Nonviolence in the Face of Hatred
What do we do when, despite commitment to nonviolence, we have violent thoughts?
Posted Nov 16, 2017
Anita was present at almost every one of the 34-sessions of my online course Responding to the Call of Our Times. I have sometimes wondered what this course would have been like without her steady willingness to explore the depths of nonviolence. I was counting on it as a thread tying us together, inviting others into more willingness, inviting me into more daring capacity to excavate, find truth, find love. I thought Anita could not surprise me any longer. Then, two weeks before the end of the course, she surprised all of us.
Anita was one of very few people of African descent in the group, and the experience she described was totally related to her background. Some weeks before, her one remaining sister shared with her for the first time that years ago, when she was living in the South, there were a few times when the Ku Klux Klan broke into her house and dragged her out into a field towards a burning cross.
Anita was bringing this up for a very specific reason, fully fitting with the focus on leadership that the course was on. Although this was very tender for her, she wasn't bringing it up for empathy or sympathy. She was bringing it up because she wanted to find a way to transform her thinking about what her sister had shared with her, so she would know what to do with the violent thoughts that were populating her mind and challenging her commitment. Out of respect for her dignity and choice, I never asked for the specific nature of the thoughts.
Anita is part of a very small tribe of people who are fully committed to nonviolence: in thought, word, and deed. There are many people who are committed to nonviolence in action; far fewer are committed in word; and way fewer are committed to nonviolence in thought. Since leadership, for me, entails inspiring others by what we are able to model, if we are committed to nonviolence in thought, and we make our inner struggles known to others as Anita did that day, we act as leaders. What we are modeling is how we can support ourselves, others who have been harmed, the communities around us, and the world at large, without creating new cycles of violence.
The practice of nonviolence begins, for real, precisely when our actions, words, or thoughts are not aligning with our commitment. Because, as I finally understood recently, our capacity often lags behind our commitment. This does not mean we are not truly committed; only that we need more practice.
That's what Anita and I worked on during that call. The dialogue that ensued was so moving - for her, for me, for others in the group - that I want to share some highlights and lessons from it, with her permission. As polarization escalates in our world, I imagine we will need these practices more and more often.
Anita began by stating her commitment and the gap with her actions: "I have been practicing those three pillars, of love, courage, and truth, and acting on those. And I'm seeing in this moment that the love isn't there." This was a tender moment, because exposing this gap to others, so transparently, always entails the risk of not being seen the way we see ourselves, in our full complexity. This is the moment to remember that the first act of violence that we could do, the very first, is to suppress truth within ourselves, including the very uncomfortable truth of what thoughts we have. If Anita is committed to courage, truth, and love, the first place to direct it is toward that part of herself: loving that part of her that has the violent thoughts. Otherwise, they persist, even if they go underground, and it's harder to love any other person who has had a violent thought.
This is no small task, as another participant reminded us. It's often easier to yell and scream than to tenderly and softly touch an experience of anguish or sorrow and release it, usually with tears that "acknowledge [our] human vulnerability and limitations."
Practice: Mourning and Transforming Our Helplessness
I offered Anita a practice she could do, that any of us can do, for those moments of having violent thoughts. The practice starts in the moment of recognizing that suppressing the violent thoughts is even more violent. The first step is bringing tenderness to the violent thoughts, without trying to make sense of them; just on the energetic field: love and tenderness to whatever violent thoughts come up in you. Here's how I described it to Anita:
You can imagine someone that has completely loved you in the purest way and whose love you fully trust - be it a grandmother, a dog, or anyone else - coming to you and enveloping you with that love as you're having these violent thoughts. If they're human, you could even tell them the violent thoughts and they will just love you more. That is the way in which you can find that capacity for self-love within yourself. Sometimes it's easier to project it and imagine it outside of ourselves, directed at ourselves. It's almost like a form of meditation on other people loving you. And if you do this and the field softens, my guess is that some learning and shift will be spontaneous.
Sometimes, this practice is enough to unleash creative re-engagement with nonviolence. Sometimes, more direct engagement with the violent thought is called for: bringing even more tenderness to the thoughts, so we can grasp them in full and learn from them about what truly matters to us.
