All battles are fought on two fronts: the battle with the enemy without, and the battle with ourselves within. This struggle we currently face is no difference, as there has been a regular contentious and argument over the use of violence as a form of political action. And what has been interesting about this argument is that it follows the same path as all discussions on the use of violence tool, whether it be about hitting a child for discipline or the excessive use of force by police: the opponents of violence use history and outcome research to show that violence works against goals and that the the non-violent methods are more effective, while the proponents of violence claim that the facts and research are not reality, that if they can’t be violent then they are just being permissive, and then accuse the opponents of of making the situation worse.
We have the science that shows non-violence is twice as effective as violence when it comes to taking down corrupt regimes, and that it can be aggressive and varied. But as my friend Mark has been regularly pointing out, facts don’t change minds in the current political environment. And the truth is, he’s right, and we sadly have the science about that too. It wasn’t until I was graced with the opportunity to hear the (hopefully soon-to-be Honorable Judge) Henry Sias speak that I was given some insight into the side calling for violence.
“Anxiety is the mood, par excellence, of ethicity,” he told the crowd, invoking the words of the great activist Avital Ronell.
All emotions have a purpose for their existence, and anxiety is no different. Anxiety is a warning emotion. It tells you that something is wrong and gives you energy and motivation to address the problem. For those of us in the resistance, this anxiety is our primal motivator, as we fear not just for ourselves, but those we love.
The great problem caused by anxiety, however, comes from the fact that the anxiety of modern man is not the same as it was for early man.
When we were first becoming hardwired as humanity, the threats posed were directly physical. The problems of early man were the beasts and opposing tribes for whom the simplistic solution of violence was appropriate, and because of this, natural selection programmed violence as our instinctual response of fight or flight. This hard wiring is why non-violence seems to counter-intuitive to so many, there is a base level programming in our brains that causes us to see violence as the answer. Violently attack the problem and you can drive it away, and you can drive the anxiety away with it.
However, as humanity matured, our problems became less physical and more existential and abstract. We no longer have the monsters at the opening to our caves ready to strike with tooth and claw. Our monsters sit in ivory buildings attacking us with prejudice and inequalities. These are problems that cannot just be driven away in simple actions, as they are not caused by singular actors but are embedded in the larger social fabric itself. Today’s problems cannot be driven off, as doing so just pushes them out of your bubble for someone else to deal with. Anxiety is the mood of ethicity because anxiety is necessary as a prolonged state for the decisions that need to be made to create an ethical world. Truly solving modern problems requires prolonged and sustained efforts, and maintaining motivation for these efforts requires us to also maintain our motivating anxiety.
In regards to the current administration, I have seen both the fight and the flight reactions to the anxiety that has come to warn us about this very real problem. I know many people who are working hard to maintain the psychological flight of denial in order to chase away that anxiety, and we all know that kind of denial is detrimental in the long run. But they are running into denial because they are answering their anxiety with the flight response. But just as those who are fleeing the anxiety are not choosing the effective answer, those who are calling for violence are likewise just confusing driving away a problem with solving it. You may be able to punch low level nazis out of your personal bubble, but that won’t really effect the well protected administration or change the forces that put it into power in the first place.
It is in building the capacity to tolerate anxiety for the long fight that non-violence finds its true strength. This is not about playing nice so that normal people will feel good about playing with you. Non-violence has nothing to do with placation. Non-violence is about assuring people that you will be beside them to face the anxiety with them until the end, not just push it away from your sphere and leave. Non-violence is about pulling people in and holding their hands so they are willing to push past their own anxious reactions, which can just as likely, or even more likely, turn to flight as it does fight. The methods of non-violent resistance are about saying that they are safe enough to hold their anxiety because you will hold it with them. Non-violence is about keeping each other going until the problem no longer exists, not just merely about driving it away. Violence cannot do this because violence is just the flip side to the flight from anxiety, non-violence is the real counter argument to it.
For the resistance to be successful, need courage, not violence. Courage is not about defeating anxiety, its about persisting in the face of anxiety. The violent reaction to anxiety is the antithesis to this, as it seeks to drive the anxiety away, not solve the problem that caused it.
As I finish, I need to point out that the call for non-violence does not mean there is not a place for those who see themselves as the soldiers of the resistance. Right now, there is a need to provide for the safety of the many who are threatened by the administration’s unofficial agitators. Mosques, Jewish Community Centers, LGBT community centers, synagogues, and minority owned businesses are all under constant threat. Volunteering to stand vigil for the safety of these centers is technically non-violent, as you are not intending to start any fights. Standing as the sentinels of equality and justice is not the same as anxiously reacting through violence. Rather, by standing guard, you are taking on and sharing the anxiety of those who are already threatened, and letting them know you are there to see this through to the end for them. The greatest warriors of legend were more about who they fought for, not who they fought against.