Sunday, 24 August 2014

Learning to Talk the Language of Peace

A friend recently gave me a book by Jonathan Schell called The Unconquerable World: Why Peaceful Protest is Stronger Than War (2004). It is a thoroughly argued polemic written at the height of the United States' Bush-era arrogance. I was about halfway through reading it when I got the news that Schell had passed away.
It is primarily through a detailed analysis of the evolution of what he terms "the war system", as well as in numerous historical examples of apparently bloodless social and political change, that Schell finds cause for hope and makes his case for the supremacy of nonviolence in bringing about lasting social change.
As someone who has spent my whole life as an inhabitant of the WISE Isles I was particularly interested to read about the "Glorious Revolution" of 1789.
An observation which Schell makes towards the end of the book also caught my attention. It is the fact that there is, as yet, no positive word in the English language for 'nonviolence', or 'nonviolent action', if you will. The word itself is a negative because it refers only to a lack of violence. The importance of this observation ought to be clear to anyone who, reflecting on the almost subconscious way in which violent, militarist thinking and logic has colonised our language and thought ('bullet' points, anyone?), has paused to think about what it takes to build a culture of peace. Reclaiming our language is part of that. 
Many people have tried, but none have yet caught on. Gandhi perhaps came closest when he coined the term 'satyagraha'. The closest you can come to an English translation of this word is to talk about 'truth force' or 'soul force', and Schell draws parallels between this and what nonviolent Soviet dissidents like the playwright Vaclav Havel called 'living in truth.'
Schell also gave some consideration to Hannah Arendt's attempts to reclaim the word 'power' from its traditional usage as an expression of force, which may have influenced the concept of 'people power'. Schell himself chose the phrase 'cooperative power' as something distinct from 'coercive power'.
It seems that, at least for the time being, we will have to make do with a wide array of terms before we find one that best captures the essence of positive action.

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