#48: Moderation is Strength; Radicality is Weakness

This is not a time of extremes. This is not a time of extreme crisis. The world is not ending. We are not at the end of goodness. We are not at the end of democracy. We are not living in the most racist / sexist / ageist / classist / divisive / time ever.

How do I know? A solid knowledge of history is immensely helpful to put things into perspective. Does that mean there are no more challenges left? Of course not. But we need to approach these challenges in a way that is focused on solutions. We need to keep people in dialog, make change that is actually sustainably, and keep building coalitions.

If you seek change, you need to change hearts and minds, otherwise, you will only create resentment, and the change you seek will be undone easily. You do not build a house that is supposed to last for decades without a foundation, and you do not make political change without laying a solid, patient groundwork.

Patience is hard, especially if lives are at stake. Moderation is hard if there is a sense of urgency. I understand this completely. But unless the solution you seek can be allowed to wither away again, moderation is the key to success. Had Gandhi followed a different path than the one laid out by Thoreau in his “Resistance to Civil Government”, there would not have been Indian independence. Spartacus held the moral high ground till he allowed his followers to exert revenge on the Roman civilian population. Both Martin Luther King jr,. and Malcolm X expressed their righteous anger at racism, but both advocated for peaceful solutions eventually. Peace works violence (including verbal violence, and violence against objects and people) fails. The bomb may have ended the war, but the UN sustained the peace. There are plenty of other examples.

Moderation is true strength. Holding back anger, frustration, desperation and impatience is difficult, but it will pay off eventually. Giving in to these impulses looks superficially strong, but will discredit itself.

#42: Be the World You Want It to Be

Unhappiness with the world is abounding right now. There are always things that need improvement, issues that need to be addressed, change to be made.

But most importantly, within yourself lies the power of the future. Not to just create it, but to be it. You seek justice, be just. You seek peace, be peaceful. You seek equity, be equitable. You seek truth, be truthful. You seek love, be loving. You seek understanding, be understanding.

It is easy. It is hard. But it works.

The other way works too. Be obstinate, and obstinacy is the result. Be without respect, and you shall not have any. Be violent, and you will live in a world of violence.

When Kant said, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”, he also described that if you model a certain behavior, it will be normalized.

You want a better world? I assume you do. Be it. Show it. Now. We cannot wait for heaven, we need to bring heaven to earth right now. Our lives are too short.

#39: Free Speech is Absolute

The dividing line between a just society and barbarism is whether free speech is valued or not. With “free speech” I mean any speech, no matter how offensive. With protected, I mean that the only answer to speech you do not like shall be counter-speech. The truth will win out in an equal, peaceful, respectful exchange of ideas.

  • Equal, because we are all living beings on this planet, and in a dialogic situation, equality of discourse needs to be maintained by fostering equity. Free societies understand this principle – we will all be different, but in our most impactful moment of speech, our vote, we are all (ideally) the same.
  • Peaceful, because only an attitude of peacefulness will allow you to listen to somebody else, and also to your true self. Peace is non-aggression, love, true freedom, true strength; only by being at peace can you achieve it. Peace is absolute also: you are only peaceful if you talk in a soft voice, allow for rational arguments be exchanged, do not hurt other beings or things. Be the peace you seek.
  • Respectful, because you cannot pretend to be all-knowing, and need to realize that someone else may hold a different piece of the truth that you may disagree with, but it may still be true.
  • Exchange means that speech flows from person to person after each has been given ample time to make the best argument possible for their case. It also means that you should not mistake a person’s utterances for their true and steadfast opinion; it may just be an argument that needs to be discussed, whether heartfelt or not; also, people’s opinions change over time depending on the availability of convincing facts and interpretations.

Only week societies shut out other people for expressing ideas, holding beliefs, or for simply being obstinate to what may be considered acceptable or correct opinion. Strong societies relish the open exchange of ideas, right or wrong, offensive or inoffensive, in order to correctly gauge the political and cultural imaginary of the state, and to design policy accordingly, democratically, representatively, cautiously, and sustainably.

Only if everyone has a voice, and knows their voice will be taken seriously, and they will not be harmed for voicing it, will they be in a state of mind to listen to your arguments, if you have some, and give you a change to convince them otherwise. Or, you may be convinced by them. And so it will go, in an eternal circle of discourse; true democracy; true humanity; true utopia. (I think Habermas may be sighing somewhere).

The path of disallowing free speech, even in increments, and even if it starts with just a few things that are somehow seen as “offensive” by the few or the many, will lead further and further down the road, where new categories of offensiveness will be invented, and as a result, all speech will become unfree. The logical end point of the banning of speech has many names: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, in fact all Socialist/Communist states, especially currently the so-called “People’s Republic” of China. In such countries, there cannot be any criticism of injustice, intolerance, inequity, inequality, inhumanity.

