“Nonviolence is a Personal Choice”: The Figure/Ground Interview with Barry Gan
by Brett Keegan
Editor’s Preface: Barry Gan is professor of philosophy and director of The Center of Nonviolence, St. Bonaventure University, Saint Bonaventure, New York. The interview was conducted by his student, Brett Keegan, for the open source, academic website figureground.org and posted there October 28, 2013. For further information about Gan and acknowledgments please see the note at the end. JG
Brett Keegan: So, how did you get introduced to peace studies and nonviolent philosophy?
Barry Gan: The long story goes back to when I was a child. I was the only Jewish kid in a neighborhood of all Christians, and had been apprised by my parents that we were sort of different from everybody else in the neighborhood when we moved there when I was about six. And somehow, I always found myself in the role of peacekeeper among friends who were often getting involved with fights. I don’t know if it was out of fear, or just a sense of the stupidity of fights, but I never got involved. I would always try to talk people out of them, talk people through them.
Later, when I was at summer camp and my older brother was at summer camp with me, I remember there was this other kid there who was always getting picked on by everyone. And since I wasn’t from their school, I didn’t know why they were picking on him. I just found it annoying. And I remember challenging the bully at the time and wrestling him to the ground to get him to stop picking on this one kid.
So from an early age, I had something of a sense of justice and something of a sense of conflict resolution. When I got to high school, I was active in my synagogue youth group, and a rabbi came to talk to us about joining the civil rights freedom rides. I was astonished to hear about freedom rides. I didn’t pay that close attention to the news at fourteen, but hearing about them freaked me out, and I became interested in civil rights.
Then, as a senior in high school, we were challenged by an African American speaker at an assembly at the beginning of the year. He said that if you’re not doing something to solve the problem, you’re part of the problem. And my friend and I decided at that lunch period to set up a bussing program where 25 students from our all-white suburban high school would change places for six weeks with 25 black students from the ghetto high school. Our idea was originally to change households with them—just literally become a kid in another parent’s household. The school districts didn’t go for that at all. But they did go for a bussing program that persisted for 20 years, so it was a pretty good success.
But in high school, I was still for the Vietnam War. I liked Barry Goldwater. I thought Communism was bad. And when I got to college—I think this is a long story, but it explains something of my background—when I got to college in 1966, and especially in March or April of ’67, I remember my cousin who was in Cornell Law School at the time told me that he and his wife had gone to an antiwar march in New York City. I remember being completely surprised that my cousin, whom I had always looked up to, would be going to one of these demonstrations that I’d heard about against the war. It caused me to look at it all with fresh eyes, and I turned against the war by the time I was in my second year of college and became an antiwar activist by the time I was a junior and senior. That time, also, I was becoming eligible for the draft, did a lot of reading—I remember I read Albert Einstein’s pacifist views, among other things—and decided I was a pacifist, and filed for conscientious objector status. But I was rejected for reasons I won’t get into here (a mistake on the draft board’s part) and from that point on, I regarded myself as a pacifist and was actively involved in opposing pretty much every war the U.S. got involved in from about 1968 onward.
When I came here [St. Bonaventure University], it was largely to teach news media ethics and philosophy, but my political views became known, and when the person stepped down who was heading the peace studies program and the school was looking for a replacement, the former head asked me if I would be willing to replace her as director of the peace studies program, so I did.
Also, in the early eighties, the film Gandhi had come out, and I was really moved by that. So in the early 80s, I began to become familiar with the writings of Gandhi and Gene Sharp, and actively pursue an interest in nonviolence studies.
Keegan: You started out talking about how as a child you had this latent sense of conflict resolution. Do you think that nonviolence is something that is latent, or learned, or both?
Gan: I could be wrong about this, but I think that most people have an aversion to hitting others and hurting others. And, that aversion is overcome by anger or a sense of injustice about being treated badly. Part of my desire as a kid not to be hurt was being worried about being punched back because I valued my ability to think, my mind, even though I don’t wear a bicycle helmet to this day. Also, hitting people just never seemed to be the way to solve a problem. It seemed to me to make the problem worse and didn’t settle anything except who was physically stronger. So violence never resonated with me at all.
Keegan: You mentioned that as time went on you developed a scholarly interest in nonviolence. How have your views or interests changed since you’ve become a proponent of concepts often associated with nonviolence, like pacifism?
