October 9th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Non-Violence and Me

I got asked the other day why I committed to what I call pragmatic pacifism (as distinguished from principled pacifism) at such an early age. As I said at the time, that's a long story. In fact, it's still a longer story than I feel like telling. To be complete, I'd have to detail several incidents from my life that reinforced my beliefs, and honestly, I imagine the incidents themselves would be pretty tedious to anybody but me. So after wrestling with ways to abstract them down far enough to fit into a journal entry, while leaving enough detail to make the point, I gave up. I'll leave it at the level of principles and rules of thumb, and for now I'll skip the life lessons that lead me to them.

The fact remains that I made a conscious decision at the age of 6 to avoid violence, personally, at just about any cost. If I can find any non-violent way to solve a problem, even if it involves more effort, more humiliation, and more risk of my being injured or killed, it's still the better solution. If I can't find a non-violent solution, I consider it a personal failing on my part. The net effect that this has had is that, since that age of 6, I think I've been involved in fewer than 10 fights in my life, only two of them serious. I lost exactly one fight, one of the serious ones. I don't avoid combat because I think I'm no good at it. On the contrary, every three or four years my attempts to avoid violence have failed, and have taught me that unless I am outnumbered, cornered to where I not only don't have room to escape but I also don't have room to dodge or maneuver, and I'm unarmed and my opponents aren't, then anybody who gets into a fight with me is going down, and fast, and with no perceptible injury to me. Even as a fairly young child, before I learned anything about the biomechanics of combat, I knew that I came from a long line of scrappers who were enthusiastic about teaching me how to scrap, and lived in a house full of weapons. I never needed to lose a fight, if I wanted to win one badly enough.

No, I avoided violence back then, and I still do now, because I lack all confidence that I can predict the longer-term consequences of a violent action. On the other hand, I'm usually very confident that I can predict and control the long-term outcome of a non-violent solution.

The first clue I had to this involved the simple matter of getting away with it. Within 2 hours of my first day of school, I was already finding out that somehow, you neurotypicals can tell, more or less, most of the time, which rules are and aren't going to be enforced, and of the latter, when you can and can't get away with it anyway. I had no idea at the time how this is done. To be fair, since I was legally blind at the time, this is unsurprising; after all, I couldn't even tell which way the teacher was looking. But even when I got my glasses, I still continued to be unable to tell when the rules matter and when they don't, all the way up to this day. Ask any of my past co-workers. How this applies to violent solutions to problems should be obvious: under nearly all circumstances, violence is illegal. Any use of force, by one citizen against another, except the use of the minimum force necessary, if necessary, for self defense or to prevent the death or serious injury of another person, is assault, a crime. Some fights they call the cops. Most fights they don't. But I lack much confidence that I would ever know for sure when they wouldn't. So there's one big constraint on my use of violence: I either have to be 100% sure it's legal, or I have to be willing to risk going to jail over it. That doesn't come up very often; even less so now that I'm no longer as skinny as a famine victim.

But there's a second area in which I honestly don't think that anybody can successfully predict the outcome of a use of violence, and that's knowing where it will end. Everybody's heard of the legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys? That fight lasted for at least three full generations. By the end of it, nobody even remembered who started the fight, or what the fight was about. All they had to go on was that they remembered the last few rounds of retaliation from both sides, and they each had a great deal of confidence that the other side had hurt them more than they had hurt the others back, so they still owed them some violence.

I've seen experimental results, written up, to suggest that it is physically and mentally impossible for one human being to tell how much pain they've inflicted on another one. We seem to be hard-wired to perceive any injury to ourselves as much more intense than the exact same injury when done to another person. Even people who were warned about this effect in advance still screwed it up. The simplest form of this experiment, if you want to try it yourself: Find another volunteer. Hit them in the shoulder. Now tell them to hit you exactly as hard as you hit them. See if you agree. If you don't, hit them back as hard as you think they hit you. See if they agree. Try to stop short of pounding each other into the carpet.

As far as I can tell, it's almost impossible for anybody, anywhere, to actually permanently win a fight. If you don't kill the other person, then they're gunning for you until they feel that they've gotten even. If they don't think they can take you in a fair fight, they have all the time in the world to recruit more people, obtain weapons, or otherwise tilt the next fight in their favor. If you do kill the other person, they've got family and friends who are gunning for you now, not to mention society and the law. Then, once they've won their fight against you, you and your friends and your family are the aggrieved party. As far as I can tell, fights only end when one or both sides tire of the violence, or when a third party intervenes. And who can tell how long that'll take, and how much violence it will take to get to that point? I know that I surely can't tell.

I know that, because I read extensively, remember a lot of stories, and have a huge vocabulary, some of you are laboring under the misapprehension that I'm pretty smart. The truth be told is that I think that I'm way, way too stupid to be fooling around with anything as likely to mess my life up in ways that I can't predict as violence. By comparison, addictive drugs are safer and easier to control; I might even feel more confident juggling poisonous snakes. At least, that's how I think about it.