If pressed, I would probably label myself a pacifist. When safely ensconced in relatively free countries, in relatively peaceful communities, in relatively protected homes, I think many Westerners would echo my position. But how realistic is the idea of pacifism? Is it true that pacifists can only remain pacifists because others are doing the fighting for them? Is it only possible to remain a pacifist when ones beliefs remain untested? Only when one is not in immediate danger, and has no responsibility to protect others, let alone an entire country?
How often does the stance of non-violence survive when faced with actual violence? Well, it is very rare indeed to hear stories of a one sided fight. When we witness and experience them ourselves, when we hear them through the grape vine, and when we hear them on the news, fights are rarely one sided. Except in the relatively uncommon cases involving surprise and overwhelming power (such as the recent spate of unfortunate “King hits” in Australia), people fight back. I would argue that it is orders of magnitude more common for the victims to fight back than to sit there and take it. And yet, most of these people, or at least a very large number of these people, would surely consider themselves pacifists. “I wouldn’t fight back,” they tell themselves in the mirror, while at home alone. But this isn’t reality. When we are out and about, when we are faced with actual violence, with actual pain, with actual repercussions; it takes a very brave and very strong person to not fight back when attacked, or to not try and pre-empt an attack when they know it is coming. On the individual level, pacifism breaks down when we are confronted with the threat of real violence. On the smaller scale, “true” pacifism can only really be found when the threat of violence is absent. Just as “there are no atheists in a foxhole”, there are no pacifists in a fight.
But what of pacifism on a larger scale? The protesting kind of pacifism. The kind of pacifism that broke out in the sixties and at burning man. This is the pacifism that really intrigues me. In today’s world, where conscription is quite uncommon and there is no immediate bodily threat in much of the world, homegrown pacifism is taking on resurgence. The average loud mouth pacifist (such as myself) has no responsibility. They bitch and moan every time their country gets involved in a fight, but they really have no skin in the game. So, what would happen if we picked this average pacifist up, and placed him in a position of power and responsibility? What happens to this belief when the person is faced with real consequences? What happens when the pacifism is faced with the choice of fighting or people dyeing? Will the pacifism go away in a similar fashion to when the individual is faced with violence? Well, just as with any aspect of life, there are outliers. Jimmy Carter is probably the best example in this case. Carter, a devout proponent of peace (so much so that he received a Nobel Prize, a prize he thoroughly deserved), “never fired a shot in anger”. He was strong in his antagonism to violence, and stood resolute. However, we can contrast Carter with another Nobel laureate, Barack Obama. I have expressed my deep sadness at President Obama winning this award previously. I feel it cheapens the institution. The reason? Well, while Obama talked a big game during the election, and he does seem to be genuinely antagonistic to the idea of violence, his actions as President have not reflected this image. Obama was responsible for the surge in Afghanistan and Iraq, he extended the use of drones and covert operations, and he kept going the disgusting operations at Guantanamo. Obama is a pacifist in rhetoric, not in action. Just like the people who are pacifists when looking at themselves in the mirror, Obama lost his opposition to violence when he was faced with real pain and real consequences.
I am not criticising Obama entirely. Many of his actions were warranted. It is just the world we live in. And, in some respects, Carter is also to be criticised for his somewhat naïve foreign policy stances. My point simply is, it is very easy to be a pacifist when you have no skin in the game. It is very easy to be a pacifist when there you have no responsibility, and there are no lives at stake. It is very rare for a leader not to change their mind when they get into power. When they start shouldering real responsibility and start feeling and seeing the effects of their decisions. We should not criticise the likes of Obama for going back on their promises and reversing their stances when they were confronted with the real world. Being an armchair pacifist is easy. Being a pacifist leader isn’t.
Originally posted @ Sakalabujan Magazine