Friday, July 9, 2010

The Opposite of Violence Is . . . ?

If you embrace the proposition that might doesn't make right, you are led to the question, "What, exactly, is our idea of how to govern?" Or, more broadly, "What is the way that we want our nation to conduct itself -- to "be" in the world?"

I found some provocative thoughts on this subject in a book by Mark Kurlansky, Nonviolence: Twenty-five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea. The entire book is well-worth reading and thinking about. (A lesson a day for a month . . . ?) However, the lesson that stopped me in my tracks was Lesson #23.

Lesson #23 says "Violence is a virus that infects and takes over." This struck me as a very powerful truth; indeed, the peculiar characteristic of violence is that it always "infects" the victim with the desire to retaliate. Hence the tendency for violence to lead to more violence.

Perhaps the viral nature of violence is a remnant of our primordial nature, an impulse to telegraph the message, "Don't mess with me!!!" Certainly, when you think of it in terms of signaling, it becomes apparent why violence is so contagious -- it is far less important that retaliation or revenge be specific to the act or actor that provoked it; all that matters is that the message "Don't mess with me!!!" gets broadcast widely. Moreover, there is a degree to which we are inclined to engage in "scary" violence more than "lethal" violence. Like a true virus, violence evolves successfully when it avoids killing its host.

When I thought about Lesson #23, the viral nature of violence, I was forced to confront a problem: I wonder if "non-violence" per se -- that is, measured restraint -- has the same viral power as violence itself. Are we impelled by our inner instincts to emulate non-violent behavior in the same way that we are impelled to retaliate in the face of violence?

As I cast about for an alternative that has some of the psychological power of violence, I landed on "compassion." It seems to me that compassion is something that, once experienced, tends to become contagious. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that compassion has a gentle viral power on both the person exercising compassion, as well as on the receiver of compassion. To be sure, it is an impulse with different characteristics than the violence impulse. Nonetheless, there is no disputing that there are large numbers of people in the world who have felt the inner sensations generated by the practice of intentional compassion take over their lives, and those around them, in a viral way.

So . . . perhaps in the intentional practice of compassion we have a viable alternative to "might makes right" and violence. Can a government be "compassionate"? What might the differences be between the way individuals experience compassion, and the way compassion is enacted by governments?

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