Saturday, April 18, 2009

The organization of (non)violence

Both Gandhi and the Palestinans have come up in conversation here recently, so I have to post this: The Missing Mahatma: Searching for a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King in the West Bank, by Gershom Gorenberg (who blogs at South Jerusalem, which is where I found this). It takes a look at the (fairly dim) prospects of Palestinians taking up the strategy of nonviolence that was successful in the hands of Gandhi and King. He finds a few figures in the Palestinian world who might have taken up that role, but for the most part any movements in that direction have been sabotaged, either by more violent Palestinian factions or by Israel. Saints are in short supply.

This fits into my own intermittent thinking on polarization and the dynamics of conflict. Peacemakers are a threat to those who proft from war on both sides. I previously noted that there are standard intra-group conflicts between warmakers and peacemakers. In this particular case, because of the control one side has over the others' affairs, warmakers in Israel were able to reach across the conflict and sabotage a potential peacemaker on the other side.

The mechanics and dynamics of group solidarity and group conflict seem endlessly fascinating, the kind of thing that raises interesting questions that most people can't even recognize as issues. It seems perfectly natural that Israel and Arabs should go to war, or France and Germany should go to war. But "Israel" and "the Arabs" are composed of individuals, who have or ought to have their own goals and agendas. What makes people ready to sacrifice themselves for a group? Suicide bombing is only an extreme case; every solider has been convinced (or coerced) to risk his life for the good of a larger whole. The extroardinary level of social cooperation in humans is matched in the animal kingdom only by the social insects. They too, spend a lot of their energy on war. But the level of cooperation in ants and bees has a genetic explanation. Human groupings, for war and more noble purposes, rely on something else, something that can make abstraction seem worth dying for.

Reflecting on my current sniping with Gagdad Bob and his minions. My mild efforts to tone down the conflict have been unsuccessful. We are bitterly insulting each other, the internet equivalent of war, and over what? Abstractions called "left" and "right", which can't even be defined consistently. Nonetheless they are terribly real in their effects. So is the abstraction called "God", another cause of many a war:

Which led me to this piece, which I remembered reading when I was 12 years old or so.
The only thing that's been a worse flop than the organization of nonviolence has been the organization of violence.
The years have not diminished its shocking clarity.


Ben Hyde said...

Tilly's book is excellent on the social dynamics that give rise to collective violence. There is also a nice bit in Jane Jacob's _The Question of Separatism_[2] which raises a troubling point that once you achive separation your leaders are at a loss what to use to create solidarity, so they turn the knob up even further. Armed with these insights the finger pointing becomes a sideshow and it's all about how what Tilly calls violence entrepeurs are working to highten the polarization. That's all the talk of Texas sucession is. - ben hyde


mtraven said...

Thanks for the references, those look excellent.

annoyance said...
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Michael said...

Your remark that 'any movements in that [non-violent] direction have been sabotaged, either by more violent Palestinian factions or by Israel' fails to take another very significant factor into account, namely the Muslim governments of Israel's neighbors and of countries still farther afield.

Can it reasonably be denied that 'violent Palestinian factions' are substantially, perhaps even mainly, proxies of such countries as Syria and Iran? How much of the constant violence in or around Israel would not have taken place if those violent factions were not supplied with weapons, money, and other encouragements by the rest of the Islamic world? And of course Israel is viewed in like terms by the Islamic world as a proxy of the United States.

Michael said...

A further thought, on the subject of Gandhi: Let's remember that however strenuously he advocated non-violence, the achievement of India's independence (for which he is largely to be credited) was marked by horrific and bloody tumults - one consequence of which was his own death. The partition of the subcontinent into the present states of India and Pakistan was followed by continuing hostility between the two, leading both to develop nuclear arsenals; and while India is now a somewhat functional parliamentary democracy, Pakistan must honestly be called a dysfunctional state. I suspect that if Gandhi could see what has become of his accomplishment, he would not be well pleased. Not only are saints in short supply, but their cherished hopes most often come a-cropper in the hands of ordinary people, the vast mass of whom are far from saintly.