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Our Tragic Flaw: Confronting Violence in Ourselves and the World (c) Parke Burgess, 2018




We have begun to think how each one of us might change our relation to the world in order to become more peaceful, including taking nonviolent action to confront instances of violence in order to transform them into peace. In this final chapter we consider the monumental challenge of how we take this process to the whole world all at once, transforming a global culture dominated by violence into one dominated by peace. This would represent a massive and radical departure from the way the world has worked for thousands of years. Moreover, to cure what ails us—namely, ecocide as a result of global ecological catastrophe such as nuclear winter or climate disruption—this dramatic change must occur soon. We are contemplating a more or less imminent worldwide revolution in human living.

But we must be very careful about this word, revolution. It’s a word that usually comes with the violence already baked in. What we are really after, I submit, is evolutionary change. If our revolution is to be a nonviolent transformation it must emerge organically from a deeper and more authentic engagement with what is actually existentially true; it cannot be imposed. Though it may be revolutionary in its audacity and scope of vision, it cannot be forced or manufactured. If the motto of conventional revolution is “Rise up,” the motto needed here is “Let it rise!” Let us not get in its way; let us honor the human urge and imperative, allowing it and encouraging it to well up within us and between us. There is a phrase, “the truth will out.”[i] One corollary of this, perhaps the most basic tenet of this book, is that peace will out if we give it a chance. Thus, we want something revolutionary in its scope and immediacy but evolutionary in character. To represent this, I refer to the movement intended as a (r)evolution throughout this chapter, with the r in parentheses. This will serve, I hope, as a reminder not to read violence implicitly into the word as I think we tend to do; and to remind us that we are after an organic emergence, not the willful manufacture, of social change.

The One (R)evolution

If you accept the premise of this book, that violence represents the root cause of social dysfunction and the main threat to the future of our species, then there is only one revolution worth waging—the (r)evolution that would transform our global society into a predominantly peaceful and equitable one. Throughout human history, every radical worth her salt has been speaking to the fundamental need for freedom, and the imperative to express ourselves openly, truthfully, and without fear. In this sense, over this whole span there has been but one (r)evolution. It began in the dim past when the first humans overthrew the alpha-wannabes and freeloaders, and continued as free-thinking peoples defied the absolutism of the first monarchs and emperors, and continues today under a range of banners on every continent and every nation in the world—from the survivors of school shootings to the survivors of slavery and genocide.

And yet, this (r)evolution has still not come to full fruition. Indeed, we may well conclude that the world has not been ready, so far, to advance the nonviolent (r)evolution, for the simple reason that no such (r)evolution has yet been fully imagined. This doesn’t mean that we couldn’t undertake one now—indeed, I am explicitly suggesting we should—but only that, until now, the moment has not yet been ripe. And even now, we can only continue to begin. Gandhi’s error, by his own admission, was that the people of India in the first half of the twentieth century were not ready to be as nonviolent as he expected them to be, especially when the stakes were very high. There is little reason to hope that we are much further along this path today. So we must begin at the beginning, by taking care of the nonviolent mind. And we must build our (r)evolutionary institutions only to the extent that we are informed by the insight we have thus gained, always humbly aware of our own limitations of wisdom.

If we ignore what has been argued on every page of this book, we might ask why I assume that this (r)evolution must be nonviolent. In most radical circles, indeed, an argument roils among their members about the value of violence as a tool for revolution. Even among those who favor nonviolence, this varies along a spectrum from purely ‘tactical’ to ‘principled’ nonviolence. By now, I am sure it is clear that I am strongly arguing that anything less than a deeply principled nonviolence—that is a radical nonviolence (radical in the sense of going to the very root)—will not satisfy the fundamental need for which the (r)evolution is ultimately waged, which is peace.

As radicals contemplate their own paths as activists, they are essentially reflecting on the question of which r/(r)evolution they wish to join.[ii] From armed struggle to orthodox nonviolence, there are many ways to plug into the broader social change movement. One might ask: which r/(r)evolution represents the best use of an activist’s life? But if there is really but one (r)evolution after all, these are clearly the wrong questions. Whether we are Zapatistas in Chiapas, leftists in Venezuela, freedom fighters in Gaza, or kibbutz dwellers in Israel; Zen monastics in Korea, Unitarian ministers or parish priests in Boston, or psychedelic New Agers in Humboldt County; whether we march for Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, or trans rights; whether we identify as radical professors, rebellious students, or self-styled vanguard revolutionary Marxists, Maoists, Trotskyites, or anarcho-syndicalists, communalists, or who knows what else—our struggle is one struggle with, at best, one coherent and universal result: a free and fair global society where everyone has the ability to grow into themselves to the maximum possible degree.

This result, if it is to mean anything, suggests a world where the logic of violence has been discarded and the logic of peace has taken its place. While violence will never be eradicated completely, the world toward which we all strive is one where violence holds little sway—where conflicts are resolved in other ways, especially when the stakes are high; where shame doesn’t hold us ransom; where fear and greed do not lead us about so easily, on someone else’s tether or our own; where joy and imagination run buoyant and free.

