Respect and Integrity in Response to Violence

As someone with an interest in cultural studies (as some of you know, my PhD focused on this area), I am always interested in how beliefs manifest in cultural systems and institutions and how, through this, different beliefs and practices are related. Foucault is known for his study of these kinds of connections, in the prison system and in how we see sexuality and mental illness. One of my favorite popular books that makes these kinds of connections is A Certain Terror: Heterosexism, Militarism, Violence and Change. And I’ve long believed that Nonviolent Communication (NVC) offers a real, tangible way to address violence and power-over at a root level (see my interview with Marshall Rosenberg where I place his work in the context of Foucault).

I’ve been thinking about these connections a lot in the last few weeks, given recent events. At first glimpse, a school shooting in Georgia may unrelated to US military action in Syria. But if you scratch beneath the surface, they are intimately related—in how we see and respond to violence.

Antoinette Tuff has been called a hero for dialoguing with a young, troubled man with a gun,  and saving many lives in an elementary school, in DeKalb County, GA.  Her response, and ability to stay-self connected and calm—-literally under fire—is of course commendable. She offers an inspiring example to all of us about what’s possible. Yet in focusing on her as a hero, the discourse implies how unique  and unreplicable her response is— reinforcing the idea that this is an exception to the “rule” and depends on one special person rather than a learnable response or resources and technology already available to us.

It’s also interesting to me that in the discourse around her being a “hero” that she’s been called “tough” (by her school principle, playing on her name, “Tuff). While she was firm, and did not allow herself to be intimidated or play the victim, it was not “toughness” or harshness or judgment or condemnation the saved the day—it was understanding and compassion. In an interview with CNN, Tuff commented that the young man with a gun, Michael Brandon Hill, is “a hurting soul” and that she’d like maintain contact with him, to continue to support him. She also consistently mentions saving his life, along with the lives of the children and staff. Clearly, she does not see him as evil or as an enemy. She even reassures him, “We’re not going to hate you, baby.” What’s even more inspiring about this is that Hill shared with her that he was off his meds for mental disorder. It could have been especially easy to have judged him as dangerous or unstable, as a “mad man” as the media has referred to him, and changed her response.   Instead, as an observer commented, “She connected to him as a human being.”

In the case of Syria, the media is telling us that there are “no good options when it comes to taking action in Syria” and that Syria needs to be “punished” for using chemical weapons. (1)  It is this kind of discourse that just as easily could be applied to someone bringing an AK rifle into an elementary school. Ms. Tuff offered us another example—which has worked on large scale levels (by Gandhi in India, by MLK in the US, and by Mandela in South Africa). What would a nonviolent approach look like? What if  we as a nation acted with the same kind of firmness, and compassion and respect as Ms. Tuff—rather than an attitude of punishment and moral judgment? If we had compassion for all sides involved with Syria, what actions would we be taking?

As Marshall put in another interview I did with him, in The Sun magazine, we are reaching a point where weapons and war will no longer work to make us safe. When our water and air can be contaminated (the case of chemical war) and war is not easily contained (as in nuclear weapons as well) a radically different approach is called for—an approach where we are not using fire to fight fire but leading by example: creating peace via respectful, non-violent means. Otherwise, international relations comes down to who has the larger stick? And who is more “sane”–the nation using weapons against its own people—or the nation using weapons to stop weapons? In the case of the school in Georgia, based on past precedence, if the police had come in firing guns, there would have been far greater carnage and suffering, for everyone. I believe the same is true regarding Syria.

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2) For similar language about “punishing” Syria:

3 thoughts on “Respect and Integrity in Response to Violence

  1. If the police did have the “bigger Stick” as you say, the streets would not be safe. In Syria, we can use our words until Assad kills all those that oppose him. And then, he could use the same chemical weapons against his neighbors, knowing that the world will do nothing about it. Sounds like the Holocaust, where the world did noting about it. Even the war was not about saving the victims.
    The bottom line is that talk only works when the participants

    • Hi Michael–

      I regret the delay in replying to your post! I’m missing the last line of your post–where you write “The bottom line is that talk only works when the participants…” tho am getting your general gist to be that, in your opinion, words are not always sufficient to provide the safety we want for everyone in the world. And am also getting that you want us, as an international community, to be responsive (am saying this since you write that “the world did nothing about it [the Holocaust]. I am with you completely on wanting responsiveness, and safety, and integrity.

      I do think protective use of force is needed sometimes, though, in my opinion, am not sure I can think of one example of US actions where I would say it qualified as protective use of force—since one criteria (at least in the NVC model) is that this use of force be free of moral judgment, and in every case I know of in US history (and definitely my life time) an enemy has been made (in some way) of another to justify military intervention, and moral judgment used to in fact build public opinion in favor of using military action. I also am lacking trust about what has motivated US military actions—wondering–has it really been about fostering peace and saving lives, or protecting US interests? On all these grounds, the US government has not engaged in protective use of force.

      Most broadly, I think that violence and physical use of force of all forms can be avoided if communication is used sooner, and effectively. In an interview I did with Marshall Rosenberg he talks about work he did with the police in Israel. One of the officers said, in effect, well, what do you do if someone has a gun out already? Marshall asked them to revisit every incident where that had happened–in each one, there were several verbal exchanges before anyone took out a gun. In other words, the level of communication escalated the situation to the point of someone pulling a gun, rather than de-escalating. You can read the interview here:

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