In my belief system, violence is always related to helplessness. Helplessness can be mourned, and strength found through that process. Living in a world that isn't organized around attending to needs means we will be helpless, the more so the more we are, like Anita, members of groups whose needs are systematically devalued. Beyond the immediate and horrifying helplessness of being unable to directly support her sister's safety, there is also the larger scale of things: Anita's inability, having only one finite human body, to change, individually, the systems, like white supremacy, that are responsible for so much damage and hatred in the world. Knowing Anita, and seeing her face while speaking, I know that was the deeper layer of what her helplessness was about, and how it can so easily lead to violence, in thought and, from there, if mourning doesn't happen, in action. If we could, so many of us would want to be able to wave a magic wand and have the whole 7000-year nightmare go away. The violent thought is a fantasy aimed to mask the helplessness. It's illogical on the material plane, and yet it has emotional logic: "If I kill and maim and destroy those people, white supremacy will go away." Understanding the emotional logic, that this is an antidote to the helplessness, and mourning it, is one piece of the puzzle, because the mourning allows us to bear the helplessness and makes actual violence less likely. Only emotions that cannot be embraced in their fullness lead to violence.
The other part of the practice can be practiced before or after the mourning, depending on the inclination of the person doing the practice. This practice rests on the core assumption of Nonviolent Communication: that underlying every action, word, or thought, we can find human needs that are common to all. We can find them by inquiring into the "why" behind the "what". Here's the exchange Anita and I had about this part:
Miki: You can learn about the beauty at the heart of your violent thought by asking yourself: "If this were fully successful, in the illogical way that I hold it, emotionally, if this were fully successful, what would it give me?" Beyond eliminating white supremacy, what is the positive vision that this leads to? Do you have a sense of what that is for you?
Anita: A sense of people having the freedom to live wherever they want to live. This situation arose because some people thought my sister shouldn't be living where she was living.
This, then, is one solution to the puzzle of the violent thoughts. The helplessness ironically turns the beauty of the vision - in this case the freedom for all to live where they want - into a violent thought. So much violence, whether in deed, word, or thought, is done in the name of beautiful visions. For one horrific example, the Christian church has wreaked immense destruction in the world, all in the name of a religion with love at its center.
This is why I think it so vitally important to do the mourning. Mourning is what allows us to bridge the gap between what we see and what we long for, the gap of our helplessness, without having to inflict violence internally or externally. Once we do that, on the other side of that we can find some peace that makes it possible to choose how to respond without reacting.
Practice: Humanizing the Hater
The freedom to choose that emerges from transmuting and integrating our helplessness is core to the practice of nonviolence. It is a practice of self-love and truth, and it certainly involves courage. When we are as fully committed to nonviolence as Anita is, the work continues, so we can fully find the love of the other. As Gandhi says: "It is not nonviolence if we merely love those that love us. It is nonviolence only when we love those that hate us."
This was the next task that Anita was facing. The most direct route I know to get there is to apply, in our imagination, the same logic that we apply to ourselves. If Anita has violent thoughts in the name of the beautiful vision of people having the freedom to live where they want, then, to include everyone in the circle of care, so we can apply love to all, we ask the same question about those who hate us.
In Anita's case, the question would be: "What is the beautiful vision in the name of which they were dragging my sister to the cross?" We don't stop until we find a human need in them that we also have. I did this once with Hitler, and what I imagined is a need for the kind of peace and rest that comes from being surrounded by people like himself. This need is one I see in all of us, even if it's not always present, and doesn't lead most of us to violence. I know for myself how much loneliness I have because I want to find more people that I have that full kind of companionship with. Is this all there is to the phenomenon called Hitler? Clearly not. In addition, there is Hitler's childhood, documented so spectacularly by Alice Miller in For Your Own Good, where I got to understand, for the first and deepest time, what the effects of childhood trauma through extreme violence and shaming can be. There is also the personal and collective shame that he suffered along with others after WWI, and the deep overall wounds around basic dignity and love. It is those wounds that would lead someone to channel so many other needs into violent means, as documented by James Gilligan in Violence, where he points to justice and dignity as core needs that combine to lead to violence. The analysis, each time and for each person or group, needs to be detailed, meticulous, courageous, and unsparing, all while being loving. There's nothing simple about this. I am only saying this: we can always find, if we search deeply enough, human needs similar to our own underneath even the most heinous acts.
