Nonviolence is a privilege

Chapter One: Violence

Nonviolence is a privilege

Going to war, enacting violence on others, has a profound impact on people. It requires a kind of dissociation to cause significant or even permanent harm to another human being and as a society we’ve learned to recognize that harm. During the early years of WWI psychiatrists called it “shell shock” because they believed there was a connection between the symptoms they were seeing and exposure to exploding artillery shells. By WWII they were calling it “battle fatigue.” Terms like “combat fatigue” and “Vietnam Stress” or “Vietnam Syndrome” soon followed. Eventually PTSD, post traumatic stress syndrome, would make it’s way into the lexicon of mental health professionals. Indigenous peoples have always known this and developed our own ways to conceptualize and respond to this harm.

I heard Tom Porter, a Mohawk elder and knowledge keeper, talk about the Mohawk hairstyle popularized by punks. He said that it did emerge from Mohawk men and that it carried two meanings. First, it is tied to the relationship that Mohawk people have with their hair, it isn’t just ornamental. Hair is tied to spirit and forms or makes tangible that connection between our souls and the world around us. This isn’t unique to the Mohawk, I’ve heard similar teachings from a wide range of Indigenous peoples. That is why cutting a person’s hair without their consent, such as what happened to children in boarding or residential schools or as was done to newly enslaved Africans, is profounding damaging. Even if the people doing it did not share our beliefs, they knew that cutting our hair was an act of domination.

Porter said that before going to war, it was common for Haudenosaunee men to cut their hair so that they would not bring their spirits with them into battle. They knew that they would be doing things that were contrary to what it meant to have a good mind, that it is sometimes necessary to do terrible things. They did not find ways to justify it or excuse it, they acknowledged that killing another human was contrary to how we were supposed to live and so they cut their hair to sever their spirit from their bodies. The Mohawk, Tom said, left a strip of hair and using pine sap or some other means made it stand up. He said that it made them look crazy, a strategy of war. If your opponent looks crazy then maybe they’ll act crazy too and behave in unpredictable, dangerous ways.

The Anishinaabe also have a ceremony that separates one’s spirit from their body to avoid harming their spirit in battle. And when our warriors returned home, there was a ceremony to purify them, to cleanse their bodies and minds of the harms they had done and restore their souls to them. Make them whole. The Haudenosaunee and others have different ceremonies towards the same end. We’ve long known that violence done to others has a boomerang effect, so we developed practices to acknowledge and address that harm.

Colonial violence does not recognize the harms it inflicts on itself, the way that it distorts everything it touches. It operates from entitlement. Particularly the entitlement to land and the clearing of that land. Tiffany Lethobo-King wrote in The Black Shoals that the “defining and distinguishing feature of colonization is genocide, not settlement.” Settlement, she says, comes later. After the land has been made empty, crops planted to hide the bodies and stories invented to whitewash the violence. The church itself provided absolution and a legal framework for that violence by confirming what white Europeans already believed: the people weren’t human anyway. In speaking of this colonial violence, Aimé Césaire wrote:

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when published[C]olonization, I repeat, dehuman-izes even the most civilized man; that colonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on contempt for the native and justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it; that the colonizer, who in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal. It is this result, this boomerang effect of colonization that I wanted to point out.Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when published ~ Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism

It was this way of thinking about who is being dehumanized that I thought about when I was writing about the wendigo in Chapter 2 of my own book, Becoming Kin. Because in this story of the man who became a monster, his victims were unchanged. He saw them as animals, something he could consume, but they were unchanged, it was the man who became a monster who was changed and in his own transformation his vision of others was changed. He no longer saw people as they were, and this change then became self-perpetuating. The more he saw and consumed people as animals the greater his hunger became until he eventually saw even himself this way. The stories say that if there are no other victims available to him, the w will chew off his own lips. You may have heard Indigenous people referring to politicians or billionaires as w’s, and I have done so myself but I actually re-wrote that chapter because I realized that it implies we infected them and we most certainly did not. White Europeans brought their own monsters of consumption with them to the places they landed.

Fanon begins Wretched of the Earth by writing about violence, and he returns to it again in Chapter 5 when he talks about mental illness. He is a psychiatrist and although we aren’t going to discuss Chapter 5 just yet, it’s worth noting that he begins this book by talking about the violence which he participated in as a member of the Algerian resistance and concludes it by talking about the mental distress which he treated caused by experiencing and enacting that violence.

"A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At a point, one can only fight fire with fire." Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when published – Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

Decolonization is violent because colonization is violent. It is, as Lethobo-King notes, the settlement of land through the violent displacement or outright killing of the people who live on it. If all they wanted was to live on the land the Haudenosaunee offered the Dutch a way to do that: the two row wampum agreement. The Haudenosaunee (and their allies, Indigenous peoples) would live their way and the newcomers (and their allies) would live their way and the two societies would travel together without interfering with each other’s lives. Not that we would live in an apartheid system with separate but equal homelands. The premise was that we would live together without demanding that the other conform to our way of living in the world. That also means that you can’t treat land and resources as if they belong to you alone, you have to consider how your usage impacts other people and adjust yourself accordingly.

Before you think that’s not possible, we already live like this a number of ways. Places of worship coexist, we’re learning to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” It isn’t a true example of the principle of non-interference because multiculturalism within a colonial society is just a relief valve of sorts, it ultimately works to uphold whitness as the center against which the rest of us are a little spicy. We’re only allowed the parts of our culture that don’t interfere with white hegemony and that is not acceptable, not to me and not to Fanon. He says that decolonial praxis is not seeking to “indigenize the colonists” which just maintains the status quo, but to transform our society. We aren’t trying to access the levers of colonial power, we want to create new systems of governance.

