By Wadner Pierre-the update version
The Best Way To Respond To Violence
When I was a fourth-year high school student, my social sciences teacher used to say, “Wherever a minority group of people oppress a majority group of people, the revolution is possible.” At Saint Domingue, which is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, three groups of people lived on the Island: whites, people of color and slaves. The slaves were the largest group and the most important as a workforce, though they were the most miserable and mistreated ones. The slaves started to question why they were the largest and the most important group at Saint Domingue, and at the same time they were the most mistreated people. As a result, the slaves started rebelling against their owners: some chose to live in the mountains (the marons, or fugitive men or women), and others organized deadly plots against their masters. In the night of August 21 and 22, 1791, there was an uprising: the slaves revolted against the slavery system at Saint Domingue, many plantations were destroyed, and many lives were lost. This was the first revolt that began the Haitian revolution, and in 1804 Haiti became the first black republic in the world and the second country in the American continent to declare its independence.
As human beings, we have been born with inalienable rights. When we cannot enjoy them we do everything possible to have them, and very often we are ready to pay the price for having them. Consequently, when people need to be free or want to be independent, there is nothing they will not do, and at that time no body can stop them.
Three approaches to respond to oppression have emerged among people hundreds of years ago: free acceptance or acquiescence, physical violence and nonviolence.
First, free acceptance or acquiescence is the way that people accept to suffer under their oppressors’ unjust rules without protesting. Acquiescent people are like zombies. Although these people may find a leader to help them move from the hatred system to the free system, at the end of the day, acquiescent people will prefer living in the system that builds against themselves and their freedom because they let the system dominate, or zombify them. As a result, these people become addicted to the system. In this state, it is hard and even impossible to convince them.
One example of acquiescence is featured in the Bible, when Prophet Moses led the Israelites from Egypt to the promise land, Israel. The Israelites were frightened while they saw the king’s army coming. They praised the Lord for help and they also ironically complained to Moses by saying, “Wasn’t there enough room in Egypt to bury us? Is that why you brought us out here to die in the desert? Why did you bring us out of Egypt anyway? While we were there, didn’t we tell you to leave us alone? We’d rather be slaves in Egypt than die in this desert” (Exodus 14: 10-12).
Another example can be found in the Haitian revolution. During the Haitian revolution there were slaves who did not want to leave their masters and spied on other fellow slaves, who tried to free them. Those slaves were so attached to the slavery system that they could not even think about their freedom or about being independent. Can we imagine a person, living in a system that does not guarantee his or her basic rights, who prefers to live and die in this system? Nonetheless, some people have accepted to live and die without doing anything for their own sake. The slaves whose stubborn decision slowed the Haitian revolution were those lacking of courage.
However, Booker Taliaferro Washington, an American born slave, said, “Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.” Furthermore, people who believe in non-violence as a way to respond to the oppression seem to disagree with acquiescent people. In one of his speeches about the Vietnam War called “A Time To Break Silence,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal” (Washington, James Melvin, 231). On the other hand, Malcolm X, a disbeliever in the non-violent approach, said, "A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.” Therefore, if you do not agree with violence and you do nothing to stop it, you betray yourself, and it seems automatically an expression of unfaithfulness. The acquiescent people have been told to defend themselves for their inalienable rights, but until today these people feel comfortable with their life style. They seem to believe in this philosophy, “I am here because God wants me to be here, and I will leave here when God wants me to leave.” By being too attached to the system, acquiescent people may live and die as slaves or unfree people. Acquiescent people are those who lack courage and faithfulness. Free acceptance is the approach of cowards, people whose ideas do not go beyond their noses.
Another way people respond to their oppressors is the physical violence, or fighting violence with violence. Physical violence is also a way that people respond to the oppressors who use the oppressive system to violate the people’s natural rights for their purposes, and in order for the oppressors to enrich and to achieve their goals. People, who use physical violence as an answer to their oppressors, are less focused on mediating rather than fighting back in the same way that their opponents treat them. These people have vowed to die in order to find their freedom, perhaps to satisfy their needs. On the one hand, the violent response is the hardest because of its massive cost in lives, goods, and capital. On the other, some people believe that physical violence should apply in some situations. Despite the opposition to physical violence, it still has its believers today.
Malcolm X, an African-American who fought against the segregation of the 1950s and 1960s believed that the black folks should respond violently to the segregationist system (a supremacist system established by the extremist right-wing white folks in the United Stated such as the Ku Klux Klan group mostly in the South). Malcolm X said, “I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man's problem just to avoid violence.” Furthermore, he said in one of his speeches, “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.” The physical approach is condemned by believers of non-violence, and also by Jesus himself in his teachings. Jesus was talking to his disciples, and He said, “You know you have been taught, “Eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth,” and He emphasized, ‘But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you’’’ (Matthew 5:38-39).
