Friday Philosophy: Nonviolence

I was raised in a violent atmosphere.  Our house was not filled with the physical violence that leads to bodily injury.  But there was physical violence that results in psychological trauma and much verbal and emotional abuse.  It’s difficult growing up knowing that one is not good enough, that one’s talents and skills are not appreciated, and that who one is less important than who one might be perceived to be.

My father was an angry man.  While practicing his bowling in the living room and simultaneously arguing with my mother, he “accidentally” threw his ball through the living room wall.  Because he was having trouble with the Christmas tree one year, the tree was thrown through the plate glass window in front of which it was to supposed to stand.  That his anger did not produce physical violence against his children is testament to my mother’s fortitude.  But there was always the mental abuse.  All four of us kids are just starting to cope with that…40 years later.


Growing up as a child, I became involved in fisticuffs exactly twice.  On one occasion, I chose to protect a neighborhood lad in my school who was the target of stones being thrown by the local bully.  Though the bully was bigger than I, I managed to wrestle him to the ground with me on top and gave him enough good blows to send him on his way.  I did not feel good about that.  On the second occasion, I was attacked by a boy who I thought was my best friend. He was himself being given a hard time for hanging out with me, the “cry baby” of the neighborhood.  I got a split lip during the altercation.  And yes, I went home crying.

The two incidents resulted in my conviction that violence is never the correct response for me.  I could have protected the first boy by hurrying him out of distance of the stones.  And the second attack only escalated when I tried to protect myself.  The damage done to my soul by not choosing to refuse to fight was hard for me to bear.

I have chosen to refuse to inflict violence ever since.  During the Vietnam War, I chose to dodge the draft and was successful for nearly three years until found by the FBI in Oklahoma.  Since being nonviolent was not sufficient reason to keep me out of the military (the option I was given was to serve 5 years in the violent atmosphere of a penitentiary), I did do my time in the Army.  But I chose to do so as nonviolently as possible.  When they taught me how to kill and maim, I would spend the night afterwards trying to meditate on peace while sick to my stomach. In the end, I was lucky.  I never had to hurt anyone else during those awful two years.  Had they attempted to send me off to kill, my plan was to attempt to run away again.  Failing that, I would have chosen to die rather than kill someone else, for killing someone else would surely have been the death of my soul and protection of my soul is more important to me than protection of my body.

The only good thing that I can see my time in the military taught me was the ability to disarm a dangerous situation without violence.  I was taught to use the violent approach, to be sure, but I refused to use it.  Being a military cop and a prison guard, violence did have a tendency to happen around me.  But I found that words and reason could stop fights and the skills they taught me to keep from being in a situation where I could be the focus of the violence were sufficient to protect me.  But I still regret learning the skills they taught me so that I could inflict damage on other people.  I hope I have forgotten most of them by now.

Yes, I was raised in what is now a suburb.  That was back in the days when even suburbs needed workers.  But I have lived in areas where violence occurred more frequently than it should (which is never, as far as I am concerned)…in San Francisco after the Death of Hippie, on the original Skid Row in Seattle, in a brothel in Miami, in Resurrection City during the Poor People’s March in 1968, in Spanish Harlem in New York for a spell, in a racially divided area of Milwaukee.  But I refused to let the violence change the way I lived. 

No, I do not know what it is like to be a person of color.  But I do know what it is like to be attacked solely because of my appearance.  None of those places brought as much danger as being a transsexual woman living in Arkansas and traveling this country.  It’s not too hard to tell I was born male.  I’ve been assaulted twice while living near Little Rock and once in Menlo Park, CA, because of it, had all the tires on my car slashed because of it, and had cat feces put in my mailbox because of it.  I’ve been arrested using a public restroom because of it.  Compared to that, when I became the target of a big rock in Little Rock on another occasion because I was a dyke, I actually had the thought pass through my mind that at least the perpetrators were acknowledging me as a woman.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do not condone anyone’s use of violence.  But I figure that a violent response by me means that those who acted violently towards me have won. I refuse to let that happen.  What if someone comes face to face with me and demands my money?  Then they can have my money.  What if someone invades my home while I am there and wants my property?  Then they can have what they want. What if someone wants to kill me?  Then they can have my life…but they cannot have my soul.

Peace is not won easily.  It is definitely not won by enacting war, either war on a large scale or war on a personal level.  Certain parts of this society have much invested in keeping us divided and at each other’s throats…divided along racial lines, economic lines, religious lines, and gender lines.  Until we can refuse the fighting, they are the winners. Until we can cease being afraid of one another, they are the winners.  Until we can learn that we can work together, they are the winners. Until we realize that there is strength in our numbers, they will rule.

The way we stop the violence is to stop the violence.  It is a personal act in behalf of our society when we refuse to be violent.  It is a public act in behalf of our society if we can teach others to be nonviolent as well.


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    • Robyn on September 8, 2007 at 12:05 am

    For several years it was hosted at a website by an Australian gentleperson.  I checked and it no longer seems to be available there.  It was one of the first diaries posted at Daily Kos (about two weeks after I became a member in the fall of 2005) which I hoped would gather an audience.  It got 3 recs and 3 comments.

    I’ve done a bit of a rewrite, adding a few sentences here and there, but it is basically the same piece.  Maybe more people will read it now.

  1. Did anyone, including your father, know why he was so angry?

    • melvin on September 8, 2007 at 12:21 am

    although physically tough and capable of great anger, was the gentlest of men. And that my first experience of violence was early on in school, from a girl pretty disturbed and unhappy below the surface who pulled out a bunch of my hair and threw me down a long, long flight of stairs – basically a fire escape staircase, straight down three floors. I didn’t have the slightest idea how to cope with her, but knew you weren’t supposed to lash out.

  2. but i would go to any extreme to protect my children.  and though i think it WOULD wound my soul to do so, i dont think i could survive if i thought my inaction had resulted in pain/injury/worse to one of them. 

    before i had children, i considered myself a pacifist, and i hope like hell that i never need to use violence to protect them…but i would.  im not proud of it, but im not ashamed of it either. 

  3. My brother and my mother got the brunt of his aggression, though I had my fair share of altercations. Both of my parents came from physically abusive families. I abhor physical aggression – I think it is often a cover for other weaknesses.

    Fortunately, I’ve been able to escape the so-called “cycle of violence”. Mr Pickle, though he’s a very large man, is what I like to call the gentle giant.

    I often marvel how some people will see my husband and me and wonder how or why we’re together. He’s big, I’m fairly small. That (a) these people (often co-workers) look only to the surface and (b) actually voice their shallow opinions to me remains a mystery. I wonder if they chose their partner exclusively on the basis of appearance. If this is customary, no wonder the “cycle of violence” continues at an alarming rate. Me – I’d rather the nicest, smartest guy in the room.

  4. beautiful piece……
    I too come from a violent developmental experience…

    this raises two open questions in my own life…..
    Buddhism has given me one perception…..

    do no harm

    easy to say not so easy to do……

    my own understanding of this is evolving….

    there is another view that has impacted me but this one intimidates me……

    some years ago I read a book of letters written by Ghandi during his years in prison….

    he spoke of ahimsa….and that is a very challenging place to truely stand….

    some of your piece speaks to what I believe Ghandi was embodying…..

    and you are correct …no one can take our souls…..only we can give them away….

    what of the relationship between nonviolence and resistance….noncompliance to life disaffirming flows…..

  5. and it has also shaped my perception of things……

    wihtin my understanding of taoism it is not inherently nonviolent …..
    correct me if you understand otherwise….

    yin becoming yang…becoming yin…..
    all of the compliments…..all of the ten thousand things……

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