Monday, March 31, 2008

Honoring Cesar Chavez at 81

Today would have been Cesar Chavez's 81st birthday. He died in his sleep in 1993, reading a book on art. His life was cut short, not by an assassins's bullet as was Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X, or his colleague, Robert Kennedy, but because of years of self-denial. He suffered for years because of the fasts that he took on in the name of the farmworker struggle. During his life, he voluntarily denied himself food three times for periods of longer than 20 days. The toll on his body was immense. He underwent debiliating back pain for years. But during his last fast, in 1989, he told people he felt guilty and ashamed because he did not know how much the farmworkers in California had suffered as a result of pesticide use. So he fasted in order to be miserable, to feel pain, because the farmworkers felt pain, and he wanted to show solidarity with them. As a result of these choices, he died before his time, as do many of the workers whose lives are spent in toil so that the rest of us can simply eat.

Here you can listen to a lecture by Cesar Chavez, entitled "Reflections of Social Justice", a year before his death, at Harvard University. (The voice of Dr. King is well known to us, less so is the calm, yet passionate, voice of Cesar). In this lecture talks about pesticide exposure, the sexual harrassment of women farmworkers, the history of union labor in the fields, and the requirements of social justice.

What's interesting in this talk--in this period leading up to the presidential election this fall--is how Cesar discounts the idea of social change through electoral politics. For poor people, he says, it doesn't matter which politician get elected. The key to social justice is to realize that real change only takes place through people power--ordinary folks organizing themselves to put pressure and coercion on the powerful to change. There is power beyond the ballot box.

I examine these ideas of his in my book that was just released: Cesar Chavez and the Commonsense of Nonviolence. I hope some readers will be able to send me their thoughts on the book eventually.

Viva Cesar!

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Carried Away by Violence

Gandhi called violence the "law of the jungle". Animals are prone to use violence instinctually. Human beings, on the other hand, have the capacity to reason, and more importantly, for Gandhi, to feel empathy. We don't have to fight because we can think in defiance of our instincts. Instead of fighting, we can come to realize with our hearts and our heads that we can cooperate and accomplish more working together than by killing each other. Thus, the progress of human civilization, Gandhi believed, was tied to more and more people realizing the benefits of nonviolence.

A new book, by sociologist Randall Collins, seems to give some foundation to these ideas (you can read a good summary here). In Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory (you can look at the first chapter here), Collins argues that human beings are actually quite reluctant to engage in physical violence. We have developed as social animals and have all sorts of cues to defuse situations. Instead of focusing on the biology of violent people, or the broad social forces that might predispose people to violence, Collins focuses on the particular situations that lead to violent outbursts.

One of the most interesting ideas to come out of this book is the idea of "forward panic". In a situation of forward panic, two people are arguing or disagreeing about something intensely, leading to a rise in tension. Then one of the persons flinches or backs down. The tension has been rising so much that the person who has not flinched is carried away by the tension and attacks.

You can see an example of "forward panic" in the now infamous Utah Highway patrol Taser incident:

It seems clear that the civillian is tasered the moment he turns away from the patrolman.

Collins suggests one of the best things to do to contain violence is to train soldiers in forward panic (and police could use this too, apparently). This way we don't automatically give in to our instincts, but learn to trust our social cues about the need to restrain tension.

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