect of the social order, sometimes invading the most intimate aspects of the lives over which it rules (for example, consider the struggles around homosexuality).
The use of violence, then, cannot get rid of violence. Smashing the state simply leads to another state, often a worse one. Defending the state preserve the situation in which violence permeates the life of the community. The only hope of escaping institutionalized, permanent violence is nonviolence. It is not mystical but only reasonable to say that the destination is the path.
The above is simply a material, practical consideration independent of love, moral principles, or other motives.
Anarcissie, what plan for action have you formulated from your worldview ?
For me, it’s striving to meet my needs with minimal harm and/or maximum benefit to human and non-human others.
One theory is here: http://1freeworld.org/anaprax1.htm (which you may have read already). In pursuit of the general ideas in that essay, I have been going out with a couple of Food Not Bombs chapters for the last several years and giving out free food, usually in parks. I also participated is some free stores — there is also an article on the 1freeworld web site about that as well. Of course I also occasionally participate in oppositional actions, like anti-war demonstrations, but so do a lot of other people of widely varying political, philosophical, and religious opinions, so that sort of thing isn’t peculiar to my worldview. I visited and donated money, food and other goods to Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy, but I was pretty peripheral to these projects. I thought they were a good thing, but not my thing, so to speak.
Over the years I have written a lot of stuff on the Net, which could be considered a kind of activism, but I can’t see that any of it has had any effect except in a few individual, isolated cases. That’s not nothing, of course, but it’s not the Revolution either. So I would say that sort of thing has mostly been playing word games. I think you have to actually show people something different in the material world. ‘Be the change you want to see,’ but also do the change you want to see.
Some of this sounds sort of virtuous, so I do want to close by assuring you I have a lot of bad qualities.
With love, we better manage our fear, anger, and hurt, and thereby reduce our inclination toward violence and increase our willingness to help. Doing nothing to help can be as bad as doing things that hinder and harm.
But many are motivated by love to do violence, sometimes even to the beloved.
Is that love or a gross misuse of the term? Despite its vagueness and misuse, I use ‘love’ instead of the more accurate ‘kindness,’ ’empathy,’ ‘compassion,’ ‘benevolence,’ and ‘goodwill’ because ‘love’ connotes relationship in the minds of most folk. But your point helps me to recognize that I ought to use more precise terms for engaging in-depth regarding what I refer to as ‘love’ in more casual public contexts. ——For the time being at least, hopefully my website domain and signs on my pedicab and bike trailer convey the appropriate meaning : TheWorldNeedsMoreLove. com
You got me thinking maybe ‘kindness’ is a better word than ‘love.’ The cost of new signs and a new domain might prevent me from making the change for the now. But thanks
I’d stick with ‘love’ and define it as you please. The meaning you intend is certainly within the set of meanings of the word in ordinary English.
Great 🙂 Ok. Well anyway, somehow this response from you reminds me to emphasize love, not atheism, per se. Thanks
This was in response to Robert’s dissaproval of my essay.
@ Robert Riversong: you’re right, I should seek to engage other users of this site in the spirit of collaborative inquiry and planning, instead of lecturing them. Thanks for being direct.
@ anarcissie : who wrote this ? http://1freeworld.org/owsbx13.html
I did. There is nothing very original in it, so it seems unimportant who wrote it.
I liked it, almost, though not quite, word for word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph. It’s nice when the writing itself is enjoyable and the message is thought-provoking ( in the case of OWS and the Abolition of Public Space) and emotionally gripping (in the case of Luis.)
As for Luis, to what extent might he and his wife have been sparred a lot of suffering and untimely deaths had there been the right sort of advocacy and other community support on their behalf ?
As for nonviolence, yesterday I had a conversation on Facebook that may interest you. I think some of his points are at least worth considering. I can’t seem to link the exact post on Facebook, so I’ll link you to my blog. His statements are in quotations. Thanks