Another example was the revolt of slaves at Saint Domingue. This revolt ended up destroying plantations and killing hundreds of people. This revolt lasted for thirteen years. After this revolution, it was hard for the leaders to rebuild this ravaged country because all was gone: sugar cane plantations on which the country mostly depended at that time were destroyed, innocent and useful people were kille¬d-houses, industries and animals were gone in the fire. As a result, many years after Haiti’s independence, and even today Haitians still are paying for those damages. This revolution cost more than the leaders could have thought because of the use of violence, though violence seemed at that time as the most effective weapon to fight the slavery system at Saint Domingue.
Although the use of violence as a response to violence has been condemned by more than one, it apparently remains one of the ways that people continue to solve their conflicts. For example, the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars have been a violent response to Sadam’s regime and the Taliban’s regime by the Bush administration, and still receive support from the Obama administration. Other examples of violent response are the occupation of the Band of Gaza, Palestine by the Israeli army and the Israeli genocidal attacks against Palestinian civilians. Finally, the recent Russian attack against Georgia in 2008 was not a peaceful response, for Russia used army and caused loss of lives. Despite the disagreement with the believers of violence, followers of non-violence seem to support the idea “stand up for your right,” but in a peaceful way.
Even though Malcolm X did not share the same philosophy with Dr. King while fighting segregation in America, in a telegram sent to Malcolm X’s wife, Betty Shabazz after X was murdered, Dr. King wrote, "I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and the root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems we face as a race.” Nonetheless, Dr. King had always condemned the use of violence as a mean to stop violence. Physical violence is obviously a violent disastrous approach, and it does hurt violently.
Finally, non-violence is the way that people peacefully respond to oppression. In this way people disobey laws or break the laws through civil disobedience, massive, boycott and strike. Non-violence is a philosophy that has for its architect, or its father, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, more commonly known as Mahatma Gandhi. The non-violent philosophy is not made for the cowards, or people who lack courage, but for brave people. The non-violent partisans do not seek to defeat their opponents but to win their opponent’s understandings, or their willingness. Believers in non-violence stand for their rights; in contrast, believers in acquiescence stand for nothing. Non-violent believers accept to suffer in order to gain the oppressors’ willingness, whereas the believers of physical violence make the oppressors suffer in the same way that the oppressors make them suffer in order for them to force the oppressors to stop oppressing them.
However, the non-violent believers will not quit, nor will they use violence in any moment in their struggles. The non-violent followers experience love in the time of violence. These people will face and meet humiliations, tortures and all kinds of violence with love. In other words, partisans of non-violence will continue to resist, but will always avoid using violence. The non-violent protestors will continue to stand and march until they reach their goal, but will never use violence against violence. For example, a non-violent protestor will stand in the face of violence but will not return violence for violence. For a non-violent believer, non-violence does not mean to quit, but to fight back, and in a peaceful way. There is a refusal to move as well as a refusal to strike back violently.
Gandhi said, “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” Although people like Gandhi believe that non-violence is the best way to respond to violence. These people also know that non-violence is not the easiest way to pave the way of freedom. Dr. King, a fervent follower of Gandhi’s philosophy, quoted Gandhi in one of his speeches, called “An Experiment in Love.” Dr. King said, “Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight it.” Dr. King continued to say, “Non-violence was one of the most important weapons for the Negros in the struggle of freedom” (Washington, James Melvin, 16-17). People like Dr. King believe that non-violence should be the best weapon not only for Negros in America, but also for all people who struggle for a better world.
Therefore, non-violence accompanied by suffering is the most popular approach among people and has been used to bring peace where there are wars or conflicts. Non-violence represents the way where people overcome pacifically all humiliations in order to win the willingness of their opponents. Because violence begs violence and its costly outcome, the architects of the non-violent philosophy have chosen to refuse violence in order to make the world a peaceful world and a place where people can be mentally and physically free. The scars of violence remain and last for so long and even forever, and people arrive sometimes to hardly forgive each other.
The aftermath of the Haitian revolution was catastrophic because everybody agreed with the use of violence from the beginning to the end of this revolution. Once again, nobody can blame the former slaves for that because there were no such international or hemispheric organizations as United Nations or Organization of the American States that could serve as mediators between France and the slaves at Saint Domingue, as they do today in some parts in the world where there are conflicts. However, after the revolution the former slaves had to undertake the construction of forts to protect the newborn nation against its invaders although constructing schools, universities and hospitals were not the priorities of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who was the President at that time. Can Haitians blame Dessalines and other generals? No, they cannot, but 250 years later we still continue to pay the consequences of this revolution. Nonetheless, there is never freedom without a price.
