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nonviolence is an answer

September 22, 2010

… but how do we talk about it?

First of all, there isn’t a good word for it in English. “Nonviolence” is a negative construction, and it implies passivity. “Peace” is even more passive, and is also conceived of as an absence (of war), not as a state in its own right. I kind of like “ahimsa”, mostly because it’s not English, but it has the same limitations because it is simply the Sanskrit word for nonviolence.

When I sought a word or phrase that denotes not just active resistance to violence, which is reactive, but something proactive that promotes a different way of being, where violence is not even considered an option … well, I don’t know of any way to say that, in English or in any language.* And when there are no words to describe a concept, thinking about that concept becomes very difficult. Drawing out its nuances, or even recognizing it in the world, is immeasurably harder. How do you find writers and thinkers on a subject that has no name? So, it needs a name, but it also needs a name that disseminates; because if I think of a name, but I’m the only person on the planet using it, how will anyone else benefit? A name needs to pass into common usage, so that many other people can explore its complexities, and add to its knowledge base.

Several months ago, I began really noticing how violent our culture is, and how it is steeped in metaphors that celebrate violence, and insist that it is inevitable and desirable. I’ve been a pacifist all my life, but I’ve been just as guilty as anyone of using violent metaphors unthinkingly. So I started looking around for someone else’s attention to this topic.** I thought I had found it in Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication, but he doesn’t discuss metaphors at all.

I began a list of problematic phrases and metaphors that I intend to stop using. I’ve been surprised at how pervasive some of them are, how it’s easy not to think much about what they actually mean, but when you use them, you are co-creating our violent culture. Things like: take no prisoners, scorched-earth, nuclear option, kickass, worth fighting for, packing heat, crusader, do battle with, built like a tank, arms race.

A related topic of interest is phrases and metaphors that encourage hierarchical thinking. Earlier in the year, when I was immersed in reading about systems thinking, and complexity, I realized that the worldview they embrace is one I instinctively prefer, precisely because it is nonhierarchical. As one looks at a system or its components, one does not reference levels that are “higher” or “lower”, nor “advanced” or “primitive”. There is no ranking, actual or implied. Any system or its components are seen as networks in their own right. Some are nested within others, but there is not a hierarchy such as those found in primate societies.

Intellectually, I understand that primate hierarchies are efficient means of allocating resources, but emotionally, they squick me out. I see two main reasons for that: my inborn personality and temperament, and the family situation I grew up in. In the Myers-Briggs (personality) typology, Sensors, S’s, who greatly outnumber iNtuitives, N’s, seem to have an inborn affinity for hierarchies of the primate type; the SJ temperament in particular reveres bureaucracy, SOPs (standard operating procedures), regulations, rules, duties, and traditions. In fact, studies show that corporate America is disproportionately populated by SJ’s, specifically ESTJs. And they do not value diversity in personality, especially those personality types who are most creative and unconventional, who promote innovation and change, and those who prefer less hierarchy. So those underrepresented personality types tend to stay at the margins; if they make it into management (which I never did), any changes they make likely will not outlast their tenure. Everything they hold dear threatens the status quo, so it can’t be encouraged or approved of, it must be discouraged and rooted out. My personality type, INFP, is the polar opposite of ESTJ, and as such, is the rarest type to be found in a bureaucracy.

My family of origin was not a bureaucracy, but it followed a high authoritarian model. My mother, the head of our family, is an SJ. Each of my parents is only one letter away from ESTJ (albeit different letters). One thing I can say for my upbringing is that it prepared me for the unwelcoming and toxic situation I found in many jobs. The more rigid the hierarchy, the more likely I will be at the bottom rung. And all the protesting in the world not only does not budge my position, but (contrary to my intentions), marks me as insubordinate and a troublemaker. But it’s not just that I don’t want to be at the bottom, it’s that I don’t want anyone to be at the bottom, and I think that’s the real reason they object to me — I’m not a rebel, I’m a revolutionary, and there’s no room for that in their system.

So I’ve been looking for words, phrases, and metaphors that celebrate hierarchies, so I can stop using them as well. Here are some I’ve come up with: dominant, superior and subordinate, command and control, top-down, sovereignty, authority. Now I will have to find (or create) substitutes.

*I don’t use satyagraha because, as Gandhi espoused it, it included 11-18 principles of conduct and belief, many of which conflict with my values and worldview.

**Walter Wink’s essay on the Myth of the Redemptive Violence was quite illuminating.

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