Responding to Violence with Compassion

The big question is how? Meaning how are we as a race and as individuals to respond to violence in a way that is both non-violent and preventative of further violence? This is probably the most difficult question in formulating any philosophy of compassion or love.

Let’s break my current answer into a few more manageable pieces:

As a race: This is by far the easier one, because general rules are much easier to formulate than ones which allow for individual differences. Humanity is a race, and if we were to respond collectively to all violence, my exhortation would be this: Love at all costs. The compassion we can generate as a species is more important than our race’s survival.

This does not mean mass suicide to save the rest of the planet from ourselves, for that misses the point: we are just as worthy of compassion as everything else. It does mean that we as a species need to love and heal as much as we can, even if such actions somehow result in the side effect of our extinction (and I very much doubt that such would result). I urge this because the alternative, survival without compassion and love, is as equally pointless as mass suicide, as also leads eventually to extinction. Better extinction with compassion than without. So as a race: Love hard. Heal whatever we can.

Is there a middle ground? Can we just love and have compassion a little bit? No. Compassion and love know no selectivity. To love and have compassion only a little is to withhold it from someone or something, and no person or thing anywhere is undeserving.

Even mosquitos? Well, maybe if we have enough compassion on the bats then the mosquito population will take care of itself.

As individuals: OK, so love hard. Heal whatever you can.  But what about violence against you personally or against others around you? Compassion on yourself and others requires preventing such violence, and compassion on the perpetrators requires not using the same violence to prevent it.

Of course, a general rule such as “Use whatever nonviolent means possible to prevent violence, and when faced with either violence or death, choose whichever feels more truly compassionate” begs further questions, and is complicated by the manifold and varied beliefs people hold about death and/or the afterlife. Also,the phrase “whatever nonviolent means” is pretty vague and impractical.

One thing I do believe though: If love and compassion are practiced as habits, we as individuals will get to know them well enough that responding to violence can become a matter of intuition; we can let our habits take over, and see what actions they lead us to. I’ve been blessed to lead a life mostly free of any physical violence being imposed on me, which is by far the hardest type of violence to respond to, but I see all violence as symptoms of a larger hurt, a hurt we may never fully understand. And therefore, I see the solution to violence as the habit of desiring (and acting) to heal all hurts that we are able to, in whatever situation we find ourselves.

It may not answer all of the logical nooks and crannies that a well-formulated philosophy seems to demand, but why should love and compassion have to be logically formulated anyway? The important thing is to get into loving and compassionate habits before violence shows up. If you’re already facing violence, trust your intuition. I believe that all humans are, at their deepest level, loving and compassionate beings, and that we have access to these things with or without philosophy. Our deepest intuitions will lead us there. Love and compassion are already in you. All you have to do is use them.

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6 Responses to Responding to Violence with Compassion

  1. John Dunham says:

    If I may pick up where you left off, the central question for me becomes, how do I as an individual practice compassion towards all others when my race, as a habit, practices violence towards each other and the world we share?
    Certainly, there are those who choose to practice compassion, and those who choose to practice violence. I feel obliged to prevent the latter from doing violence against the former. How do I do so non-violently? Which of course begs the question, what is violence? I have to consider the possibility that violence and force are not synonymous in this case–though use of force can certainly be a violation, violence can also be done without using physical force. For my part, I choose to consider violence to be the violation of another, or more precisely of their right to be. There is a definite balance of give and take whereby natural creatures kill to live, or edge out other natural creatures, causing them to die. Is this violence? Not, I think, if these creatures cannot live another way. As human beings, we are within the ecosystem bound to live in a way that kills others–whether directly, by harvesting plants of animals for food, or indirectly, by living on land that other creatures compete with us for. This, in itself, need not be violence. What is? I think compassion holds the key–if we are compassionate towards the creatures that compete with us, we have respect for the balance between us and take only what we need to live. If we have no respect for the balance and no compassion for our competitors, we take more than we need, up to and including all there is, without remorse. We eliminate our competitors because we do not recognize their right to be as equal to our own. We carry this attitude into our own species and our corporate mentality, that the profits of our immediate corporation outweigh our responsibility to our communities. Indeed, communities are not respected as having an equal right to be. This is violence. So violence, then, is to act in our own interest, above and beyond our needs, with an absence of compassion for those we are violating.
    Now, how do I practice compassion towards others even when they are violating the world around them? Do I stop them by force? Is there a way to prevent them from violating the world without violating them? To bring ourselves, as a race, to a place of living with compassion is to therefore change the entire foundation of our society, from one of consumption and exploitation far beyond our needs to one of minimalist living and respect for others and our world. As we begin this change, how do we prevent those who refuse to change from destroying those who are willing, without compromising our own compassion? How do I practice nonviolence and compassion without allowing or tolerating the destructive actions of my society? And as it comes to this, what nonviolent means have I to prevent them from continuing their violence? Because truly, this violence must be stopped, NOW, before all that remains is gone.
    This is rather the central question for me at the moment. How do I force this culture to change, nonviolently?