Those of us in the West fighting against what we see as injustice should never look to become like that, but the road is very slippery. The fight for freedom and improvement cannot be won by curtailing the freedoms and limiting the paths to improvement of those you disagree with. Freedom of Speech is always the Freedom of the Speech of those we clearly disagree with – otherwise, we would need no such commandment.

But in its wisdom, all of democracy, all of justice, all of peace-building work is contained within the demand that freedom of speech must always be absolute.

#28: Violent Protest Does Not Work

That which is just is not always clearly defined. It depends on societal norms and philosophies, may be contingent on historical circumstances, and is always a compromise of the day. What we consider just may change throughout history, and may also change depending on perspective. Sometimes, what is justice today could be the complete opposite of what was considered justice yesterday. Occasionally, there cannot be agreement on justice at all.

But there are some things that we can justly consider constant. Versions of the Golden Rule can be found in all societies, at all times. Murder is typically considered wrong, so are theft, robbery, rape, adultery, the willful killing of civilians, excessive uses of violence without measure, as well as lying and dishonoring of parents (basically, whatever you find in the 10 Commandments that is not specifically religious). The list of historically and universally agreed-upon unacceptable behavior is, shockingly, not very long.

Some of the things we consider unjust today like slavery, child and elder abuse, sexual violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, nepotism and corruption, religious discrimination, genocide and many other things have once been – or can still be, in some areas – found to be justified, even though they violate contemporary democratic understandings of justice. The universal standard of human rights was agreed upon globally in the wake of the Holocaust, but even this standard is questioned occasionally.

What we consider just is thus an outcome of social and political developments. In democratic societies, the exercise of justice is a sine qua non, something we cannot do without. What we think of as just is the outcome of a complex consensus-building over many years, even centuries. This means that there is a standard of justice that is typically getting more – as some people would say – “evolved” over time. Typically, whatever is considered acceptable behavior, will become more and more refined, and will involve more and more people. A democratic republic can only exist if an overwhelming majority, unassailable by electoral whim, supports the underlying assumptions about justice.

A cornerstone of democratic society is civility – which is just a fancy Latin word for citizen-like behavior. A citizen is not a subject, but the smallest part of the people, which are also the sovereign. A citizen should thus follow the Kantian moral imperative by modelling ideal democratic and civic behavior every single day. As democracy is based upon consensus-building by citizens, non-violence is implied as the standard operating principle of citizens and institutions. Exceptions are institutions that the citizens agree upon, and which are allowed to exercise limited violence, such as the police and any other policing entities. But these entities are always subject to civilian, i.e. citizen control, even the military.

Civil, non-violent protest is one of the other cornerstones of democratic societies. There are good reasons to protest against injustice, and this fight is never over. But such protests need to follow the principle of “Civil Disobedience,” as laid out by Thoreau in his eponymous essay.

Every single protest movement that followed Thoreau’s insights has a chance to succeed. This pertains to Gandhi’s movement against the British colonizers, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King and others (both Gandhi and King followed Thoreau), the Solidarity movement in Poland and the peaceful revolutions against communism, including the protests against the Chinese tyranny on Tiananmen Square. What all these movements have in common is their moral unassailability; this is what made them successful. Tyrants hate such protests, because truly peaceful protests maintain the moral high ground and will eventually shape the understanding of what is justice, and what is injustice.

The demand for protest movements to remain peaceful, and to self-police against violent agitators, is a demand based not just on morality but especially on whether you want to be successful. Many things in our world are not the way they should be. Any movement that wants to make the world better, more equitable, more just, and more peaceful, needs to model these goals by its own actions.

That which is just is not always clearly defined. It depends on societal norms and philosophies, may be contingent on historical circumstances, and is always a compromise of the day. What we consider just may change throughout history, and may also change depending on perspective. Sometimes, what is justice today could be the complete opposite of what was considered justice yesterday. Occasionally, there cannot be agreement on justice at all.

But there are some things that we can justly consider constant. Versions of the Golden Rule can be found in all societies, at all times. Murder is typically considered wrong, so are theft, robbery, rape, adultery, the willful killing of civilians, excessive uses of violence without measure, as well as lying and dishonoring of parents (basically, whatever you find in the 10 Commandments that is not specifically religious). The list of historically and universally agreed-upon unacceptable behavior is, shockingly, not very long.

Some of the things we consider unjust today like slavery, child and elder abuse, sexual violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, nepotism and corruption, religious discrimination, genocide and many other things have once been – or can still be, in some areas – found to be justified, even though they violate contemporary democratic understandings of justice. The universal standard of human rights was agreed upon globally in the wake of the Holocaust, but even this standard is questioned occasionally.