And that inevitably results in violence, which I refuse to condemn.

I refuse to condemn the violence of the revolutionary or the resistance fighter because I refuse the premise that demands that condemnation. The assumption is always that the revolutionary provoked and then the state moves to defend itself. We hear this persistently from politicians about Israel, saying that Israel has the right to defend itself.

But Palestinians do not? Palestinians who are subjected to the violence of daily occupation, the violence of checkpoints and prisons and just straight up violence from the IDF as well as the impulsive and unpunished violence of settlers. We are talking about people who cannot leave their home unoccupied because if they do they will come home to find it locked and their belongings on the street. The Nakba never stopped. It’s been ongoing for 75 years, erupting now and then, but at a constant simmer. The premise assumes that the current situation is nonviolent, when in fact it is deeply violent. It is, as this interview with Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, notes, a desperate situation that is getting more desperate.

Fanon writes that colonization is not simply who has the front-facing political control because that can shift. He writes about the colonial powers leaving Africa politically, but their economic interests are still protected. They may not exert political power by sitting in government, but the people who do ensure that wealth is extracted and sent back to the metropole just as it was during the colonial period. If they resist this, desperately needed aid packages are filled with conditions and other threats are employed to bring them back in line. It’s a neat trick really, impoverish a community or society and then force them to depend on their oppressors for support.

So these things that decolonization requires, the transformation of a society that results in a different form of governance and an economy that no longer serves colonial interests, will provoke violence from the state. Everything they did to build these states, they will do to maintain them. But states do it through legislation and national structures like policing and the military. They do it by controlling the educational system and healthcare. They do it by using the language of safety and freedom. But safety for who, and freedom from what. Dissent is either criminalized or pathologized, either way these systems are able to remove people from land which is of course, the goal of the colonial project. They gave themselves sole authority which becomes the moral foundation for their actions. Only those who push back are accused of violence. The state is just defending itself.

Nonviolence for the activist is a strategy, and it can be very effective. Martin Luther King is perhaps its most well known proponent and he spoke often about what the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe and so many others already knew: violence changes us in profound and sometimes permanent ways. And not for the better. Violence has a boomerang effect as Césaire noted and it is not in the best interests of a society to be ruled by those who use violence. The Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe knew that too. Leaders have specific roles for specific times, a war chief may be very effective during a time of conflict but when the conflict is resolved those same skills will inevitably turn inwards and wreak havoc. In season one, episode 2 of Battlestar Gallactica, Commander Adama tells President Rosslyn "There's a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state. The other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people." I would disagree with him about the police, they have always been an extension of the military. Serve and protect is just a slogan. But Adama is right when he says that putting the people who rely on violence in charge of your society inevitably turns the people, or certain groups of them, into the enemies of the state.

King knew that the greatest purveyor of violence in the world was his own government because in these colonial states those who used violence to build their nations will also use violence to maintain their nations. Their leaders have no other strategies. And King was not afraid to provoke that violence in order to make it visible. However, nonviolence as an ideology, rather than a strategy, is a privilege that rests on the violence of others. For those who seek to maintain the status quo, their smug nonviolence rests on the hidden violence of the state.

These are the Manichean strategies employed by the state, keep everything compartmentalized and hidden. Retell history through textbooks and monuments so that colonization is stripped of its violence and imagined as a great undertaking, the civilizing of wilderness and wild people. Reframe the violence of the colonizer into self defense: the courageous explorers and brave settlers fending off dangerous Indians. We are always the ones framed as violent and dangerous, the colonizer insisting that violence is the only language we understand.

Aed Abu Amro in a photograph taken by photojournalist Mustafa Hassona in 2018. He was killed by an Israeli sniper one month later. It is a striking photograph, conjuring a Palestinian David against the Israeli Goliath, but as the linked article notes, we cannot romanticize the image and nor should we romanticize violence.

It should not surprise anyone then that, as Fanon notes, “the very same people who had it constantly drummed into them that the only language they understood was force, now decide to express themselves with force.” Our history books tell us that the settlers who came here, wherever here is, came seeking liberation from oppressors abroad. We shouldn’t be surprised then, that those who resist occupation would follow the same violent path towards their own liberation. Fanon goes on to say that the “colonial regime owes its legitimacy to force and at no time does it endeavor to cover this up.” Statues and holidays remind us constantly of the necessity of state violence and the noble sacrifices that were made on our behalf. Canadians and USians need to think hard about their creation stories and historical mythmaking that renders their own violence invisible or excusable.

Even so, violence is the easy part. Nation building is much harder and less exciting, which is why movies like Star Wars focus on the violence of resistance. Nobody writes epic poetry about organizing and educating people. It is the first chapter of this book perhaps because it the most visible. But it comes with costs, and I will not talk about innocent life or women and children because I think it is a false and harmful construction. Children have parents and innocence is a kind of purity that gets determined by others. It renders some killable and others worthy of protection and the fact is that we all deserve to live. Which is why violence is a serious thing, and you won’t hear me encouraging it. Fanon does not take it lightly. I do not justify its use because I understand the harm that it visits upon those who rely on it. But I will not condemn the violence of the revolutionary either, because I refuse the premise by which that condemnation is demanded. I refuse a premise that ignores or normalizes the pervasiveness or the extent of the daily violence of the state. And at the end of the day, if we are able to decolonize and get on with building a better world, my own nonviolence may rest on the violence of others.

Next week - Chapter Two: Grandeur and Weakness of Spontaneity. We turn to the difficult work of nation building.

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when published"In any union or political organization, there is a traditional gap between the masses who demand an immediate, unconditional improvement of their situation, and the cadres who, gauging the difficulties likely to be created by employers, put a restraint on their demands” Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when published ~ Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, p 63