I am a pacifist. There are two basic kinds of pacifists – principled and strategic (the former believes in nonviolence as a moral imperative, the latter sees strategic, active non-violence as the best means to an end); I am both.
But when I got to Bolivia in the mid-1990s, I very quickly – unintentionally, but by dumb luck or grace – became acquainted with most of the country’s guerrilla leaders, all of whom were in prison at the time. We discussed issues of violence and nonviolence quite a bit. I was here working with the Catholic Church, and while I received a personal education from my Bolivian armed-revolutionary friends, I was also learning about the ways some of my heroes in the Church had addressed these issues as they walked with impoverished and excluded Latin Americans, and sought to see them become protagonists of their own liberation. Perhaps the greatest wisdom they offered me was the ability to simultaneously embrace nuance and remain firmly faithful to my own beliefs.
I could not easily dismiss the option for violence that my friends in prison had taken. Here were people concerned with defending the dignity of the poor and oppressed, the same as I was. And they had put their bodies on the line for their beliefs. They had lost friends. They had been brutally tortured (I had read the devastating human rights reports on each of them). And here they were in prison, without trials, vilified in the press, suffering for a cause they refused to give up on. Some of them were indigenous campesinos who had suffered violent oppression themselves. Others were members of more privileged classes, who had forsaken that privilege out of a sense of deep solidarity with their neighbors at the margins. They spoke of the option of the people to resist oppression through force, of fighting for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. I deeply admired so much about these new friends.
But they also defended their positions in terms that essentially boiled down to the ends justifying the means. These were not evil people. They were heroic and admirable in so many ways. But neither could I condone their violence or follow their path. I was challenged to live in the tension, to embrace uneasy questions over facile answers.
Meanwhile, I read about the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had walked a prophetic and narrow path in El Salvador, always rejecting violence, but also refusing to pretend that the violence of the poor, of the revolutionaries who resisted the oppressive state forces, was in any way morally equal to the overwhelming violence of oppression by those in power. I had the honor of meeting Tata Samuel Ruiz, the bishop in Chiapas who was walking the same line in the midst of the Zapatista revolution. These were men of peace. But, just as the church had always distinguished between the gravity of different sins and taken a complex approach to ethics, they were able to view each act of violence within its greater historical and moral context, and distinguish between violence in pursuit of justice from violence in pursuit of oppression. They endorsed neither, but the latter demanded the most forceful denunciation.
In a lot of my conversations with the guerrilla fighters in Bolivia, I discussed the problem I had with imposing any ideas, right or wrong, by force, and how dangerous that ultimately was to all involved. I was, essentially, standing up for democratic principles. They were convinced I was a naïve yanqui, brainwashed by a lifetime of US propaganda into believing our own system was really working for the good of the people, and that revolutionary systems like Cuba’s weren’t.
They had SOME points. We are pretty thoroughly brainwashed, and our system does tend to serve the powerful, and Cuba was succeeding in meeting many of the needs of its people in ways the US was not. I tended to falter a bit, to question my own thinking, and to feel a bit of a silly gringo. But they still didn’t get at the core principle of the thing. I couldn’t completely come around to their way of thinking. Ultimately, when it came to ideology, they were in Sartre’s camp, and I was in Camus’. They believed that they were right, and were so convinced their opponents were wrong that it was irrelevant whether those opponents also believed themselves to be right: my friends’ moral certitude meant their ideas could and must be imposed; their opponents ideas were indefensible, and must be fought by any means. In other words, they claimed certain rights regarding their own ideas, because they believed themselves to be on the side of good - rights their opponents, because their ideas were wrong, should not be afforded. This never sat right with me.
Well, I’m no longer a naïve, 20-something gringo just off the boat. Twenty years later, my ideas about US claims to be the City on the Hill are more critical than ever. But I still hold to essentially the same democratic principles, and I feel far less silly in embracing them. Meanwhile, one of the guerrilla leaders I used to argue with is now Vice President of Bolivia. Many of the others work with him in Evo Morales’ government. And while I admire some of the important reforms they’ve been able to enact, I’m also sad to say that many of my misgivings about their brand of revolution have proven all too well-founded.
The leaders of the current Bolivian administration go after friends, fellow-leftists, and former allies who dare to criticize them, lumping them in with the right as “neoliberal tools of yanqui imperialism.” They have undermined and attacked human rights organizations in ways previous presidents – who included a former military dictator and a man who is now in the US avoiding extradition, wanted on mass-murder charges in Bolivia for ordering the massacre of dozens of peaceful protesters – never did. When this government took power, the old human rights community was suddenly exposed as consisting of two factions: those who had defended human rights (and still do) because they believed in the universal principles of human rights, and those who had promoted human rights simply because they were defending leftists from right-wing abusers. The latter group believe that the current government is the EMBODIMENT of human rights, and so human rights observers are deemed unnecessary, and anyone who would pretend to call them out on their own abuses is ipso facto insincere and an agent of reactionary opposition forces. They are now looking to change their own constitution to get rid of term limits. It’s heartbreaking, but I think back to those jailhouse debates, and I can’t say it’s surprising.
“Any means necessary” sounds great when it’s an oppressed group describing their struggle against the oppressor. But it’s frightening coming from those in power, whoever they are. I’ve seen the one become the other, and it has strengthened my belief in universal democratic principles, including the right to be wrong.