What we consider just is thus an outcome of social and political developments. In democratic societies, the exercise of justice is a sine qua non, something we cannot do without. What we think of as just is the outcome of a complex consensus-building over many years, even centuries. This means that there is a standard of justice that is typically getting more – as some people would say – “evolved” over time. Typically, whatever is considered acceptable behavior, will become more and more refined, and will involve more and more people. A democratic republic can only exist if an overwhelming majority, unassailable by electoral whim, supports the underlying assumptions about justice.

A cornerstone of democratic society is civility – which is just a fancy Latin word for citizen-like behavior. A citizen is not a subject, but the smallest part of the people, which are also the sovereign. A citizen should thus follow the Kantian moral imperative by modelling ideal democratic and civic behavior every single day. As democracy is based upon consensus-building by citizens, non-violence is implied as the standard operating principle of citizens and institutions. Exceptions are institutions that the citizens agree upon, and which are allowed to exercise limited violence, such as the police and any other policing entities. But these entities are always subject to civilian, i.e. citizen control, even the military.

Civil, non-violent protest is one of the other cornerstones of democratic societies. There are good reasons to protest against injustice, and this fight is never over. But such protests need to follow the principle of “Civil Disobedience,” as laid out by Thoreau in his eponymous essay.

Every single protest movement that followed Thoreau’s insights has a chance to succeed. This pertains to Gandhi’s movement against the British colonizers, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King and others (both Gandhi and King followed Thoreau), the Solidarity movement in Poland and the peaceful revolutions against communism, including the protests against the Chinese tyranny on Tiananmen Square. What all these movements have in common is their moral unassailability; this is what made them successful. Tyrants hate such protests, because truly peaceful protests maintain the moral high ground and will eventually shape the understanding of what is justice, and what is injustice.

The demand for protest movements to remain peaceful, and to self-police against violent agitators, is a demand based not just on morality but especially on whether you want to be successful. Many things in our world are not the way they should be. Any movement that wants to make the world better, more equitable, more just, and more peaceful, needs to model these goals by its own actions.

#27: What is Peace?

Peace is not just the absence of war, it is not just the absence of violence, it is not just the absence of strife, it is not passivity.

Peace is the active practice of a state of mind that is at peace, that seeks peace, that acts in peace. That excludes violence both in action as in words. For that to happen, it needs peace at heart, it needs compassion, it needs humility, it needs grace.

Peace is not easy; it is the hardest thing to ever achieve and maintain. It requires strength, perseverance, and constancy. A peaceful person does not give in to negativity, does not yield to temptations of aggression, does not diminish others, even if they are wrong.

Peace can only be the goal if it is the path. That does not imply pacifism, but it means that even if you have to fight an enemy, you should do it with the goal of peace in mind. Any enemy of today will have to become a friend as soon as possible. We should never make reconciliation nor forgiveness impossible, but see them as the path out of the conflict. Every war is a war with ourselves, as we are all one. If we reject that unity, we have already lost; and once inner peace is lost, outer peace cannot be gained.

Gandhi knew that, King knew that, Thoreau knew that. Black Elk knew it, according to John Neihardt: “know the power that is peace”1.

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1 Black Elk, John G. Neihardt, Raymond J. DeMallie. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, the Premier Edition. SUNY Press, Oct 16, 2008. 27.

#4: How We Win

We can only win – in the long run – by setting a better example. We cannot aim to play the game the enemy is playing, we cannot criticize or condemn criminal behavior and then behave the same way, or in a way that can be seen the same whether we like it or not. If we cannot – in the Kantian sense – make the way we live an example for others, then we cannot expect others to follow our lead.

Peace brings peace, war brings war. It’s not that easy, sadly, as sometimes the wrong peace can allow for war, and the right war can create peace. Nothing is quite easy. Pacifism is not always the answer.

Yet it is how we do things that matters. How war is declared, waged, and ended, that’s the key. How peace is waged matters just as much.

If we are seeing ourselves on the side of reason and truth and justice and the best possible way forward for all of humanity, then we need to live these standards in the ways we are doing what we do.

Only then can we keep the moral high ground. Only then can we win hearts and minds, ours and those of the former enemy. Needing an enemy is not civilized behavior.

post scriptum

I have written this after the assassination of an Iranian general who has, by all we know, been involved in fostering non-peaceful causes, to say it mildly. He surely was not an innocent person, and yet, are such executions by drone really what communicates the best course of action? Similarly, are threats of retaliation by an Iranian government that has already promoted terror and war in the region the response of a party that would similarly seek peace? The above written text should apply to all. Let’s see – who will seriously be able to commit to peace? Let us pray, probably.