P is for… Pacifism

I happened to say the other day that pacifism is one of the few things left in my life which I really feel I take as an unexamined dogma. Almost everything else I’ve examined – in a philosophy classroom, in a Quaker Meeting, in a discussion in a pub – but to quite an extent I’m a pacifist because I was raised a pacifist, because I’ve always been a pacifist, because I think some people need to be pacifists.

That last one comes closest to being a reason. I’m a pacifist – a position I’ll freely admit is idealistic – because I think that some people need to hold on to ideals. There are ideals which others hold which would hurt me too much to contemplate (I can’t even try and imagine a world in which everyone has a job and is paid a living wage for it, because to think that such a thing is possible and also know that you are only time away from the disgrace of being on JobSeeker’s is too much to bear). I let living wage and citizen’s wage campaigners hold that vision for me. Meanwhile, I can imagine a world in which co-operation is more common, competition less valued, and physical violence a genuine last resort, used reluctantly in love. Furthermore, I can imagine a world in which we take the path of unilateral disarmament. I can’t quite imagine how we’ll get there, but I can hold onto the vision that it is possible.

When you say you’re a pacifist, people who aren’t tend to try and ask you hard questions, like ‘but wasn’t it right to fight the Nazis?’ and ‘what would you do if someone was attacking your sister/daughter?’ I do not have simple answers to these questions. In relation to the second one, I don’t have a sister or a daughter, and somewhat resent the implication that my father or brother should be stirred to violence in order to protect me. Why is this question always gendered that way? (Oh, hello there, patriarchy.) I read recently that Howard Marten, a Conscientious Objector in the First World War, replied to a question of this kind that like anyone else, he didn’t know what he would do in such a circumstance until it arose. All I can say is that on those occasions when I have been attacked or robbed, or felt that I was likely to be, I have tended to stay calm and quiet and try and keep moving out of the area. I’m not sure whether this is cowardice, common sense, or feminine socialisation, or a little of all three.

I tend to reject the historical premises of the first question. Why assume that Nazis were inevitable and we have to choose whether to fight or let them act as they will? My limited understanding of the historical situation is that Nazism arose from ancient roots which happened to flourish in the economic and political circumstances which were created by the previous war – which in turn was not inevitable but created by previous circumstances. Perhaps that kind of hatred is like knot weed, able to survive as a tiny piece or deep underground, and then regrowing from that piece when the conditions are right. Like knot weed, it should be cut down – but a political view is not a person, and physical violence may not be the way forward. In any case, I cannot know what I would have done if I’d be alive then, and I’m more interested in asking what we can do new.

At this juncture it’s traditional to tell the story about the boxer who was a CO. He’s in prison, and some of the other guys are asking him why he’s a pacifist, since he’s clearly not afraid of fighting. He asks them why they think war will work, and one of them says, “Sometimes you can only change someone’s mind with violence.”

“Okay,” says the boxer, and swings for him, landing a punch square on his jaw. The other guy comes back at him immediately, but the boxer catches his fist and says, “Hang on a minute. Tell me, did that change your mind?”

(I believe this is a true-ish story, but I don’t know where it’s from and I have retold a retelling from memory with attention to story rather than fact.)

I can tell that this post is rambling now – I have written the next paragraph two or three times, each time with totally different material, none of it really about pacifism. I can’t really find anything else to say. Why am I a pacifist? Because I think that war is wrong.


One response to “P is for… Pacifism

  1. Pingback: T is for… Testimonies | Brigid, Fox, and Buddha

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