    • cmdrquack says:

      It’s a good question. I don’t believe that one person alone has the power to force a culture to change, and that I believe is the key – people have to work together. You mention both communities and competitors, and both are crucial concepts. Community can be a far more powerful force than an individual can. Communities can influence both individuals and other communities.

      As for the force part, I’m starting to think that nothing truly beneficial can ever really be accomplished through force. Force asserts one will over another, but does nothing to actually change the will it imposes. The tired metaphor of leading a horse to water is apt here. The only way for a culture, in my mind, to be uprooted from its foundations and take root in a different place, one of compassion, is by choice. Both individuals and communities need to make choices to live more compassionately. Only then will culture change.

      We can’t force that choice on them, but if ecosystem continues to accelerate its dying, humanity will very shortly be forced to choose between living the way we live now, and living more compassionately. By then, the choice will be easy. But will it be too late? That’s where a bit of faith comes in. I believe that love and compassion are not simply ways of living, but are powerful forces in and of themselves, and when we use them diligently, they can transform the world around us. Depending on your level of exposure to the unending stream of difficult news in the world, believing this may be difficult, but I am convinced that the worse things look, the harder we need to love.

      So I don’t see myself as needing to force those who would destroy the world into stopping – I have no way I know of finding and talking to such people. But if I know who they are, and even if I don’t, the one thing I can do is love them, feel compassion for them, and believe that love and compassion have the power to accomplish what needs to be done. This may sound like a cop out, but I feel that the consumption-based power systems of the world are very soon going to break down, and if those of us who love hard and compassionately work enough in that time, the new systems that take their place will be good. You know well that the current systems will break, because they’re unsustainable. I believe that will happen exactly when it needs to, and in the meantime, creating as much love and compassion as possible is the best work I can do – it is laying the beginnings of the new foundation, one that culture will switch to when it’s ready.

      Be well.

      • John Dunham says:

        I used to think that–and I still choose to act as if that is the case, whether I fully believe it or not. I think we’ve already passed the tipping point to catastrophic system failure, but there’s no way to be certain, so I must act as if our choices still have relevance. That is an act of faith.
        But outside of the large scale, I still feel the need to stop the violation of others, whether the violators choose to stop or not. That is what I mean by an act of force–not forcing them to change minds, but to change actions. If I interrupt an assailant and prevent him from injuring another, that is force–is it therefore not a good thing? If a woman resists rape, even to the point of having to hurt her attacker to stop him, is that bad because it is force? I do not think so. If an activist climbs a tree to force a logging company not to cut it, and succeeds but is violated and attacked by police in the course of it, both parties have used force, but only one I think has committed violence. Where is the line? That is what I do not know.

      • cmdrquack says:

        Hmm. You do make good points about force preventing bad things from happening. Perhaps looking for a line between them isn’t the best metaphor, as it’s about the quality of the force used more than anything else – or, in other words, the intent behind the force. To illustrate: Self-defense is motivated by the desire to prevent violence against oneself. It intends not specifically to harm the other so much as to prevent harm to oneself. If, in a physical fight, the primary motivation for hurting another shifts from preventing one’s own hurt to causing hurt to the other, then it becomes violence. The actions themselves matter less than their motivations.

