Wednesday, November 02, 2005

What we can learn from others

I am a frequent lurker on ISCABBS, out of the University of Iowa. It's an old-school bulletin board system that predates the World Wide Web, and it once served sixty thousand users (heh, I almost typed "years"), although with the advent of IM and such, the user base has shrunk and now appears to be stable at approximately 5% of its peak size.

I read one forum (amongst others), as it's called in ISCA parlance, titled Bible and Christianity. It is not a Christianity safe space, so in the past there have been many heated and sometimes interesting debates between Christians and non-Christian faithful, between atheists and theists, and between people from different broad denominational categories (e.g., Evangelicals and mainline Protestants). With the lack of new blood, those users who remain are by now quite familiar with each others' opinions and arguments, so a lot of the current discussion focuses on contemporary Christian issues, and people rarely get upset anymore.

A lot of it's news and commentary that I now get in a more timely fashion from other sources, so I often end up just scanning the messages posted there, but now and then some stand up and grab the attention of the other users or, more to the point, of me.

A number of the attention-grabbing posts come from a single person. She doesn't post very often anymore, choosing to lurk rather than ruffle feathers, but when she's not bringing up Anglo-Catholic internal politics, she's simultaneously raising the ire and respect of different factions of users who read B&C.

I, for one, would like to see her post on her disruptive topic more (I could try to engage her more myself, but it's beside the point). It's not because I agree with her; I rarely do. It's because I find some of her philosophy challenging.

So, what's the big deal?
She's an absolute pacifist.

Before you ask, no, it doesn't mean I'm some warmonger, and no, I don't find her ideas scandalous. I think it's rather gauche, to put it mildly, to treat the military as just another diplomatic tool. I don't like to throw down with someone just for the thrill of it, or because I think I validate myself by demonstrating superior brutality. When I had to take PE in college and ended up in a martial arts course, I didn't even enjoy sparring, and the fighting there, at least, was respectful and controlled, although to be fair I wasn't very good at it.

What challenges me is the same thing that sparks the debates over the moral and practical value of pacifism. Everyone agrees that violence by itself isn't a good thing, in fact is never actually a good thing. So far I agree completely. However, some of us get off the train before denying that overt violence in defense of people unable to protect themselves could possibly constitute a necessary but merely disordered act. If someone came into my home with intent to harm my family, I wouldn't shoot first and skip the questions entirely (maybe there isn't intent to harm), but ultimately I couldn't justify stopping at anything to protect my loved ones.

Now, this pacifist is not preaching absolute passivity, either. If she happened upon a rape in progress, she would not stand idly by and merely refrain from violating the rapist's dignity, but she would try to obstruct him in ways short of direct engagement. Part of me says this kind of strategy is fatally ineffective, but another part wants to know how offensive I would really need to be, in the same situation, in order to be effective. Should I grab something heavy, sneak up, and just beat him until he stops moving? No, I'd be going too far. How far is far enough, though?

Once I open the door to violence, how do I close it? How far can I safely let it swing open? If a house invader is about to start cutting people I care for and I'm reasonably confident I can't stop him, I'm putting two bullets at center of mass after all and praying the good surgeons downtown can do more for him than I could. In the heat of the moment, I don't have the luxury of indecision, but here and now, I do, and it would behoove me to consider how I could be more likely to defuse the situation before it gets that far. When I tell myself I'd only shoot if necessary, am I now the one who's being cavalier about jumping from "brandish and threaten" to "aim and squeeze?"

Maybe the homicidal home invader example isn't a good one. Things could go down either way and I'd never know for sure if I could have achieved a solution that was not either/or in terms of survival. My point is that although this pacifist's definition of violence is so broad as to appear unworkable to the uninitiated--I'll spare you the details--instead of looking for excuses to blow off working for what really is one of the greatest goals, peace, maybe I should be asking myself instead if my definition of violence is actually too narrow.

Do I hurt people in cold blood? No. Do I make an effort not to let my bad mood keep me from treating respectfully with other people? Well, I try. If someone wrongs me, do I take offense? I suppose it's natural, whether or not it's right. Am I prone to dwelling on the offense and thinking less of the person, based solely on the one infraction? Okay, now it's definitely not natural or right. Do I enjoy it? Ahh...well, I shouldn't....

Okay, these questions weren't too hard to answer, but if that pacifist weren't around to ruffle my feathers a little bit now and then, I might never be asking them. Maybe, if I never did ask myself these questions, I'd still do the right thing in such situations. Finding the right answers wasn't too difficult, so maybe I could expect to do the right thing when the situation is a little grayer, too
But if not, I wouldn't like being surprised.

No comments: