Andrew Fiala

Current violence in political discourse leads to futility, rather than real solutions

In this Feb. 1, 2017 file photo, a fire set by demonstrators protesting a scheduled speaking appearance by Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos burns on Sproul Plaza on the University of California, Berkeley campus.
In this Feb. 1, 2017 file photo, a fire set by demonstrators protesting a scheduled speaking appearance by Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos burns on Sproul Plaza on the University of California, Berkeley campus. AP

The political world is chaotic. People are angry and anxious. These negative emotions are dangerous. Hatred creates unhappiness. Fear prevents progress. And incivility undermines democracy.

This is a bipartisan truth, a universal teaching of moral and political philosophy. We need to understand the futility of violence – and the power of nonviolence.

Consider the riot at UC Berkeley earlier this month. An inflammatory Breitbart contributor, Milo Yiannopoulos, was invited to speak. Students protested. But black bloc militants took over the protest, wreaking havoc and forcing the cancellation of Yiannopoulos’ speech.

The rioters claimed that Yiannopoulos is an alt-right fascist. They advocate using any means necessary to disrupt and resist. But those tactics are counterproductive. The Berkeley riot is viewed by the Breitbart bunch as evidence of a liberal culture out of control. And so we risk escalation and reprisals, according to the tit-for-tat logic of violence.

Violence changes the subject. Instead of criticizing Yiannopoulos’ ideas, we are now talking about the violent protests. Violence also alienates decent, law-abiding people who might otherwise sympathize with the protesters.

Being for something

Herein lies a problem for the emerging language of “resistance” among anti-Trump protesters. Even mainstream voices have jumped on the resistance bandwagon. The Fresno Bee published an editorial with the headline, “Here’s how to resist President Trump’s chaos strategy.” New York Times columnist David Brooks recently asked, “How should one resist the Trump administration?” Brooks offered a range of options, including “aggressive nonviolent action.”

Good that Brooks emphasizes nonviolence. But resistance is negative and reactionary. The goal of a progressive social movement cannot be merely to disrupt and impede. It is not enough to be against something. We also need to be for something.

What we need is a society based upon respect, kindness, civility and justice. If we want a more loving and compassionate world, we must become loving and compassionate today – even in response to those who lack compassion. Our ultimate goal cannot be obstruction. Rather, we need reconciliation, a restored sense of community and a common purpose.

We must also realize that nonviolence is both the means and the end of decent political life. This coming week at Fresno State, we have an opportunity to reflect on the power of nonviolence as the Rev. James Lawson visits campus. Lawson is one of the original leaders of the nonviolent American civil rights movement.

In 1960, Lawson helped draft the statement of purpose of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which declared that nonviolence seeks “a social order of justice permeated by love.” The SNCC statement explains that nonviolence “remains loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility.”

Lawson studied Gandhi. But his views are rooted in the Christian Bible. He explains that Christianity asks us to love our enemies. In one interview, Lawson calls that idea the “cutting edge of Christian spirituality.” You should not see your enemy “as someone to whom you pour out your anger and venom.” Rather, he explains, you should “see your enemy as another human being.”

This does not mean that we give up on defending the truth or struggling for justice. But the aim cannot be merely to destroy your enemy. The will to destroy is at the heart of hatred and cruelty. Nihilistic destructiveness is the opposite of justice, reconciliation and progress.

Hate distorts

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once explained, “hate distorts the personality of the hater.” There is an escalating level of hate in our culture. We see it on both the left and the right. It is tempting to fight fire with fire. But we risk burning down the house. And nothing good is built on a foundation of spite.

Haters savor battle. They taunt and tease, hoping to provoke a confrontation. A hateful response serves the hater’s purposes. It moves us onto the hater’s chosen field of battle.

Nonviolence avoids that trap. It affirms our common humanity. It respects persons. It opens space for rational thought and reasoned argument.

Nonviolence is not easy. It requires patience and discipline. But in the end, as the SNCC statement declares, it “nurtures the atmosphere of reconciliation.”

Violence undermines the prospect of reconciliation. It alienates and antagonizes. And it breaks our hearts. Nonviolence heals and nourishes. It changes the world by changing hearts.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State:

Upcoming lecture

Lecture: Rev. James Lawson Jr., “Nonviolence Then and Now,” Thursday, 6-7:30 p.m., North Gym 118

Also: James Lawson documentary and discussion, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 5:30-8 p.m., Alice Peters Auditorium