Thursday, November 03, 2005

Living a Better World into Being

One of the most effective nonviolent strategies for transforming an unjust system into a just one is to perform actions that symbolize the better world you are trying to bring into being.

For example, one of the PBS video segments from "A Force More Powerful" shows students in Nashville organizing and participating in the lunch counter sit-ins in 1960. What were they upset about? Not being able to sit at lunch counters. What was their nonviolent action? To sit at lunch counters. Of course, it is not as simple as it sounds. The strategy required careful planning and preparation to be effective. But the concept was simple: they lived the better world into being.

This is a very powerful concept. When you face injustice and want something to change, think carefully about how you would like it to be. And then ask: is there a way I (and/or my group) can live true to this vision of justice I have?

Too often when people are upset with something, they try to find people to blame and then set about trying to punish those "bad" people. And very often that strategy simply does not work -- because people don't like to be cast as bad or to be punished, and so they tend to retaliate.

So what if instead you simply pretend that the problem is already fixed, and the situation is already just, and live accordingly? This means living true to your own rights with graciousness and dignity, and expecting everyone else to respond with respect and dignity in return.

This is what the students did. Well dressed and carrying their school books, they quietly walked in, sat at lunch counters, and when they were refused service, they pulled out their books and worked on their homework. For a while, nothing more happened. Then, one day, the police pounced and arrested them. The police did not behave with dignity -- they moved in with unnecessary aggressiveness, betraying their own fear and anxiety. It was clear from the film footage that the students had no intention of fighting back. They walked calmly out to the police cars, if they could. If they couldn't (because they were being beat up) they simply took the blows without fighting back until the police were too embarrassed to continue. So the police looked ridiculous, and the students maintained the moral upper hand, and that was one of the main reasons for their success. When it came down to it, the mayor had to admit that there was no good reason to maintain the segregation.

The students had quietly and with dignity demonstrated the irrationality of segregation. By living with dignity themselves, they eventually drew out the reciprocal dignity of their former oppressors. Everyone benefitted, in the end, because in oppressive, unjust systems, it is not just the oppressed who are disadvantaged, but the oppressors too are diminished in such a system.

So, the students lived a better world into being.

We all need to keep asking ourselves: to what extent do we, in our daily lives, bow to injustice and let it continue on, either by accepting the indignity of being oppressed, or by accepting the indignity of playing oppressor roles?

What can we do instead to live a more just world into being?


  1. I like this way of looking at it.

    I'm thinking of starting an alternative newspaper at my college. The culture here is pretty homophobic, so that's something the paper should address. I wonder if there's a way it can do so in the way you suggest (rather than by just denouncing the college culture as homophobic).

  2. Glad you found this useful! I think it is a great idea to base an alternative newspaper on these kinds of principles.

    Maybe a good approach would be: in general, write assuming your college is open, thoughtful, accepting -- writing true to the vision of how you wish things were. Doing so can be very powerful, conveying confidence (instead of defensiveness) about one's vision.

    But if then things happen that are troublesome, write news reports simply describing what happened -- including an honest (not blaming, just descriptive) assessment of the effect of what happened. And in editorials, add thoughtful reflections on how it might have been handled differently, or how to solve the underlying problem, etc.

    A very helpful book is Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. While it focuses on interpersonal relationships, the principles can be generalized to other kinds of communication.

    Rosenberg offers kind of a general formula, that goes something like this:

    When you do _______, it makes me feel _______; could you instead do _________?

    For the first "blank," it has to be just descriptive and not blaming: describing actions without suggesting that the person is horrible or meant to do harm. The second has to be an honest description of the impact of that behavior on you (again, not making assumptions about the other person's intentions). And, finally, the suggestion should be a request, not a demand.

    What is powerful about this kind of approach is that it is less likely to put others on the defensive -- it helps them to learn the effects of their actions and offers them specific ideas about changes they could consider making, but respectfully leaves the choice up to them.

    Approaches like this are more likely to bring about positive change than aggressive approaches that put others on the defensive.