Moreover, it seems when people look back to the world history and the success of non-violence across the world—the Indian Resistance against Britain’s rules, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the Chilean Resistance against the former dictator General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the South-African Resistance against Apartheid, and the Haitian resistance for the return of constitutional order after the Haiti’s first democratically elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was ousted by the Haitian Army in 1991—people seem to realize that non-violence is the best way to respond to a violent system. It might be noticed that there is an ongoing non-violent resistance in Haiti for Aristide’s second return from exile in South Africa five years after he was forced to leave his country by a U.S. special force, in February 29, 2004.
The success of these peaceful revolutions or resistances in the whole world seem to make the believers of non-violence more hopeful and more confident to continue to embrace non-violence as their only and unique weapon to fight violence. In spite of humiliations and very often jail sentences that come along with the non-violent approach, it remains for people the best way to respond to violence.
Why Do I Agree With Non-violence Approach Rather than Others?
After I analyze the positive and the negative effects of the three approaches—free acceptance or acquiescence, physical violence, and non-violence—and their effects on the people’s lives, I therefore believe that non-violence is the best way to meet violence.
Free acceptance is considered as a cowardly approach. These people are not willing to do anything to get out of a system that does not guarantee their fundamental rights. So I cannot be part of this approach, nor will I personally count on it to free myself. I like freedom, and I want freedom for all. Thus, I strongly disagree with free acceptance and with those who use it to respond to violence.
Although the physical violence approach stands for the fundamental rights of people, it is a violent approach. Using violence against violence is a nightmare as an outcome, and it does not create a place for reconciliation; in other words, it is hard for people to reconcile after solving their problem. I reject the physical violence approach because of its costly outcomes, and its vulnerabilities to make peace among people post-conflict. When using violence against violence, the suffering is in both sides, and the scars remain in the both sides as well; as a result, reconciliation can be more fragile than if the victims are from one side.
Non-violence is the way that people peacefully respond to violence, and reject violence as their means in their struggles against their oppressors. However, non-violent protestors are not seeking to defeat or humiliate their opponents, and they are seeking to win their opponents’ willingness in a peaceful way. Furthermore, the victims are in one side, and they are the first ones standing for reconciliation and dialogue. In other words, it is easier to bring people together after a conflict where non-violence was the approach used than if it was physical violence, for violence begs violence.
I firmly support and strongly believe in the non-violence approach as the best way to respond to violence. Non-violence remains the best, the most intelligible and the smartest decision that someone could ever make in life. Yes, it costs, and it costs life, but I understand and I know that freedom always has a cost whatever the way that someone can choose to fight for it.
In addition, when I think about these non-violent resistances—the Indian Resistance against Britain’s rules in Indian, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States against segregation, the Chilean Resistance against the former dictator General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the South-African Resistance against Apartheid, the Haitian resistance in 1990s for the return of constitutional order in Haiti when former Haiti’s first democratically elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was ousted in 1991, and the ongoing resistance in grassroots movement for Aristide’s second return from his exile in South-Africa—I have no doubt that non-violence philosophy is the best way that smart and intelligent people should and must use to overcome suffering, and to defeat any violent and oppressive system.
In conclusion, people have different ways to respond to violence: free acceptance, physical violence, and non-violence. However, non-violence remains the best way to respond to violence. Non-violence is one of the best philosophies that were ever taught by great philosophers before Gandhi. Non-violence is the easiest approach both illiterate and literate people learn so easily. For all of these, I am convinced that the best way to go beyond or transcend violence is non-violence, and this should be the people’s response to oppression. From Indian, Gandhi’s land to South-Africa, Nelson Mandela’s land; from Poland, Pope John II’s land to United States, Dr. King’s land; and from Chile, Salvador Allende’s land, and to Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s land, let me pay respect to those non-violent partisans whose names did not put above because I do not have enough spaces to put their names, nor do I know their names. May God bless all of them, and may He change the hearts of others who believe in acquiescence and physical approaches to overcome violence. “Keep hope alive,” stressed Rev. Jessie Jackson during his presidential campaign in 1984 (Archer, 250). “Let freedom reign, let freedom reign,” and “We shall overcome,” Dr. King used to say to his followers in the journey for freedom and equal rights for all African-Americans in the United States.
I wrote this article/analysis to pay homage to Lawyer Gandhi, Rev. Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and to my adoptive father, Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a follower of Dr. King, who committed his entire life in fighting for social justice and equality for all Haitians whoever they are and wherever they are.
Notice: All opinions in this article/analysis are expressed by the author, Wadner Pierre, and are not engaged anybody else.
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