Nonviolence is poetry. Poetry used here as the Greek poiesis: to make, to produce, to create. Poetry is not simply signs pointing at something else; it creates a whole world. By creating a new world, the poem disturbs, challenges, comforts and inspires. Poetry is direct action.
We will try here to outline a poetic for nonviolent resistance. The poetic describes principles and forms in poetry. The actual poetry of nonviolence you will find in the praxis of resistance.
Our suggestion is: Nonviolence needs to leave the reactive saying-no-resistance and move to a proactive resistance.
One week before Phil Berrigan died, Democracy Now broadcasted an interview with him. He was interviewed as one of the initiators and organizers of Plowshares and as being a convict for more than 11 years for his nonviolent resistance. But he also shared his experiences from the civil rights and the Vietnam movements, as well as from his work trying to build resistance communities.
During the sixties, said Phil Berrigan, they tried dissent resistance but that didn’t work.
Our interpretation is that Phil Berrigan’s nonviolence was a proactive resistance, a resistance which says yes rather than no, where the aim is the way, where nonviolence is direct action.
Nonviolence contradicts protests
Poetic teaches us the technique of poetry: Show, don’t tell. Don’t explain, make it evident.
Henry David Thoreau believed the obstacles for change would not be governments but the ones who protest but still obey (1849). He initiated civil disobedience as something built on another logic than protesting: expressing discontent, mainly being against. Some years later, Mahatma Gandhi introduced nonviolence where the aim and the means were interchangeable. The aim is the means. Non-peace would not create peace, non-solidarity would not achieve solidarity. Connecting the constructive program with resistance he invented proactive resistance to initiate change. He called this satyagraha.
To understand the advantage of proactive resistance, we will first analyze some problems with protest disobedience. They are similar to legal protest and we don’t have to make a clear distinction here.
Protest defines itself as subordinate: In its appeal to someone else to solve the problems one defines oneself as subordinate and apart from the solution. “We can give the answer no, but we can’t contribute.” Feminist and postcolonial discourses have unmasked the praxis in radical groups which constructs people as objects, as victims and as being passive. The protest constructs another subject than the protesters; someone else has to stop violence, oppression, war. The government, the president, are supposed to do the change.
Protest reinstates those in power: In The Lord of the Rings we find the classical myth about the legitimate honorable King and the evil adviser whispering in the king’s ear. The protest tries to get the truth past the evil advisor directly to the King, so he can make the right decision. “Oh, there has to be a good leader out there, someone who wants to listen to us.”
The protest directs itself towards the government: points towards, as well as appoint, the leaders. The protest reinstates the government as the government. The protest defines and reconstructs the power.
To protest is to accept: The pure protest would state something is wrong but at the same time it will state that the protest is only advice, one does not have enough reasons to actually try to stop what is wrong. In our democratic tradition a protest is a reservation, a stated qualification of opinion which the leadership take notice of and then put aside.
Negating is confirming: The discourse from Nietzsche to poststructuralism explains how a reactive act locks itself to what it rejects. The power needs its negation. It needs the protest both as boundaries and as a confirmation in a similar way a nation needs prisons (Foucault).
Protest as a Greek tragedy: As in a Greek tragedy you know the ending. The protest is asking for a response from those in power. In the expected absence of response the protest has dramaturgically built-in its own frustration. As in some dramas the unhappy ending is dissolved with violence, but more likely, with the depression accompanying loss.
Protest disobedience undermines its own action: Sometimes a positive proactive action is combined with protest signs. Then the protest contradicts the action. If one does a weapon inspection and e.g. carry protest-signs, one says that one already knows the answer of the inspection. “So the inspection wasn’t for real?” “No, we are only pretending.”
Protest as incantation: The ritual of repeating simple messages is in a sense implying some kind of force which transfers the message to the government and make them listen.
Protest generates protest: A protest is not mainly an indirect action; it is a direct action, creating its aim. The symbolic action of protesting is the main message regardless of what is written on the signs or in the press release. To speak out against e.g. a war is the built-in aim. And the protest will always reach its aim; the protest creates freedom of speech in every action. The moral is to invite others to say what they think about the war. The protest generates protest. If we already have freedom of speech the protest would not be a central method.
Poetic teaches us the technique of poetry: To construct a world would decompose, deconstruct and give new meanings to other worlds. The aim of poetry is to open up possible worlds.
Mahatma Gandhi didn’t invent nonviolence as a negation of violence. Nonviolence, for him, was a constructive program. But it was not running away from violence. In nonviolence non- and -violence confront each other. Nonviolence goes where it is really needed. Nonviolence gets inside the violent system.
By going into a system to change it, nonviolent resistance is closer to parliamentary politics, cooperatives, communities and fair trade than demonstrations and protests. Demonstrations and protests are thought to have an effect even though they stay out of the power systems they want to change. How does one think one can send effective signals from outside a system into it? The mystical medium is information, to be conscious, which would lead to enlightenment and change.
In feminist-, socialist- and jewish-christian-muslim ways of thinking we find the suggestion that embodiment, materialization, and incarnation are more important than good thoughts, thinking right, and to be enlightened and informed.
Proactive resistance materializes visions and morals. This nonviolent incarnation happens inside military bases, companies, prisons.
Nonviolence is to imprint. Then it becomes possible to repeat. It replicates as communication and repetition. The repetitions become stories, innovations, habits, routines, institutions and systems. A society grows out of repetitions. Paradoxically, change is always repetition; otherwise it is just an event. What we call society, culture, economy are series of repetitions which are coordinated through imprints (imprinted memory).
What makes nonviolence so special is that it works like a hologram. Every part of the hologram includes the whole picture. If you block out part of the hologram, the rest would still contain that part. The simple action is never a simple action, like poetry it creates a world. Nonviolent resistance is a whole vision.