I am writing this on the last day of 2010. One year ago today my wife and I saw the movie, Avatar. The following day I began writing an essay on that movie and on the subject of non-violence (an unlikely combination of subjects to be sure). Somehow I never finished that essay, and so now a year later I will attempt to do so.
In the original draft I have an extensive comparison of the Na’vi (the native people in the movie) to American Indians (an obvious comparison) and to east Indians (a more tenuous comparison).
In this revision I will shorten that to the following three observations:
1. The Na’vi defeated the earthlings through violent warfare.
2. The American Indians failed at defeating the British (and later American) government through violent warfare.
3. The east Indians defeated the British through the use of non-violence.
Am I saying that non-violence is superior to traditional military might? Morally I think it certainly is. But what about strategically? In Avatar, military might won. But Avatar is a work of fiction. And I believe that if the earthlings in Avatar behaved they way we usually do, they’ll be back in larger numbers and try again.
Am I arguing that superior number win? Maybe. There were more Na’vi than earthlings. There were more British than American Indians. There were more East Indians than British. In the realm of military strategy I do think that superior numbers is a very significant (but not always decisive) advantage.
In the use of non-violence, I don’t believe that superior numbers is a necessary factor. Superior moral position is. I do, however, believe that sufficient number is necessary.
Are other ingredients also necessary to prevail in a non-violent struggle?
I can think of three examples of successes brought about through non-violence:
1. The Independence of India from the British Raj.
2. The American Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. (One can argue that this battle has not completely been won, but if the goal is to end bigotry then the goal is unattainable; if, however, the goal is a legal system that supports rather than denies the legal rights of all people, then the goal is largely won.)
3. The end of American involvement in Vietnam.
I can think of but one example where civil disobedience did not succeed. That example is the democratic uprising in China generally known as “Tienanmen Square”.
Why did it fail? Or more importantly, why did the others succeed, since it would be easy to predict the failure of all such attempts when waged against a powerful government.
A strong leader? Both the Indian independence movement and the U.S. civil rights movement had strong leaders: Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., both strongly influenced by Thoreau. (Gandhi called Thoreau “one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced.”)
Could it be the leaders of successful non-violent revolutions are specifically aware of the teachings of Thoreau? It seems that has been true for all the successful examples.
The beginnings of the ideas of non-violence in many ways can be traced to the writings of Henry David Thoreau, particularly his essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” This essay was first published in 1849, almost a century before the first of my examples, the end of the British Raj in India. I tried to think of an earlier example and came up empty. Then, to my surprise, in the writings of Gandhi, I came across his assertion that “Civil Disobedience” was (in Gandhi’s view) the primary cause of the abolition of slavery in this country. I’m not sure I believe that claim, but there certainly was a growing movement against slavery in the north and slavery was specifically called out in “Civil Disobedience” as one of the evils to be fought with civil disobedience.
This essay seemed to raise more questions than answers. Maybe that’s why it took so long to finish it. I don’t really consider it finished even now. But perhaps there is enough here to give myself and others something to ponder. And if I don’t publish what I have now, I probably never will.
We begin a new year and a new decade. And every day each of us may come upon an opportunity to advance justice and human rights.