Choosing Nonviolence in the 21st Century

Dr Anna Alomes

Director World Institute for Nonviolence and Reconciliation

Magazine Article: Theosophy in Australia, June 2006

No matter how much we wish to achieve a sense of peace and happiness, the rapid pace of life and the daily rate of change can leave us feeling confused as to whether this is at all possible in 21st century.

I would like to offer a few observations from the UN on the present state of conflict in the world and the need to choose a nonviolent alternative: “Recent events have unleashed waves of change, with the new information and communication technologies, the new global rules and institutions and the accelerating global economic integration. With the end of the cold war, the political, economic and social landscape is changing rapidly and radically. This new context opens unparalleled new opportunities. But it also gives rise to new threats to human security and human freedom. The number of major armed conflicts peaked at 55 in 1992, and contrary to many impressions, later declined. Even so, there were 36 major conflicts in 1998. An estimated 5 million people died in intrastate conflicts in the 1990’s. Globally in 1998, there were more than 10 million refugees and 5 million internally displaced persons. The number of deaths and displacements alone greatly understates the human rights violations in these conflicts, with widespread rape and torture. All rights for all people in all countries should be the goal of the 21st century. The Universal Declaration had that vision more than 50 years ago. The world today has the awareness, the resources and the capacity to achieve this goal on a worldwide scale”[1].

All around the world people are being asked to reflect on the most important of all human values: compassion, universal responsibility, tolerance and understanding. We should look underneath these qualities and notice the role of the individual in social transformation, the relationship between the human mind and human action, and the urgency in a world of threat and fear to move toward a higher achievement. Developing a nonviolent mind, is not only possible, but becomes an essential ingredient in moving urgently toward the achievement of peace on a worldwide scale. It is a goal that can be achieved by an individual in the space of a lifetime requiring no prior special training and can be embarked upon immediately — although the practice will require time and effort.

The benefits to the individual include achieving an immediate sense of calm, reduced levels of stress and frustration, an increased sense of well-being and self worth, and the capacity and genuine desire to assist others. Moving toward this new state positively impacts on the family, workplace and the wider community. I will argue here, that human evolution is a work in progress, and in order to progress we must turn away from violence toward nonviolence.

We should consider the need for a nonviolent mind in the first place by examining the present world context — the scope of the threat and the manifestations of violence [including terrorism and internecine violence, violence against the person, rape and torture as the instruments of war as well as the impact on women and children]. The world is looking for hope and progress but seems to be more insecure than ever before. Deadly conflict has become a prominent feature of the transition period from the Cold War to the 21st century. With over 30 active internal conflicts and scores more potential trouble spots within and between states, the international community is anxiously asking itself whether and how such deadly conflicts can be prevented.

Searching for an answer to these questions, the Carnegie Commission’s ‘Preventing Deadly Conflict’ report [NY 1997] came to this conclusion that: deadly conflict is not inevitable; the need to prevent it is increasingly urgent; and preventing it is possible.’ The prevention of deadly conflict, the report argues, ‘is over the long term, too hard intellectually, technically, and politically to be the responsibility of any single institution or government, no matter how powerful. Strengths must be pooled, burdens shared, and labour divided among actors’. And I will argue that it is in fact the responsibility of each one of us. Tibetan Nobel Peace Laureate, HH the Dalai Lama in a recent address in Scotland[2] reflects on the fact that every aspect of our life, now more than ever before is interconnected and therefore, the responsibility of promoting a civilized society rests with each individual. He says: “The ultimate responsibility for change lies within oneself”.

Although, behind the surface differences of life experience, skin colour, religious beliefs and cultural background we all strive for happy lives devoid of suffering and anxiety, we have all been saddened by the recent violent action in the world. While the Twentieth Century has been recorded as the most violent in the history of humankind, conflict will always be with us, and in the Twenty First Century we must break the pattern, and learn the skills required to solve conflict nonviolently.

To achieve this we need to look at the ethical basis of violence and nonviolence. Violence and nonviolence originate in the mind of the person and the ways of generating a nonviolent mind provide us today with a way to move forward with hope. It is entirely up to each individual whether he or she will respond to others with violent or nonviolent actions. Through some of the examples provided by our icons of peace in the 21st century, we see that violence goes beyond physical force and has subtle extensions in thought, speech and intentions. We can act on this immediately to make changes in society and ourselves. We cannot logically condemn acts of violence by those perceived to be our ‘enemies’ on the one hand, and attempt to justify acts of violence by ‘friends’ on the other. It is all the same violent action and all causes harm. We must work to remedy the causes of violence like intolerance of difference, hatred, anger, religious and cultural intolerance, narrow nationalism, environmental degradation and economic disparity[3]. Your role in taking the small steps toward tolerance and peacebuilding is vitally important.

In the past decade, the number of peacebuilders working at all levels of society in places of ethnic and civil conflicts around the world has mushroomed. The contribution of civilians whether working from the bottom up or the top down, to resolving the conflicts of our time, can no longer be ignored. Churches, women’s organizations, the media and business have all demonstrated their potential for building peace. So too, the role of education, the arts and sports is gaining increasing recognition. Multitrack diplomacy is flourishing and providing a major reason for the hope of a more peaceful world.

‘This hope is embedded, [as one of the thinkers on peacebuilding and reconciliation, John Paul Ledarch, writes] in the resiliency of people…who in spite of decades of obstacles and violence keep taking steps toward peaceful coexistence’. Hope is also embedded in the fact that the second half of the 20th century, though rife with violent conflict, engendered the most prolific advancement of nonviolent conflict transformation activities systematically known in human history, setting the stage for a potential singularity of peacebuilding in the 21st century.

We need to examine the idea of moving away from violence and toward the practice of nonviolence and give serious consideration to the practicality of achieving a nonviolent society. Several understandings will support these ideas: first, it is important to notice that violence doesn’t seep through the air conditioning system, it begins in the mind of people. It can be seen in each one of us in our thought, speech and physical action. We can’t immediately create world peace or make an impact on the violence endured by refugees; but what we can do right now, strengthened by this understanding is to begin the process of creating a calm and peaceful mind for ourselves and then look to our interaction with others. While we can begin easily, it is important to notice that reducing violence in the mind can be a difficult task requiring courage and determination. The task of developing a nonviolent mind should be seen as part of a seamless flow reflecting an unbroken tradition from four thousand years of human history.

When we begin this process we can see immediate individual benefits. We are actually happier, more relaxed people, the mountains of frustration and suffering begin to turn into molehills and the people with whom we interact also begin to feel the benefit. We can also see the social benefits demonstrating massive social change over the past 100 years: the 20th Century — which experienced massive spasms of organized violence in the form of two world wars, a 50-year Cold War and countless armed insurgencies and revolutions–was also the century in which organised nonviolent struggle came into its own as a force capable of transforming societies and moving history from St Petersburg in 1905 through to the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine in 2005.

As Mahatma Gandhi once said: “We must be the change we wish to see, and not the darkness that we wish to leave behind”.

Notes:

[1] United Nations Development Program [UNDP] Human Development Report p6 New York Oxford university Press 2000

[2] HH the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso — Glasgow June 4, 2004 in a speech entitled: ‘A contribution to a Vision of a New Civilisation’.

[3] The major causes of violence identified in 1998 by HH the Dalai Lama/discussion with the author