Nonviolence Is the Essence of Democracy
by Stephanie N. Van Hook
“The voice of the people should be the voice of God.” — M.K. Gandhi
The prophetic proclamation of the death of God by Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘madman with a lantern’ continues to stir the imaginations of Western society over a century and a half later: “God is dead. God is dead and we killed him.”
I probably first read this scrawled on a building in Paris, and later, sitting in a circle in a room of eager philosophy students in Virginia. This ‘revelation’ from a madman ostensibly conjures the end of religion or the end of morality as immanent, given the trajectory of a society growing new roots in the rocky soil of the machine: destitute, desacralized, and alienated.
I could imagine another story, one where we are left with the burden of ensuring that God does not return, as a mythical explanation for why we kill human beings, most recently Osama bin Laden, before him Saddam Hussein, before him Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy — not to mention the nameless hundreds a day in wartime collaterally, directly, and structurally. We raise killers in our children with violent programs, toys, and values; still not enough for the sacrificial fires of a dehumanized world. We are on the same path these days with democracy. Isn’t it time to change our course?
I feel like walking down the streets of this small northern California town screaming, “Democracy is dead, and we killed it!” I imagine I would get some strange looks, and perhaps, some screams back. Something to the tune of, “We live in a democracy!” or the converse. This is the problem: our reliance on a materialist worldview emerging from industrial increase in productivity has led us to believe that democracy is a structure, something we can live in, like subsidized housing or a corporation’s headquarters. It is not.
Democracy is not a state (nor is it a State in any official use of the word); it is an organizing principle requiring ongoing action and pressure on our elected officials to build and maintain the world that we want to live in. We do not “live in a democracy” just because we have the guarantee of fundamental human rights (sometimes respected, other times ignored), or because women have the right to vote or that all sexual orientations can now serve openly in the armed forces. Democracy is a dynamic, living process whose ends are freedom, justice, and liberty. It is more than a ballot. We live democracy, and we can only protect it by living it.
This is why Gandhi proclaimed that nonviolence is intrinsically democratic, as it is compatible with the ends sought by the democratic process. Nonviolence allows not only for our desired ends to emerge, it changes the way we think about the world. At its best, it can lead the individual to arrive at a higher state of consciousness — to see our most treasured principles, and human beings as something other than mere physical objects, something other than consumers with a violent nature who can only understand violence. It is only through nonviolence that we are led to truly begin to grasp the interconnected nature of our world — the way we must challenge our beliefs and habits to decide whether we build prisons or hospitals for the next generation.
Nonviolence draws its force from the changes each individual cultivates in herself or himself. When we question why, for example, we find our public representatives in bed with corporations, or why they decide to wage war for oil and other natural resources, it becomes clear that in spite of our vision of a peaceful tomorrow, we have the representatives we deserve, who work to serve our interests as they — and we — understand them: we are interested in making money; we are interested in driving long distances unnecessarily and flying across the world for pleasure and culture.
When we question ‘why’, we need look no further than our own habits and addictions on a large scale: every product bought, every gallon of gasoline, every disposable computer screen is a silent vote for their production and rapid availability by whatever means necessary. If we want to exercise democracy, we start with ourselves, with the silent votes we cast. Our collective voice is in the sum total of our actions.
Have our habits given any sign that we are no longer under a government protecting those deadly interests of our culture? I am not convinced. The recent four-year renewal of the Patriot Act, for instance, is a sign of the on-going Islamophobia of average US citizens. I’ve had questions asked of me in talks, “What are we going to do about Islam?” and I know that questions like this are representative of a significant number of others who think in this way. But it is not possible to appropriate democracy (or freedom, or security) to one population and deny it another; we only prevent the principle thereby from expressing itself in positive, constructive change.
Langston Hughes once said, “I swear to the Lord , I still can’t see why democracy means everybody but me.” Rosa Parks stood up (by sitting down) and showed the world that democracy includes everyone — or it includes no one. Democracy means that we always have a choice. It implies that we are responsible for exercising that choice. As Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
We can’t be neutral and live democracy; we cannot keep silent. We must make our collective voice — and actions — too strong to ignore. We must allow it to encourage us to action, to constantly create — and recreate — a more perfect union. And union is what will get us there.
By moving away from the inertia that seduces us to take the easy road of passive violence, by choosing the path of selfless service to our planet and our species, we wake ourselves up from the dream of separation fed to us by the consumer mass media; otherwise, we deny ourselves the highest forms of happiness and love that can never be bought or sold. Let’s collectively change the American dream: one day we will end the killing of others and hatred toward others and seek the true promise of democracy — the ability to perfect and effect change in ourselves. The next time a ‘madman’ appears, he will prophesize something so possible, so hopeful, that our lives will never again be the same, and the Earth will breath a sigh of relief: “Greed is dead, and we killed it.”
Stephanie N. Van Hook is co-Director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Petaluma, CA. She can be reached at: stephanie (at) mettacenter.org.