        Is it possible to do violence with intentions of love or compassion? I don’t think so. Love and compassion demand, at the least, respect for the life of another. I believe this is because all life is connected, and love and compassion demand respect for the whole of life. Now, as you pointed out, humans need to at least kill plants to survive, and sometimes animals too depending on the situation. Can this be violence? It can be if the intention is malicious. But if the killing of vegetables for food, for instance, is done respectfully, both with respect for the plant itself and for its survival as a species, no violence has been committed.

        Now, it is possible to kill another human being respectfully, and in way that is affirming of their intrinsic worth as a living thing? That’s where things get fuzzy for me too. My instinct is that the answer is yes, but at the same time it sounds a bit self-contradicting. Supposed “kill-or-be-killed” scenarios come up endlessly in philosophy, and sometimes in life, but I’m starting to be of the mind that such situations rarely offer any possibility of a loving outcome, and that once in a given situation, there is no action which is compassionate toward both parties. Or if there is, I don’t yet know what that action would be.

        But the overall answer for me is this: Violence has a malicious intent. Love and compassion, by definition, do not. The point where an intention becomes malicious is knowable only by the individual.

  2. John Dunham says:

    Now we’re getting on the same page. But I think violence need not have malicious intent so much as a lack of any consideration for the existence of the other beyond how it can serve you–in other words, selfish intent. Malice implies hate, or strong feeling against, the violated, but so much violation in our culture seems to happen without any particular malice, just as a matter of course. Certainly loggers do not hate trees, BP does not hate the gulf of mexico, and large corporations do not hate the indigenous peoples whom they kill incidentally by taking their land and growing things like chocolate, coffee, etc. But these are still acts of violence because they kill large numbers of people and animals without any respect of even consideration. So, I think I must modify violence to be a use of force with malicious or narcissistic intent. This still defines it quite apart from love and compassion, so I think it is just an articulation of nuance here. But on the point of nuance, I think violence need not be an act of force–at least not physical force. It is possible, with malice, to do emotional violence to people around you, without use of physical force, by observing the same weaknesses compassion would assuage and using those weaknesses to cause distress or despair. I still call that violence–almost BECAUSE it lacks compassion. I think you are quite right when you say it is not possible to do violence with love and compassion–they are antithetical.

    But let me address the kill-or-be-killed scenario for a moment. I agree with you that this is, at best, a rare case. At least, I have never encountered one, and I rather expect that the only way I could get into one would be to start out with an intention of killing. How else could I pass by what must be dozens of opportunities to anticipate and avoid such a circumstance? I cannot in my mind construct anything more that a flimsy excuse for such a thing to occur without my having a chance to stop it. What, my house is broken into by an angry man with a gun who has every intention of killing me and I happen to have a gun to respond with and become aware of him only as he says “I’m going to kill you and nothing short of death will stop me.” He raises his gun to fire and I raise mine in defense; but I would never shoot to kill him in that circumstance. So my intent would be for both of us to survive the encounter, and if he died it would be because I wasn’t a good enough shot to wound him. Which is possible, because I haven’t had much practice. But then, still, I would be trying my hardest to act with compassion, to stop him from killing me but without killing him… so I would still be acting with compassion. And in any scenario short of this hyperbolic hitman, I expect that I would have more options than just to kill. Even here, where I set out to create a reasonable circumstance where I would have to kill, I failed. But lets say its a whole gang trying to kill me, and I am such a bad shot that I dare not shoot to wound. Still, I may choose to surrender and hope that they do not kill me, but if they do, I have acted compassionately towards them and myself. I did my best, and offered them the same choice. So really, I think one might as well not philosophize about unrealistic scenarios unless they provide some serious illumination of a moral point. I use them only to test moral ideas, to see how sound they might be, and in this case using the kill-or-be-killed idea to test the concept of compassion is a bit like testing the theory of gravity by saying “well, how would you apply gravity to an anti-gravity material?” Unless you’ve actually got some, its probably silly.

