Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Social Activists: From Terrorists to Gandhi

I’ve been reading a book by David Corthwright called Gandhi and Beyond: Nonviolence for an Age of Terrorism. The book has been interesting but more biographical and textbook-like than I had imagined. Nonetheless, it’s been quite interesting to learn about the nonviolent resistance of people like Gandhi, MLK, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, etc.

I’ve been disheartened to think of the violence and war that continually occurs around the world. It’s challenging to imagine a world without violence, it seems so ingrained in the way that people and nations respond to one another. On the other hand, I have a hard time understanding why we have resorted to violence. It seems that there are much more effective and morally upright ways to deal with each other. Gandhi convinced the British to grant India independence, a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Gandhi and his followers didn’t accomplish this by being pacifists, but by having indomitable wills. Although, there were restrictions to how these indomitable wills could be used, one restriction was that violence was not permitted. The nonviolent movement was so effective and British officials became so intimidated by Gandhi’s movement, that they granted independence to India.

Painted in this light, violence seems cheap. It seems like the easy way out. Maybe violence is what happens when you don’t make up your mind before entering a conflict and you end up acting on impulse and emotion. The Mahatma was resolute in his commitment to nonviolence from day 1. Violence also seems cheap when one considers the suffering that Gandhi and his followers underwent. Their nonviolent resistance wasn’t free of trouble; instead, they committed themselves to undergo any form of suffering for their cause. Violence avoids suffering.

One of the themes that I saw as I read the stories of various nonviolent resisters was love. Cesar Chavez said that “love is the most important ingredient in nonviolent work. Love the opponent…If we’re full of hatred we can’t really do our work. Hatred saps our strength and energy.” It’s clear to me that Chavez, Gandhi, and King were all motivated by love. Love of their fellow farm workers, Indians, and Negroes; as well as love for land owners, the British, and whites. If they were consumed by hatred, the means to achieve freedom would have most certainly been violent

Days after I read the previous quote by Chavez, I was reading an article about the ELF (Earth Liberation Front) in Outside magazine. The article interviewed Chelsea Gerlach, one of the key “eco-terrorists” who destroyed Vail Mountain’s Two Elk Lodge, and engaged in 9 other of ELF’s criminal acts. At one point, she was asked if she believed, in retrospect, that ELF’s actions were wrong. She didn’t say that their choice to destroy property was wrong, but that maybe their motives were skewed.

Activism is motivated fundamentally by compassion and a desire for peace. It’s a big step to use force, and it should be. It’s an act of violence to close your heart to anyone, even for a moment. We were certainly guilty of that. We didn’t really consider how our actions would impact individuals. We felt the pain of the Earth, and that was what we focused on. A few lost jobs didn’t even measure on the scale of the extinction of a species. But it doesn’t matter what the scale is. You’re hurting someone, and you have to grapple with the consequences of that. True compassion has to apply to everyone: lynx and skiers. I apologized to my victims in court, and I meant it. I couldn’t have done that two years ago. The primary responsibility we have as activists and as human beings is to ensure that whatever action we take is based on love. In my involvement with the ELF, we didn’t do that, and in that sense we failed.

A pretty powerful statement that speaks for itself. Gerlach questions the actions of the ELF because they weren’t motivated by love. She also points out that the means, or the consequences of the means, weren’t considered by the ELF. The extinction of a species was severe enough to cause them to do what they believed was justified. Upon reflection, Gerlach realizes that if the means cause harm to someone, then true activism and compassion aren’t present.

It’s so good I need to quote her again: “the primary responsibility we have as activists and as human beings is to ensure what whatever action we take is based on love.”