Sixty-five years ago this 15th of August, India gained independence from British rule. On Wednesday, I attended the Tibetan Children’s Village celebrations of India, the home-in-exile of over 190,000 Tibetans. Kids were all dressed up in colorful regional dress, waiting patiently — or not so patiently — for their turn to be ushered onto stage to perform traditional songs and dances.
The bright colors of their costumes were so refreshing in this gray, ever-foggy weather. This week has won records in power outages, which makes getting anything done difficult. The rain falls relentlessly: I go to sleep to it drumming on my roof and wake to it pouring. Everything is damp, everyone’s shoes are permanently soaked — I don’t think I can recall what the dry warmth of sunshine feels like!
The juxtaposition of the joyous celebrations of India’s nonviolence-driven successful independence and the Tibetan community’s reaction to the trials of their own nonviolent struggle to free Tibet — namely the distress and anger upon hearing about the most recent wave of self-immolations — inspired me to to delve deeper into what both movements have in common: nonviolence.
What is Nonviolence?
Reflecting on nonviolence lead me to question whether I even knew what violence was. I thought of consulting one of my mentors and advisors to the SLSI, Professor Robert Holmes of the University of Rochester, the current preeminent expert on the philosophy of nonviolence — but the power was out again. When I had the chance to get back online, the stars aligned and I was virtually handed an answer by another mentor, Bidisha Banerjee from Dalai Lama Fellows, who sent me the transcript of a public lecture given by the philosopher-practitioner Parker Palmer.
In 2001, Palmer presented “The Violence of Our Knowledge: On Higher Education and Peace Making,” which looks at where the seeds of violence are sown in the functioning of institutions of higher learning, and by extension, in society as a whole.
I highly suggest reading the whole thing. I found the definition of violence that Palmer comes to from his Quaker roots particularly enlightening. He says: “Violence is any way we have of violating the integrity of the other…Rendering other people invisible or irrelevant is an act of violence because it violates the integrity of the other.”
This definition got me thinking about my project and what I’ve been exploring in this blog: how the other is necessary for the cultivation of creativity and wonder; how the mainstream media is, in effect, doing violence to Tibetans by silencing their struggle; how this silencing is, as the cultural diversity argument that I developed in last week’s post proposes, also doing violence to the rest of the world by slowly annihilating and depriving us of the amassed human wisdom that an ancient culture like Tibet’s has to offer.
“Speaking truth to power”
Palmer begins by reminding his audience that nonviolence does not entail the absence of conflict. I remember Professor Holmes emphasizing that nonviolence and pacifism are not analogous. Nonviolence requires action: it is a movement. Pacifism, on the other hand, tends to advocate the avoidance of conflict or involvement.
“I started learning about the [Quaker] tradition that they call ‘speaking truth to power,'” says Palmer. “Anybody that’s ever tried to speak truth to power knows that it’s an act that brings conflict. And yet it is an act that taken with integrity, creates the pole of opposition which can stretch a whole society open to something new.”
This stretching motion intrigues me. Stretching the boundaries of thought to let something new take form. It appears to me that this intellectual exercise is what nonviolence is all about. Instead of doing violence by dismissing a problem as impossible, nonviolence is the exercise of giving space and time to something without reducing it to a simpler and, more often than not, imperfect solution.
As far as I understand it, the way to exercise the mind in this way is to observe and notice that contradictions are not set in stone. From a phenomenological perspective, genuine discourse and inquiry come from looking at things as they are, not as fixed objects or things that cannot change. My interest in this nonviolent way of thinking is why I think that the philosopher Martin Heidegger is onto something. His work focuses on “de-structuring” or “deconstructing” this tendency of ours of considering things as objectively true. We understand things to have objective meaning, but if we take a closer look at how meaning comes to be, it becomes clear that we are the guarantors of meaning. Things have significance because we give them a function or a reason-to-be.
If you can set a fixed narrative around a person or problem to suit your own motives, the other — but also the creator of the problem — gets trapped in a world that is deemed unchangeable because perceived as “true.” Trapping the other is a manifestation of violence. To move forward out of these intellectual traps, we must “speak the truth to power,” which means to observe and keep an open mind, an exercise that stretches our minds because it often requires us to wrestle with things that don’t fit the mould that we have created to contain our reality.
