Today I want to talk about how nonviolence is not about making everyone feel good about themselves. I spend a lot of time in religious circles on all sides of the political spectrum. One of the things I see and hear quite often is this idea that we have to make sure everyone is safe or has their beliefs respected. On the surface this is a really great sentiment, but how it usually plays out is the majority of people (the ones who hold privilege and power) seek to silence the people in the group who are calling out injustice. In my personal experience this happens a lot around queer issues. People who are still “struggling” with whether or not being queer is a sin want to claim that they are being oppressed by the mean “homosexuals” when they get called out. And so those mean gay people get told that they are being divisive, that they are being impatient and judgmental, that they are being oppressors. The idea is that if we want unity we have to overlook oppression. Or at least overlook oppression of people that make us feel “icky”.
Nonviolence isn’t about making sure that everyone feels good about themselves and their beliefs. On the contrary a lot of nonviolent action is about shaming people with the hope that in their shame they will see the damage they are causing.
Now this is tricky: shame can be a really powerful tool. When it is used by those with privilege and power it can be damaging. We see it at play in the way that it is used against young bullied queer kids and against gay families. But in those situations shame is being used about something that one should feel no shame over; shame is being perverted. In the case of nonviolence shame is used to bring to light actions that people should be ashamed of: violence against unarmed people, bullying tactics and unjust laws, oppression of all kinds. Those are things people should be ashamed of.
In talking about nonviolence not being passive I talk about how one of the keys to nonviolent resistance is creativity. It comes into play even more here: How do we creatively shame those who are being oppressors in such a way that it unmasks their violence and oppression and leads them to repentance and reconciliation? (Both of those ideas I want to unpack in a future post because I think they are just as misunderstood as nonviolence). This isn’t shaming for shaming’s sake, this is shaming to bring about repentance. When someone has publicly and frequently contributed to the harm of a people shaming them in an appropriate response. I think of the recent acts of glitterbombing Marcus Bachmann’s ex-gay clinic. Here is a man who has repeatedly told lies about the gay community and participates in an incredibly harmful (and invalidated) form of “treatment”. Calls for him to apologize have gone unanswered. And so a group of people glitterbombed his clinic to bring light to his actions and to attempt to shame him. I think this is a brilliant and creative response.
We also saw this response throughout the civil rights movement: Folks who sat down where they were told they weren’t allowed to sit. And when people violently attacked them for trying to each lunch it eventually brought shame upon the attackers and changed the course of the struggle.
We see it happening right now on Wall Street as police maced a young, unarmed woman. This behaviour bring shame to those perpetuating violence upon nonviolent people. It might not happen overnight, but people are seeing that video and responding.
When someone denies your humanity, when they strip away the power to respond (whether through unjust laws or through sheer brute force) sometimes the best (or only) response is to shame them. To stand up for your humanity with dignity and grace, in a nonviolent manner, shames those who would try to strip you of that humanity.