I think of pacifism as opposition to war and of nonviolence as a personal choice
that can manifest itself among other things as opposition to war.
Gan: Well, coming to my pacifism during the Vietnam War, it seemed to me that the way to promote nonviolence and pacifism, which I don’t think of as the same thing—I think of pacifism as opposition to war and of nonviolence as a personal choice that can manifest itself among other things as opposition to war—coming to nonviolence through my opposition to the Vietnam War, I thought that the way to achieve these things was through nonviolent organizing and through grassroots political action: knocking on doors, organizing groups, writing letters to the editor. I didn’t have a systematic way to understand it except, as it seemed to me, it had to take place on a mass level. I think it’s fair to say that the older I’ve gotten, the more convinced I’ve become that the more it takes place on a mass level the less nonviolent it is and the less likely it is in succeeding in the long-term.
When I was actively involved with the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s National Council, there were many good people on that council. There were also many egos on that council, and I have since found that to be true about every peace group that I’ve been involved in. There is a strong tendency among people who are committed to any principle—it doesn’t have to be nonviolence—to get one’s ego wrapped up in it and to measure success in terms of the number of converts one can bring in or by the number of opponents one can strike down metaphorically or physically. As my daughter put it as I was describing the last chapter of my book to her, “If it’s about winning, it’s not nonviolence.” That’s really resonated with me since she said it about a year ago.
And so I see a lot of people involved in what they call nonviolent action or nonviolence not really to be nonviolent or engaged in nonviolent action. And some of those people have even begun to move away from the term and call it civil resistance and things like that. And I’m not sure I see civil resistance as nonviolence. For example, Gandhi was a resister, but he wasn’t a resister primarily. He was a resister when he felt something compromised his principles of nonviolence.
Keegan: Could you perhaps detail that distinction between nonviolence and civil resistance further, since many people do tend to lump those two ideas together?
Gan: A person who is thoroughly nonviolent—although I’m not one of them, though I’d like to be (my not being a vegetarian is a case in point)—I think a person who’s really committed to nonviolence isn’t about to force anyone to do anything other than what they want to do except by way of example. So you can see this with missionaries. There are missionaries who attempt to convert others by one sort of practice or another, who try to convince them of something. And then there are missionaries who just live a life of example and hope to inspire others by their example. I would call the latter nonviolent and the former not nonviolent, whether or not there’s any physical violence involved.
Civil resistance insofar as it’s an attempt to defeat an opponent is not nonviolent, but if it’s an attempt to find a solution to a problem and to do so without harming anyone, then that’s nonviolence.
So the so-called nonviolent movement to remove Mubarak from Egypt I would not describe as a nonviolent movement. It was an attempt to defeat an opponent by using non-military means because military means were not at their disposal.
Keegan: Nonviolent philosophy differs from other disciplines, like analytical philosophy or philosophy of language, which deal primarily with abstracts, in that it’s more concerned with lifestyles or social changes. What do you think about the shift in many Anglophone countries toward these more abstract, specialized branches of philosophy?
Gan: My training is in analytic philosophy, but what brought me to philosophy was the example of Socrates, who is a very clever guy, and very analytic, and very astute, and quite logical, but his chief question is what makes for a virtuous human being. He was analytical and logical because he wanted to answer that question. And so, the analysis and the logic were tools aimed at answering that question, and my feeling is that many contemporary philosophers, and many philosophers over the last century anyway, have lost sight of the question for the sake of the tools and have seen the tools as almost an end in themselves, losing sight of the important question about what does it mean to be a good human being. Now that still means that you must analyze things like what is knowledge and what is justice and other basic questions that Plato asked, but to use Richard Taylor’s expression, we have gotten involved in so much lint picking that we have forgotten to pay attention to the rest.
Keegan: Do you think that there can be a coexistence with this more Socratic tradition you mentioned, with its concern with virtue or the good life? Or that each can serve a different purpose?
Gan: Well, my mentor Robert Holmes is a superb analytic philosopher but has never lost sight of the larger questions, and he uses his analytic philosophy solely as a tool for reaching after answers for these larger questions.
Keegan: I understand you have a new book that just came out about misunderstandings regarding violence and nonviolence. Could you perhaps talk about that?
