“No animal shall kill any other animal… without cause.” – the pigs (George Orwell, Animal Farm)
When I was in the second or third grade I asked my parents about the Ten Commandments, which we had just learned in my Catholic school. Specifically, I wanted to know about the fifth commandment: “Thou shall not kill.” As my father was in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, I was concerned whether he had broken the commandment. To my relief he told me that, as far as he knew, he had never killed anyone.
Beyond my own father’s past —and I know this isn’t an original thought— I wondered how to reconcile this sacred instruction with all of the killing that must have taken place in the wars across history. Were they all sins? Were all those soldiers doomed to hell?
It’s been a long time since that day, and I only have a vague memory of my parents’ response. They said that killing in war was different. Somehow, the rule was lifted when soldiers killed for their country. In the eyes of a child, I guessed that even divine decrees had exceptions.
From an anthropological perspective, it is worth considering how individuals and societies negotiate what forms of violence are permissible. Some religious scholars, like Rabbi Marc Gellman, have written that a more accurate translation of the fifth commandment should be “Thou shalt not murder” instead of “kill.” Gellman noted that while killing entails ending a life, murder is “taking a life with no moral justification.” Similarly, in his book The Warriors, Glenn Gray wrote that “The basic aim of a nation at war in establishing an image of the enemy is to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder by making the former into one deserving of all honor and praise” (1959: 131-2).
However, determining when violence (lethal and non-lethal) is morally justifiable can be a gray zone, with people positioning themselves on a continuum between completely nonviolent “doves” to hyper-aggressive “hawks.” While many people hold nonviolence as an ideal; living up to that ideal perfectly has proven difficult to almost impossible. The question is where people draw their line.
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’ ”
— astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell
“Earthrise,” 1968 (Source: NASA)
Sometimes, a simple shift of perspective can make all the difference in the world. Whenever I have to drive somewhere new, I always look at a map. Sometimes, it’s an old hard-copy version, though the majority of time I’ll use an online one. That view from above is very helpful, but sometimes at ground level there are nuances which I may have overlooked (an unexpected left-lane exit), or road changes, or construction that may have altered since the map was created. Both perspectives – on the ground, and from the sky – are correct; they just give us different views of the same thing.
In the Edgar Mitchell quote above, a dramatic change in perspective – in this case a view of earth from the moon – created a sense of the unity of humanity, as well as a frustration that people back home frequently fail to rise above their parochial squabbles on the ground. That notion seems to recur among astronomers, astronauts, and astrophysicists. Perhaps it is an inherent benefit of their big-picture view. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” is the standard bearer for this sentiment:
[Summary: This essay has three parts. First, truth is really important. Second, you are a damn fool. Well, not a fool. I’m trying to get your attention. But you are fallible, and so am I. We all are. This makes discovering truth very difficult. Third, our fallibilities can be exploited by others who do not particularly care for truth. Be humble, embrace your fallibilities, and try to overcome them as we strive towards accessing truth.]
“Being good, she observed, meant being good to others, including strangers. And that was pretty much enough to live by. But how can you know the right thing to do? Human reasoning, she said – referring now explicitly to Socrates and Plato – human reasoning is imperfect. Human bias keeps us from perfect vision of what is happening around us. But the quest for truth – the quest to understand the world around us – must ultimately be how you enact the good.”
– Alice Dreger’s mother (Galileo’s Middle Finger, p. 256)
“Veritas super omnia.”
Last year, I shared some thoughts on Isaiah Berlin’s 1994 essay, “A Message to the 21st Century.” Everyone should read it, in my opinion. I often come back to his words, as I see them as a synopsis of the human condition. Berlin emphasized that the values we hold most dear frequently clash with other ones (justice can clash with mercy, spontaneity with rational planning, liberty with equality, knowledge with happiness, etc.).
I first watched Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film “Gandhi” when I was a teenager. I’ve seen it several times since, but there is one particular scene that has always stood out. To me, it is as powerful as any film scene I’ve encountered.
For background, the scene takes place during a period of rioting between Muslims and Hindus. Brokenhearted by the violence, Gandhi vowed to fast until the fighting stopped or until he dies, whichever comes first. Due to the reverence that people held for him, Gandhi’s fasting helps to bring the riots to a halt. As he lay in bed, weak from hunger, a group of Hindu men hand over their weapons and pledge not to engage in further violence.
As they leave with Gandhi’s blessing, a solitary man with a crazed look barges in. I don’t think I can do the rest of the scene justice, so it is probably better just to watch.
A few months ago, I finally decided to ask someone well-versed in Gandhi’s biography if they knew whether the events in the scene happened as they were portrayed. Kindly, a historian answered my question, although their response was indirect. Instead, they cited the phrase, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is often attributed to Gandhi and can be found on bumper stickers, internet memes, and t-shirts. However, there is no record that he ever spoke or wrote those words. Gandhi did say something along those lines, but it’s not exactly made for a t-shirt:
“Because of the values we place on sexuality in life, because of the terrible taboos which surround it, the endless lies, the forlorn wishes, the sad fantasies we wind around it like gauze about a wound (whether these things are due to the way we are brought up, or are the result of something graver – an unalterable quality in our nature), everyone’s likeliest area of psychological weakness is somewhere in the sexual.” — William Gass
With the World Cup in full swing, several light-hearted stories have circulated about which countries have restrictions against sex while their teams are still in contention. Elizabeth Abbott, in her 1999 book “A History of Celibacy” noted that there are several reasons that people have engaged in celibacy over time — including for asceticism, as clergy, to preserve virginity, as a result of coercion (ex. eunuchs), etc. She spent much of the book on several interesting historical figures, including the life of Gandhi and his own views on desire and celibacy.
He wedded very young (age 13), the result of an arranged childhood marriage. At 19 he left India, alone, to study law in England for three years, and he vowed to his wife and mother to shun alcohol, women, and meat (he was a strict vegetarian) while he was away. According to Elizabeth Abbott (1999), one source of strength for Gandhi was the following passage from the ancient Bhagavad Gita.
If one ponders on objects of the senses there springs
Attraction; from attraction grows desire
Desire flames to fierce passion, passion breeds
Recklessness; then the memory – all betrayed –
Lets noble purpose go, and saps the mind,
Till purpose, mind, and man are all undone.
I just came across the work on nonviolence by the University of Denver’s Erica Chenoweth. In this TED talk, she says that she began as a skeptic about the ability of nonviolence to make meaningful change. Someone challenged her to look into the topic further, and she says she was shocked by the results. I am too, in a good way.
“From 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns worldwide were twice as likely to succeed outright as violent insurgencies. And there’s more. This trend has been increasing over time, so that in the last 50 years nonviolent campaigns are becoming increasingly successful and common.”
Below is the key figure from Chenoweth’s presentation, illustrating the percent of violent and nonviolent movements that succeeded in overthrowing a government or liberating a territory. It’s clear that nonviolent movements are not a panacea to reducing violence in the world. They aren’t always successful, and sometimes violent movements may be necessary.
With the news of Osama bin Laden fresh, I’m reminded of a passage (#31) from the Tao Te Ching on humility and military victory:
… Continue reading