Palmer explains that true “consensus” in the Quaker community comes from practicing this art of holding paradox without reducing reality. Palmer goes on: “What that requires, I think, is re-framing the tension so that we experience it not as a destructive tearing apart of ourselves, but as an opening of ourselves to some larger view of reality.” From this patient and rigorous intellectual grind arises ingenuity. In short, taking the time to struggle with ambiguity enables us to jump into and create new paradigms.
Palmer uses scientists’ testimonies as examples of this elastic thinking. He quotes Barbara McClintock, the Nobel Laureate famous for her groundbreaking work on genetics that she first mapped out for maize. When asked what her technique was for “doing real science,” she said: “Well all I can really tell you about the doing of real science is you’ve got to have a feeling for the organism […] you have to somehow learn to lean into the kernel.” What I get from this is that real, nonviolent thinking demands withholding judgement and opening oneself to what is there, whether this means working through a paradox or a perceived truth — or one and the same!
Palmer also brings the physical chemist Michael Polanyi into the conversation. In his book Personal Knowledge, Polanyi presents an opinion that is similar to McClintock’s. He argues that all real scientists know that you have to invest yourself in what you are studying. He posits that “beneath our explicit knowledge of the world, we are utterly dependent on a deep layer of […] ‘tacit knowledge’ that is so profoundly bodily in coming from indwelling that we can’t even raise it to the level of articulation” — what some would call intuition. In order to think creatively, it behooves us to open our minds, but also our hearts, to the world around us. Indeed, nowhere do Palmer, Polanyi, or McClintock question the necessity of rigorous research. In fact, it is in the name of rigor that they expound the virtues of keeping an open mind, what I have identified as nonviolence. “Real scientists engage the things of the world with imagination and intuition as well as intellect, logic, and information,” says Palmer.
Palmer explains that intellectual rigor requires risking being wrong in a culture of competition, where our first inclination is to find the weakness in the speaker’s argument. McClintock was ridiculed for years before she was recognized as one of the greatest scientist of the 20th century. This isn’t to say that straying away from group think guarantees a Nobel Prize in Medicine, but certainly collaborating and challenging assumptions — and challenging these challenges! — is the only way we can move forward intellectually.
Intimacy that does not annihilate difference
Surrounded by Tibetans, I am reminded every day that the road less travelled of nonviolence takes resilience, courage, but also sacrifices that I do not think many could make.
As I have been explaining in the last couple posts, the motivation for the Snow Lion Storytelling Initiative is wed to this belief in the power of nonviolence: on the micro-level, the SLSI aims to spread wonder in an oppressed community through inspiring storybooks; on the macro-level, the SLSI offers a platform on which we can rethink the boundaries of oppression in our own lives, and reevaluate the potential for intellectual growth in our increasingly globalized world. In a sense, the SLSI proposes that preserving Tibetan culture feeds the wonder of the world by subsisting as an alien example of human experience.
Respecting the difference between the self and the other is what I understand as tolerance. But learning from the difference is what we can call love — what the exercise of nonviolence entails. Palmer quotes Barbara McClintock’s biographer Evelyn Fox Keller, who captures all this beautifully: “Barbara McClintock, in her relation to ears of corn, practiced the highest form of love, which is intimacy that does not annihilate difference.”
Palmer’s lecture gave me the language to articulate the thoughts that have been forming amidst the Tibetan community’s experiences of joy and sorrow. In his lecture, Palmer effectively deconstructs the ethos of violence that we are inculcated into, and unfortunately proliferate, in order to bring attention to what is already there — what Heidegger means by “uncovering,” and others would call mindfulness. Palmer puts it nicely: “It’s something about the fact that inside that boundary is always a mystery and it’s about the notion that violence starts when I become presumptuous about that mystery and decide I know better than you what’s in there and what it needs to look like. The poet Rilke has a very kindred definition of love. Love is this: That two solitudes border, protect and salute one another.”
In the name of paradox and wonder, here’s another quote from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet to cap off this post: “…perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.”