Gan: There are two halves to the book. I had finished the first half after a couple of years, and it wasn’t long enough to be a book, and publishers kept telling me that. But I didn’t want it to be a long book; I wanted it to be something that someone—that anyone—could read quickly. As my wife at the time said to me, “Do you want this to be a book that philosophers read, or do you want this to be a book that people read?”
So in the end, I accepted what the publishers said about the need to make it longer, and I decided to focus very much on this distinction between civil resistance and nonviolence because so many people call this civil resistance nonviolence.
So the second half of the book is a contrast between two different kinds of nonviolence, what some people call pragmatic nonviolence or civil resistance and what others have called principled nonviolence, which I call comprehensive as opposed to selective nonviolence.
Keegan: Could you perhaps go on to explain those distinctions further?
Gan: Another friend of mine named Duane Cady drew a continuum in a book which he called From Warism to Pacifism, [Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010] saying that at one extreme there are people committed to the value of war as an end in itself who number very few, and on the other side, are people who see the value of pacifism in itself who also number very few. Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes.
So drawing from Duane, I thought that you could say the same about violence and nonviolence, that there are only a very few people in the world who see their life as a life of violence. We might describe them as “violent” individuals, but even “violent” individuals may not be overtly violent in their personal lives. And then they either engage in acts that we consider to be violent or engage in acts that are violent more frequently than others do, but it’s rare that it’s the majority of the time for anyone.
It occurred to me that people who favor civil resistance as a political form of expression and call it nonviolent action are really limiting their behaviors to certain actions that are nonviolent, but many of them, for example, wouldn’t be vegetarians, some of them might spank a child—which I’m not sure is a violent act really—some of them might satirize their friends and family without thinking twice about their feelings and call themselves nonviolent because they won’t pick up a gun or because they won’t beat someone up. But I think farther along the spectrum are people who are vegetarian, who think of the way that words hurt people, who think of the way thoughts hurt themselves, who live with an almost Buddhist perspective.
Keegan: We live in a tumultuous time today. Do you think philosophers—nonviolent or otherwise—can serve a wider purpose?
Gan: Well this goes back to some of the things I was saying at the beginning, and it’s the thrust of my book. This may not be what Jesus meant by this, but it’s how I’ve interpreted it. He said, “Physician, heal thyself.” I think that pointing the fingers at others, which is what a lot of peace groups and advocacy groups of any kind do, isn’t that beneficial. It’s more beneficial to point a finger at yourself and improve yourself, setting an example.
So what do we “nonviolent philosophers” have to teach others? In my classrooms, I try to let the form rather than the content be the instructional unit or be the instructional focus. And I think that’s what philosophers who are nonviolent have to offer the world: the encouragement to look to yourself to become less violent instead of pointing your finger and accusing others. That doesn’t mean we have to acquiesce to others who are violent. Gandhi and King were very good at showing that they would not be willing to go along with what was violent or be willing to support anyone who was violent. And that’s a lot to ask of someone.
Thoreau said it best in his essay on civil disobedience: I’m not obliged to make the world a better place, but I am obliged not to make it worse. That sounds like that’s letting oneself off the hook, but when you think of the interdependence of everyone on everyone else and how much violence is involved in the manufacture of our clothing and the production of our food, simply not to engage in making violence would require all of us to change our lifestyles dramatically, more than we presently do.
So the role of the nonviolent philosopher, I think, is to recognize the extent that we’re required to change our behaviors and to help others see that without criticizing those who don’t.
Keegan: I often think of Gandhi as a good example of that. While he did instruct others, he also recognized the limitations people, including himself, had with powerful humility and patience. Would you say that connects to your last point?
Gan: Yes, there’s a story about Gandhi that I think is true, about a mother who brought her son to him after a days walk to have Gandhi tell him to stop eating so many sweets because it was bad for him. He asked the mother to return in a week with the son after he had had some time to reflect on it. So she walked home a day and walked back a day and Gandhi brought the son in and said, “Don’t eat sweets, they’re bad for you.” And the mother said, “Why couldn’t you say that a week ago?” And he said, “I had to stop first.”
Keegan: Earlier you made the distinction between civil resistance and nonviolent lifestyle. Do you think that some of the current issues in the world are being created by this civil resistance since it is not truly nonviolent? Or do you think nonviolence has a place and civil resistance has another place?