What, then, could it be for the people from the KKK? What is it that they are protecting so fiercely that they are willing to kill and maim and torture other people? They, and Anita, and all of us are products of patriarchy. We are not all in the same place. There's a significant difference in terms of crossing the line between thoughts and action. Still, I see it as a difference in degree, not in essence. We can still apply the same transformation to their actions as we do to our own: what is the beautiful vision in the name of which they're doing this?
It takes immense discipline to focus in this way, because their actions are so, so difficult to comprehend and imagine from within. Still, this discipline is core to the deep practice of nonviolence. Based on my experience and research, this kind of violence often emerges from humiliation, and thus points me to some version of dignity. In the case of the KKK specifically, I am also imagining freedom of choice as part of what's at the core. If this sounds confusing, I want to name what I am looking at. First, I am looking at the narrow lens of US history. As Michelle Alexander documents in The New Jim Crow, in certain moments of history, such as the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights legislation, things were imposed on southern white people.
To be clear, I fully stand behind what was imposed, such as the 13th Amendment to the US constitution that emancipated Blacks, or the 1964-5 civil rights legislation that provided renewed and addition protection to the rights of African-American US citizens. Moreover, given the intensity of resistance to these moves, I also totally understand why they were imposed. I remain troubled by the humiliating way in which it was imposed. I wrote about this recently. Overall, I don't see in the world enough attention to the role of shame and humiliation in creating new cycles of violence. There was no mechanism to catch the shame and humiliation and loss for the Germans after WWI, and many believe this was part of the fuel for WWII. Despite there being reparations for the Jews after WWII, there was no direct attention to the trauma of genocide, and that has directly contributed to what for me is the shocking capacity to inflict harm on Palestinians so soon after being victims. There has certainly been no reparation, and so little to help people of color recover from the traumas imposed on them by white people. Within this massive soup of trauma, humiliation, and shame that has been part and parcel of human history under patriarchy, we also find all the intergenerational harms that Europeans did to each other that fostered the culture that went beyond European borders to engage in slavery, genocide, and conquest in the first place.
To come back to Anita's situation, and to the question of what would lead people to act towards her sister the way they did, I come back to the difficult realization that because there was never room for the sense of trauma that Southern white people have endured, their experience, in some way, is that they are losing something when her sister lives there. In their world, they're losing some dignity, some sense of familiarity, of belonging, and of freedom. I know that I, and Anita, and any of us who dig deeply into nonviolence, would want that for them, even while we continue to oppose the methods they have chosen, or the twisted ideas about history that they have. The solution, if there is one, is to transform the fundamental systems that continue to foster hatred, and to continue to do what we can to love the people within them and to want their true needs to be attended to.
For me, this is the ultimate in freedom. Anita recognizes that freedom. Here's what she said to me: "I think that's why I wound up in the practice, because freedom is one of my strongest needs, and I don't want it just for myself." When she has done the mourning of the helplessness, the celebration of her own beautiful vision underneath her violent thoughts, and the curious exploration and openness to what could possibly be motivating the KKK people, she is a free woman. That is the carrot of nonviolence. Absolutely unlimited intoxicating freedom.
Anita's concluding words were: "I'm going to start my practice tomorrow morning. I feel lighter already." I have since spoken with her. She's continuing with her practice. She is still working on part one - the unconditional love for herself. She is planning to get to part two in the next few weeks. Knowing her over the last many months, I have full confidence in her commitment and in her capacity to follow up on this. It doesn't surprise me that finding unconditional love for herself is taking weeks. Putting a wedge between self and self is one of the core injuries of a system that raises us to be prepared for separation. Healing it while aligning our actions with our values at the same time, is one of our core tasks as we continue to stand ready for bringing love into this world to drive out the hate.