Nonviolent Wisdom

Face it. The world is run by people. And we know how people’s minds work. Plato explained it in the Republic: our knowledge is based on shadows of images. We spin theories based on fragments of things we know third-hand. We seek truth, but our raw materials are weak. Wisdom comes only when a shattering event frees us from accepting shadows as data.

Face it. People in public life are often not wise. Most are people of above average intelligence. Many are hard-driven by a need for recognition. But rarely can they achieve enough recognition to satisfy themselves. The real recognition they yearn for isn’t from the public — it’s from late parents, lost lovers, or a living face of God. But the crazy upward treadmill of a public career leaves them little time or energy to reflect on themselves. Rather than reach an understanding of what drives them, they press on and on.

Plato pointed out how defensive people can become when they build walls shielding their inner emptiness. Any challenge to the world view that drives them reminds them of the pain hiding at the core of their psyche. A challenge becomes an existential threat, prompting a deeply emotional need to reinforce the walls.

In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that governments often declare war in order to convince their citizens that a cause is a good one. They expect citizens to reason, “If this is serious enough for us to risk our soldiers, it must be important.” They encourage citizens to become emotionally involved: “Our children, siblings, spouses, and friends are out there on the line; thus we absolutely support the cause they are defending.” They hope citizens will understand, “You, too, will live only if this cause can be defended.”

(If you find this outrageous, reflect: how many Americans believed in 2003 that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction just because the U.S. went to war against Iraq?)

War ends, Scarry says, when people withdraw their support — when they say, in word and action, “Too many have died for this cause.” We no longer support it — whatever it was.

A psychological analysis, summarized simply: When leaders and governments feel threatened, they seek support. Violence creates support, as everyone feels threatened together. When people feel threatened, they are more likely to accept extreme ideologies. But – as Scarry sees it – people are wiser than their leaders, and eventually they say, “We accept no more shadows; we can no longer climb this ladder of violence.”

It’s easy to apply this analysis to the leadership in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“This describes the Hamas leadership, spreading false ideologies of hate and using civilians as shields.”

“This describes the right-wing ideologues in Israel’s government, desperately clinging to a failing occupation.”

But I would rather apply this analysis to myself. My mind is filled with the opinions of published pundits, third-hand shadows, mostly, that I take quite seriously. Often these shadows drive me to hold rigid ideological positions. And yes, sometimes I answer a call to support military action simply because the action has put soldiers I know at risk.

When will I learn to claim my own wisdom? When will I learn to say, “No; I won’t climb this ideological ladder of violence!” And when will I grow the insight and courage to say it before the bodies start piling up?

— Image: “End Hate,” Anonymous graffiti artist, Jerusalem 2011

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more! May we ALL reflect deeply and act collectively with wisdom….so that we won’t need to climb the ladder of violence again.

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