The Problem of “Vulgar” Pacifism

“When we look at societies via any monist theory, most dimensions of differences among people are reduced to peripheral concern.”

Albert, Michael, et al. Liberating Therory

I’ve been a pacifist since a child. I remember discussing the Vietnam War with my Pentecostal father during the election of 1972, when I was 9 years old. As an adult, I deepened my commitment to Christian pacifism through the incomparable theology of John Howard Yoder and joined a Mennonite church.

My initial religious pacifism led me to question the legitimacy of all systems of violence, whether economic, gendered, racial, or political; thus my first political philosophy was anarchist. This leap from opposing violence to using violence as the foundation for an entire system of political philosophy is the exact logic that the book Liberating Theory identifies as “monism.” The concern with violence reduced other dimensions of social problems to secondary concerns.

This way of thinking seems to me very widespread among pacifists. Recently, during a planning meeting with some Quakers around the Occupy Chicago Spring April 7th events, one member of the group objected to the word “struggle” as potentially violent language. I insisted that some of us do embrace the “struggle.” It never got heated in this instance, but this sort of thing happens on a regular enough basis in Quaker and pacifist circles to be troubling. Words like “impact,” or “confront” become suspect. Tinkering with language somehow becomes viewed as reducing actual violence.

Although in some respects organizations like the Center for Nonviolent Communication do good work in many settings, I am concerned that focusing on communication and “the ability to translate from a language of criticism, blame, and demand into a language of human needs” begs the question of whether criticism, blame, and demand is often an appropriate response to systemic human injustices.

The cure for monistic philosophies is to develop what Albert calls “holistic theory” or what I term on this blog as “integrative methodology.” To focus on the question of violence as systemic – and it absolutely is – to the exclusion of other systems of domination leads to tunnel vision. Instead of viewing capitalism as a complex system of economic exploitation, the vulgar pacifist will narrowly focus on violence and seek to eliminate the violence of capitalism, but leave unexamined and “uncriticized” important features of the capitalist system.

Integrative methodology begins by identifying multiple interconnected social systems. Violence pervades all of society institutionally and culturally, but focusing on violence to the exclusion of other seemingly non-violent yet exploitative and oppressive systemic dynamics is a constant pitfall for many pacifists. I propose  eight categories of social systems including economics, politics, gender, sexuality, race, community, violence, and ecology as each having both their own internal structure that must be understood on their own terms, and also interconnections to the other systems that must be taken into account.

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