Gan: I think civil resistance properly practiced is a type of nonviolence, but I don’t think it’s being practiced properly in places where people are practicing it—even places where they’re calling it nonviolence—because they’re interested in prevailing over someone instead of simply refusing to go along with what they do not agree with. So it’s one thing to be civilly disobedient. One is the disobedient part: I refuse to obey you. The other is I refuse to do so in a civil manner. But to be civilly disobedient for the sake of taking someone down is another story.
Keegan: With the Arab Spring, considerable civil resistance and civil disobedience has occurred. Egypt is probably the most prevalent and well-known example. Could you perhaps talk about how that mentality has affected things there, especially in light of the so-called coup?
Gan: The bringing down of Hosni Mubarak looked like a success story for nonviolence, but it painted Mubarak as a bad man instead of offering a choice: change your ways or step aside. He was never given the choice to change his ways. It was step aside or we’re going to take over. That’s not a genuine choice to offer someone. The choice itself is a violent “do as we wish or we will hurt you.” How will we hurt you? We’ll take your power away, and punish you, and send you to prison, and charge you with these crimes, and so on.
So the lesson, I think, that Egypt learned was that that was the way to do business, and so, the coup was just a later extension of that. People took to the streets because they didn’t like what the new leader [Mohamed Morsi] was doing, and Morsi didn’t seem like he was really in a position to be willing to compromise at all. So he didn’t recognize the base of support that he originally had and the secularists who originally wanted to bring Mubarak down. His failure to recognize that base of support led to his downfall. But people were too impatient with Morsi, and if they had stayed in the streets longer and opened up more dialogue instead of painting him as the enemy, he would have been more inclined to make changes than Mubarak was. But, he was never given the chance to because the lesson that people learned from Mubarak was that if we just take to the streets, we can bring down leaders. That’s not how you build a democracy. It’s not how you build any stable government. It’s not the foundation for a stable culture.
Keegan: I think that many people tend to view nonviolence as being too idealistic, while civil resistance is much more practical and applicable. What do you think about this?
Gan: Well, what you have to ask is, “What is it you are trying to accomplish?” Are you trying to force people to accept what your vision of a just society is or are you trying to be a better person? And I would say that we should all be trying to be better people because we have control over ourselves in a nonviolent manner. To the extent that we exert control over others, we may be practicing violence.
So when people talk about it being idealistic, it’s because what they think of as the goal is changing the world, but I think the goal of changing the world has some violent elements to it. And I’m not sure that we need to worry about changing the world. Instead, we should worry about changing ourselves.
For example, take any peace group that wants to impose its vision of a just society upon a culture. “Let’s take down the Republicans. Let’s take down the Tea Party,” they say. But the Republicans and Tea Party want to do the same thing to this other group. Nobody is picking up a gun yet to do it, but we’re certainly painting each other as bad or evil people. And that’s not helping the situation at all.
Keegan: That reminds me of Gandhi’s distinction that one must fight the violence itself, not the people practicing the violence. Would you say that echoes your view?
Gan: Yes, and you must have a willingness to endure hardship and suffering yourself rather than to force others to endure it. I say this in my new book, and I get this from Jim Lawson, that the dynamic of violence is, “Do as I wish or I’ll make you cry uncle.” The dynamic of nonviolence is, “Do as I wish or I will suffer. Do as I wish or make me suffer.”
So if you’re willing to suffer for what you believe in, you’re being nonviolent. If you’re willing to make others suffer for what you believe in, then you’re not being nonviolent. And that goes for people who say that they’re practicing nonviolence: If they’re practicing it to make others suffer for what they believe in, not themselves, they’re not being nonviolent, they’re being frustrated.
EDITOR’S NOTE: As stated in the preface, Barry Gan is professor of philosophy and director of The Center of Nonviolence, St. Bonaventure University, Saint Bonaventure, New York. Since 1990, he has been the editor of The Acorn: Journal of The Gandhi-King Society. He was a co-editor with his former professor and mentor Dr. Robert Holmes of Nonviolence in Theory and Practice and is the author of Violence and Nonviolence: An Introduction [Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013]. The interview is courtesy figureground.org.