“The only problem with non-violence,” he tells me, “is this: what happens when you’re being attacked and you need to use violence to resist?”
It really, honestly, is a valid question. It’s not his fault we’re constantly force-fed myths of violence in self-defence, from our movie and television screens to our governments and militaries, telling us that violence is only used to protect ourselves.
He’s not the first person to point out this problem with non-violence though. Any time the idea of non-violence is talked about, someone will inevitably bring this up. Possibly elaborated into some hypothetical situation that involves Australia being invaded; or somebody advancing on you with a knife, so out of their mind they can’t possibly be reasoned with.
It’s a flaw of human nature that we almost always, in any conflict situation, can only ever envision ourselves as the innocent party. It’s what makes resolving interpersonal disputes so difficult, and global conflicts even harder.
But the problem with talking about non-violence in terms of hypothetical situations is that it pretends that violence also only exists in a hypothetical realm. Even while Australia was involved in fighting two long, expensive and brutal wars overseas, I would still have people ask how I could defend a philosophy of non-violence if we were to be one day invaded.
This view of violence though is blind to the violence that is happening all around us – that our nation was built on the dispossession and murder of aboriginal people; that our wealth is perpetuated by the exploitation of the labour and natural resources of the developing world; that our lifestyle and the climate change that comes from it is devastating the poorest people in the world, who are most affected by climate change yet did the least to cause it. That our nation has been involved in wars of aggression supporting the inhumane empire that is the United States, that our military also collaborates in training other notorious human rights abusers, like the Indonesian and (most recently) Chinese armies.
Even our most heroic stories of violence are based on pretty shaky foundations – as the fervour builds for the centenary of ANZAC Day next April, far too few people are asking the question of why exactly our troops were invading the shoreline of Turkey to help the British Empire fight a war against Germany.
And we’ve just seen Peter Cosgrove appointed Governor-General (and a knight!), his reputation built on Australia’s involvement in helping East Timor gain its independence in the late 90’s. It doesn’t take a great detective to discover that before then, Australia had been knowingly training the Indonesian army to kill East Timorese for a quarter of a century, or that straight after it gained its independence, East Timor was swamped with Australian companies coming to take its natural resources while the Timorese people remained in desperate poverty (their GDP per capita still one thirtieth of Australia’s).
East Timor is currently taking Australia to the International Court Of Justice claiming that it was coerced into signing the Timor Sea Treaty in 2002, gifting Australia 80% of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields. The claims include that while negotiating the treaty, Australia was spying on meetings of the newly formed Timorese government. Australia’s response was to in December send ASIO agents to the office of Bernard Collaery, the lawyer representing Timor, and confiscate the evidence on which they were building their case.
In our context of widespread violence, the call to non-violence is not a hypothetical inactivity while someone beats you up. It is the process of identifying where violence is currently happening in our society, and attempting to resist the tide of violence and build peaceful, non-exploitative alternatives. Not merely the absence of violence, but what Gandhi called “satyagraha”, or “truth force”.
So in answer to my friend’s question that started this article, my answer would be: Sure. If someone attacks you, hit them back to resist if you need to. Kick them in the balls and run away. If we have a movement for justice which (as history would say is probable) is resisted with force by those who stand to lose, then it might be necessary to fight in self-defence. But non-violence is not about hypotheticals. It is about transforming ourselves, our communities and our society away from the cycles of violence and to a more just, selfless and peaceful way.