Your guide to pacifism and non-violence
Pacifism is a belief that holds that violence is always wrong and should be avoided. In the main, it is exemplified as opposition to war and militarism but it also often involves taking affirmative actions, such as non-violent protest, against such things. Non-violence is an individual's ability to go about their activities without ever recourse to a violent act. As such, the two are often linked. Non-violence has been used as a tactic in several notable political campaigns over the years, not all of them directly related to the pacifist movement. However, the two concepts are also connected through many religious teachings such as the Buddhist concept of ahimsa, which means to do no harm, or the concept of 'turning the other cheek' which Christ preached during his sermon on the mount.
Is pacifism the same thing as non-violence?
No, they are best considered as separate concepts which overlap one another. Pacifism means a comprehensive opposition to violence, particularly organized violence. Non-violence, on the other hand, is the personal decision always to behave non-violently. Therefore, to be a pacifist, you would probably need to act in a non-violent manner to be true to yourself. That said, not all non-violent people are pacifists. Some non-violent people will accept the deterrent effect of maintaining, if not deploying, certain military weapons systems, for example.
What are early examples of pacifism and non-violence?
In ancient China, the so-called Mohist school rejected the warring parties of the region and instead only engaged in defensive activities for protection. Some ancient Greek playwrights, such as Aristophanes, are said to have proposed pacifism in response to the Peloponnesian Wars. There is also a similar strand of thinking in the highly militarized Roman tradition, via Ovid and certain Stoic philosophers. As mentioned, pacifist thinking is also largely drawn in the west from the teachings of Christ as recorded in the gospels.
Has pacifism and non-violence had an impact in the modern age?
In the seventeenth century, religious radicalism in Europe meant that non-violence took off in many quarters. Notably, the Quakers espoused pacifism at this time, and they remain pacifists to this day. Some peace movements also grew during the Napoleonic wars but these only really took off after the brutality of the First World War. Mahatma Gandhi and Leon Tolstoy both proposed non-violence as a way forward for societies in the inter-war period. Gandhi's non-violent campaigns inspired later movements, including the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s led by Dr Martin Luther King Junior.
What criticisms of pacifism and non-violence are there?
For some, pacifism and non-violence go against human nature which is always violent at some point. However, even those people who accept that groups and individuals are capable of being true pacifists point out that it does not help to overcome the violence of others, especially when non-violence is not respected and met with violence. The appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s is often pointed out as an example of pacifist thinking forming policy decisions which, ultimately, failed.
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