    But going back to the use of force after that little digression, what do you think of the application of non-lethal force when used to prevent the use of lethal force against others? This scenario is not at all academic; consider Egypt and Libya recently. In one case, other nations declined to intervene, despite protestors being beaten to death, and in the other, they decided to effectively invade when protestors were beaten to death. Leaving aside that our intervention in Libya was probably to stabilize the oil market and not to protect the innocent, would the second motive have been compassionate? Could it have been exercised compassionately? Lethal force was used, but could it have been avoided? I think yes, if our military had spent the last hundred years developing ways NOT to kill people instead of ways to kill people bigger and harder. What about the smaller scale, where people stage sit-ins or pickets to shut down businesses–an act of force, but one that leaves an engagement of force to the other. That sort of force is tolerated by our society. The sort of force that is not tolerated by our society is force against the property of those who are doing violence. As framed by Derrick Jensen in “The Culture of Make-Believe” (which is really a 700-page meditation on the whole issue of hatred, prejudice and violence as it plays out in our society), the property of those in power is more important than the lives of those who obstruct the system. In other words, if you force those who violate not to do so, they will kill you. That does not address the issue of whether it is moral to use force, even non-lethal force, against these people. But people have been beaten, raped, shot, mutilated, or imprisoned for life for such seemingly non-violent acts as burning an SUV (killing no one), climbing a tree to prevent logging (killing no one), refusing to do business with a large corporation (killing no one), being black (killing no one), attempting to overthrow US-backed dictators (non-lethally), declaring themselves an independent country (Vietnam anyone?) and so on and so on and so on.

    This is why I have a problem with the standard definition of non-violence as passive resistance without the use of force. Passive resistance does not end violence in many cases. A picket line in front of a Nike store does not close a sweatshop. A vote does not prevent war, or even prevent my taxes from paying for war. Passive resistance by individuals and even small groups is tolerated by a system of violence and exploitation precisely BECAUSE it is ineffective. Passive resistance is only effective on an even scale–one individual to one individual, one group to a comparable group, one nation to another nation. Which means in order to end this system of violence and exploitation, you must, I think, not resist it so much as supplant it–with another system, of compassion and respect. Only when one system can resist the other system will passive resistance be effective. But in the meantime, small-scale conflicts will arise between the incipient system and the pervasive system. These will happen between individuals and the whole, small groups and the whole. Passive resistance is useful as a tool for calling attention to things, but not so much for changing them. Only when there is pressure do they change. If everyone stops buying any cars that get less than 100 mpg, there will be immediate change. If a small group does this, not so much. If, however, that group manages the herculean effort of changing mpg regulations, they can force a change. Not passive, also possibly effective. If you do not want a business to level a local park, you can try just asking–but most likely you will have to use some form of force. Either direct, by occupying the park and refusing to allow it (they will use force to remove you), or by gaining the support of the whole community and bringing that pressure to bear on the business. But now we are talking about force in more general terms, in the sense of taking away a choice from another, not only physically but also socially. One is acceptable in standard definitions of non-violence, one is not. But I think they are the same. And really, it is tolerated by the system to appeal to a higher
    authority within the system, but it is not tolerated to decline to recognize the authority of the system. That is why they will use force to remove you if you occupy the park, and they will beat you if you decline to be removed, and kill you if you decline to be beaten. Force is the choice tool of the system when you try to obstruct it in any way.

    I have kept going for a while here because I haven’t reached an endpoint in this train of thought. Force seems such a dangerous thing to get into, because it is effective in the moment but has larger consequences as well. Because it may be compassionate or not, selfish or not, justifiable or not, depending wholly on the situation. I think, perhaps, that use of force is not a thing to be talked about generally in the same way that the question of killing another cannot be talked about generally. Compassion is a relation between people, and so if we strive to practice it in all things, we cannot in a blanket way say that force can be used, or can never be used. That killing can ever be compassionate, or never. I think there are times for both, and not, but to determine when requires an understanding of the people you are relating to in the moment. “Kill or be killed” doesn’t work for compassion because it abstracts the other into a killer and asks you to similarly abstract yourself into killer or killed. I think force gets equated with violence and thus is abstracted by those who practice non-violence into something unacceptable, when the real question should be why, against whom, and for what reason? This must be the compassionate choice of a moment, not an overall standard.

    • cmdrquack says:

      Congratulations on making a comment which I think is longer than the post itself!

      My response to it is that I think I agree, and I think the questions you’ve arrived at are indeed good ones to be asked. In a time when the movement toward compassion is growing, the formative periods are of special importance. Much appreciation for sharing your thoughts here.

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