But that brings us to another, related area where I’ve been challenged in Bolivia: free speech. Bolivia has a new anti-racism law. It was instituted largely in response to horrific acts of racist violence that took place during the first few years of the Morales presidency. It’s a very controversial law, as many, including most journalists and the Catholic bishops, believe it infringes upon freedom of expression. People can be prosecuted under the law for expressing ideas the state deems racist or discriminatory. Media organizations can be fined or shut down if individuals express such ideas in their papers or on their airwaves.
The argument for such a law is that language cannot be detached from physical violence. Proponents of the law say that freedom of expression is a tool of the privileged, used to defend the very ways in which they perpetuate systems of violence by dominating popular mythology, reinforcing bigotry, and defending and promoting violent, racist ideas, particularly through means unavailable to those who don’t enjoy the same privilege. I’ve heard the same arguments from people in the US, particularly when it comes to white supremacists. I’ve also heard the argument that speech itself, inasmuch as it is aimed at sowing terror, can be an act of violence. Those are pretty damn good arguments.
But there are good arguments on the other side as well. I don’t think freedom of expression can be detached from other democratic principles. Glenn Greenwald does a better job than I would of describing some of them in a piece published today on The Intercept: https://goo.gl/cpk8Rr . Like when it comes to evaluating different acts of violence as a pacifist, I am left uncomfortable here. I think any anti-racist should be. Abandoning the principle of free speech is, for me, a bridge too far. But I maintain my position with the painful knowledge that some of the speech I would defend is, itself, a form of violence.
I think we’d all agree that there are forms of violence that aren’t directly physical. If you are Jewish, or Black, or an immigrant of color, or LGBTQ, and a mob of armed white men with torches march into your community under Nazi flags, do you really have to wait for a fist to be thrown (or a gun fired, or a car driven into a crowd) to call that violence? And unless we can confidently answer that question with a yes, then we must also ask: are pacifism and free speech compatible?
Perhaps it’s just a matter of coming up with more nuanced definitions of what constitutes unacceptable speech than yelling “fire” in a theater or explicitly and directly threatening or calling for violence. But that’s much more easily said than done.
And so Bolivia has left me resolute in my pacifism, and yet it has also taught me to distinguish between different kinds of violence – something I think is necessary if we are to remain both nonviolent and on the side of justice and liberation in a violent world. Bolivia has not managed to pry me from my commitment to the right of free expression, but it has placed a pebble firmly in my shoe on the matter, and challenged me to redouble my efforts to combat discrimination and oppression in ways other than silencing them.
I should mention that in the midst of all of this in the US, I’ve often heard people on all sides define the people with whom they disagree as being privileged, white, etc. as if those things both determined and invalidated their positions. I don’t think any one position on these complex issues is representative of a monolithic group. There are plenty of radical, revolutionary thinkers from oppressed groups of people, now and throughout history, who believe in nonviolence and freedom of speech. I won’t ignore or deny the fact that I am privileged in numerous ways, and that this no doubt shapes how I think about these issues. But I do not buy the argument that my positions themselves can somehow be reduced to mere products of privilege.
I differ from many of my friends in that I do not agree with punching Nazis, or with antifa groups using physical force to protest “alt-right” rallies. I don’t think I’m simply hiding behind privilege when I say I deplore everything about what these Nazis stand for and do, but I agree with the ACLU’s legal defense of their right to march.
I also differ from a few friends and a lot of other people in that the above positions do not at all mean that I would equate the violence of those resisting white supremacists with the violence of the white supremacists themselves.
Gandhi spoke forcefully about the violence of passivity, saying he preferred violence to cowardice. Martin Luther King, Jr. urged young would-be rioters to nonviolence, but refused to denounce black riots the way white leaders wanted him to, instead calling them “the language of the unheard,” keeping the focus on institutional racism and not its bi-products. When Saint Peter tried to defend Jesus by attacking one of the Roman soldiers who had come to take Jesus to be killed, Jesus rebuked him and warned him that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. But he did not then equate Peter with the religious and Roman authorities who would crucify him; rather, he left Peter in charge of the church.
It’s an ugly, complex, violent world. We are wheat, and our enemies have planted weeds all around us. We must continue to grow among those weeds. Nuance and steadfastness are not mutually exclusive: we must continue to move forward, always on the side of justice, even in the midst of those, also seeking justice, whose choices we cannot embrace. We must always ask what impact our own positions will have on the victims of hatred and oppression. Are we helping to perpetuate that violence, either directly or indirectly?
Today, I’m devastated by the news from Virginia. It’s so real, yet so far away. I can say I wouldn’t punch a Nazi, but what else have I done to stop them? I can say I believe in freedom of expression, but what have I done to protect communities targeted by hate speech? I am resolutely on the side of my Jewish, Muslim, Black, Brown, immigrant, and LGBTQ sisters and brothers. But I’m not sure what kind of friend I’ve really been. Until I’ve answered that, my time is probably not best served brooding about the choices of other people who are out there laying their bodies on the line to halt the hatred, although I cannot forget the dangers their approach can pose. I suppose the tensions I’m feeling are mirrored by two of the most popular refrains from the civil rights movement: the stubbornly principled “Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved,” on one hand, and on the other, that hymn to both strength in solidarity and hope in the midst of chaos, “We shall overcome.”