In my last blog post I talked about how much I admired the principled, nonviolent resistance that UC Davis students displayed when wantonly pepper-sprayed by a police officer. Nonviolent resistance, I wrote, "shows who holds the moral high ground. It reveals the thugs and bullies in high places for who they are. It creates sympathy and evokes principled action. It clears the way for thoughtful men and women of conscience and character to speak out for rational courses of action."
But this begs a crucial question. How, exactly, does nonviolent protest—or protest of any kind, for that matter—actually change anything? How does it deprive the violent, the unjust, and the selfish of their power? How does it put competent and fair-minded people in power? How does it take bad laws off the books and replace them with good ones? How, in short, does it change anything?
Well, we have part of the answer to the first question already. The police officer who sprayed the students was put on "administrative leave" yesterday, which is not enough, but at least he has been physically removed from power. Chancellor Katehi is under intense pressure and it would not surprise me if she stepped down by the end of the week. Nonviolent resistance to provocation creates public shaming of considerable magnitude.
But just removing isolated individuals from power obviously does not fix the system that produced their behavior. How to create deeper change?
There is an enormous literature on this question, such as histories of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and political analyses of suffrage and the civil rights movement. I'm not going to try to summarize the literature's lessons here; that's beyond my scope. Instead, I want to offer a personal perspective.
It seems to me that this country has forgotten how to talk in moral terms. By "moral" I am not referring to some potted code of behavior like the Ten Commandments. Nor am I talking about organized religion.
By "moral" I mean the ability, and the inclination, to converse on public problems with the attitude that human welfare comes first, including that of non-Americans, and that solutions can only be arrived at through negotiation and an effort to understand perspectives other than one's own.
I doubt that there was ever a golden era in which most Americans, let alone their leaders, actually thought this way. Nonetheless, American discourse has become coarser and cruder because of how George W. Bush reacted to 9/11. Never in the course of our history were we afflicted with such poor leadership at such a crucial moment. He set the tone in the days that followed. War. Revenge. Torture. The antagonist as unfathomably Other, incomprehensible and irredeemable. He infected the country with a primitively tribalist mentality: "You hit me and I'm gonna hit you back."
The wars that followed were doomed to be catastrophes, both militarily and politically, but that's not my focus here. My point is what happened at home. Since then, American politics has de-evolved to the level of a brutal game. Your team fights my team. Your team always bad. My team always good. Facts are unimportant. Expertise is irrelevant. Compromise is for wimps. Winner takes all.
In an environment like that, it doesn't matter how intelligent and thoughtful an individual member of Congress is. Intelligence and ethics simply cease to be useful.
Again, I'm not saying that American politics before Bush was a model of probity and reason. We had the Civil War. Watergate. Vietnam. But after Bush, there seemed to be no way to do politics in a way that was intelligent and humane. In a way that was moral.
This is what we have to recover. A way to begin doing it is to put our bodies on the line, in all of their fragility and preciousness, for our fellow Americans to see. Then we stop being abstractions. Then, the things that happen to us matter to strangers. They evoke compassion, curiosity, and sympathy. They bring the moral aspect of our natures to the fore.
This means two things: demonstrations, and nonviolent resistance. Demonstrations are simple, but they often work. A few weeks ago I went to the Keystone XL demonstration in Washington DC, masterminded by Bill McKibben, a writer whose work I admire. Thousands of people had gathered to protest the planned deployment of a pipeline carrying an unusually dirty form of crude oil over unusually sensitive aquifers.
The objective was to surround the White House with a ring of people, and we succeeded. Where I was standing, the ring was six people deep. The sheer visible presence of so many people made a silent but powerful statement. A day or two later, Obama postponed a decision on the pipeline to 2013. McKibben argued afterward that that effectively killed it.
And then there's nonviolent resistance. You say, with your body, "This is so important that I am willing to be arrested for it." When it is met with violence, it unmasks the crudity and amorality of the attacker. It makes it plain for all to see that the root of their authority is violence and the threat of violence.
As Steven Pinker argued in his book THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE, violence runs increasingly counter to the ideals of our civilization. It shames power, and power is increasingly likely to cede its ground in the face of shame.
Protesting with our bodies, whether in demonstrations or by nonviolent resistance, causes us to rediscover how to think and speak from a moral basis. Simply making yourself visible to other human beings invites them to consider your view of the world; it moves them closer to thinking of you from a perspective that has to be called moral.
And nonviolent resistance, with the complex emotions of surprise, shock, awe, anger, and pity that it evokes in onlookers, goes even further in that direction. As we saw in UC Davis, it almost instantly jumpstarted a national conversation about the morality of power and the use of force.
These are rusty skills in Americans. They fell into disuse during a decade of amoral violence inflicted upon us and violence that we amorally inflicted in turn. We have to relearn how to look at each other as human beings. We have to relearn how to talk to each other. Putting our bodies on the line is an essential first step.
It's only a first step, of course. Much more has to be done. But progressive writers have created a body of work that will be very helpful, much of it drawing from innovative research in psychology and neuroscience.
George Lakoff has written about the importance of framing, and recently offered the Occupy movement some valuable advice. Drew Westen has shown how progressives can understand the underlying assumptions of conservatives and speak in ways that address their fundamental values and concerns. Jonathan Haidt is producing an important body of work on morality and emotion in politics.
These will all be very helpful. But their full value will only become evident once progressives have launched a strong and genuinely populist movement.
And once we have gone down that path for a few years, or longer, America may no longer be willing to tolerate public officials who treat politics as a brutal game. The politicians who whip up fear of immigrants and Muslims, idolize guns, dismiss the poor and jobless, and willfully ignore lifesaving knowledge from science, will begin to strike most of the electorate as immoral. And then their violent day will be done.
Michael Chorost is the author of REBUILT: HOW BECOMING PART COMPUTER MADE ME MORE HUMAN, a memoir of going deaf and getting a cochlear implant, and WORLD WIDE MIND, an exploration of how future technologies could transform how we communicate. Dr. Chorost freelances for Wired and other publications, and frequently lectures on college campuses. Twitter: @MikeChorost. Name is pronounced "kor-ist," by the way.