This way of looking at social change focuses our attention on the proper frame of reference with respect to time. If there is only one (r)evolution playing itself out in millions of communities and a wide range of specific struggles around the world, then the real issue is whether we want, here and now, to use violence to secure immediate objectives (thereby making our ultimate goal more remote) or to work nonviolently toward ultimate objectives (even if it means slower and sometimes more painful progress in the short term).[iii] When we choose violence, even to advance righteous social goals, we gain whatever success we can in the short term at the direct expense of the one global (r)evolution itself. We may win a battle, even an important one, but we risk losing the war.

I have been speaking of one (r)evolution as though I expect all activists to unify under one banner, but that would be naive. This has never occurred across the long and varied history of radical movements. This lack of unity among change agents has always drawn loud complaints from every corner, and the consequent splintering of factions reliably inspires despair among change leaders. One of the challenges to these movements and their leaders, then, is to embrace the multiplicity of strategies rather than to resist it. After all, diversity of perspective and opinion is exactly what we are all fighting for. Moreover, the very effort to force unity in revolutionary movements accounts for much of their failure to achieve anything significant or lasting—and sometimes even to morph into their exact antithesis, totalitarianism.[iv]

Openness to a diversity of strategies must include an acceptance that some revolutionaries will choose violence. This is among the most problematic aspects of a diverse (r)evolutionary movement because, in my view, it works directly in opposition to, and sometimes even effectively erases, nonviolent struggle. But, alas, this cannot be helped; it is simply a fact of human life. If I am right, however, that peace is more true than violence, we can have some confidence that nonviolence will ultimately prove more effective and more compelling than violence, and will eventually overcome violent strategies and succeed despite them. In the meantime, the dissonance of these approaches can be counted on to inspire dialogue, hone our thinking, and deepen the collective discourse. In this way our differences, even with respect to the role of violence, can make us smarter and, more important, wiser.

The inevitable diversity of strategies, though chaotic, may promote (r)evolutionary change more effectively than a unitary approach for an additional reason. By relying on a multiplicity of approaches, each person doing the work that is most meaningful to her, activists challenge the status quo on as many different fronts as possible and engage in those acts with real passion and ardor. By applying pressure broadly, we increase the likelihood that a weakness in the present order will be detected and overcome. Once a weakness reveals itself, pressure naturally flows to the point of least resistance until it gives way. In other words, once a particular strategy begins to show real traction, people will naturally shift their time and energy to support that strategy. The metaphor here is water: Each (r)evolutionary applies pressure in her own way, like the individual molecules of the river working at some impasse. As an opening develops, water spontaneously flows into it, thereby increasing the pressure, making it more likely that the impasse will give way in that spot.

We can see this phenomenon at work across social change movements. Martin Luther King, for example, exposed a potent strategy during the Montgomery bus boycott, and its astonishing success opened a path for economic resistance and direct action that no one in the black community had dreamed possible.[v] This activated a broad, diffuse, and largely spontaneous response, with lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, and attempts to enroll in segregated schools. And so the civil rights movement was born. It followed the path of greatest momentum throughout the 1960s, a path no one could have predicted in advance.

The non-linearity of social change movements reliably complicates the hopes and designs of revolutionary leaders, who become confused and frustrated as they try to keep up with events. For example, the civil rights movement often got out from under its leaders. Like in the elusive art of surfing, King and others sometimes caught a good wave. Much of the time, however, civil rights leaders couldn’t find the wave, missed in their timing, or crashed quickly. They were profoundly frustrated by all of this. They had hoped to ride the waves smoothly and, when necessary, call new waves into being. To their great dismay, however, their success was variable—for indeed, they were not creating the waves at all, which were the work of the fickle and almighty sea.[vi] As far as I am aware, a similar pattern can be seen in all social movements.

In exactly this sense, a nonviolent (r)evolution is one where the will of the (r)evolutionary is not imposed upon history. Instead, the (r)evolutionary rides the waves of history, produced not by individual wills but by the collective movement of social energies. Over time, the (r)evolutionary becomes more skillful in detecting the emergence of a good wave, and she learns to position herself to ride it most effectively—that is, she learns the best techniques for harnessing social forces to move in a liberatory direction. This is not a direction she chooses, but the inexorable direction of the collective will to unleash the creative potential of all its participants.

Just as a surfer simply follows a good wave, discovers its true shape and trajectory, and rides the line expressed by the wave itself—she expresses the wave—so the (r)evolutionary follows the contour of the collective will. His job is merely to express the collective will as best he understands it. He doesn’t mold it, direct it, or force anything upon anyone. He simply expresses what he knows to be true in the moment. He may be right or wrong, depending on his skill and wisdom. If he is wrong, his expression won’t ring true, and his effect on the movement will be shallow at best and counterrevolutionary at worst. If he is right, as King was on a few glorious occasions, he can become a powerful catalyst for further momentum in a (r)evolutionary and liberatory direction. In this respect, great leaders such as King have never manufactured anything of consequence; they have only embodied what was already immanent in the multitude. By expressing this deep truth, whatever it may be, leaders clarify and inspire the movement already begun in the hearts and minds of the masses. We call this leadership, which is a fine enough word, I suppose, but it’s something rather more nuanced than we generally assume.

Leadership is not limited to the people we usually identify as our leaders. All activists perform exactly the same function. Whether we are going door to door working on voter registration, negotiating labor contracts, building alternative institutions, standing on soapboxes, or writing books on revolutionary theory, all of us are trying to express the collective will as clearly and selflessly as possible, or we ought to be. This is the measure of our activism: the degree to which it resonates with, embodies, and inspires the collective will. In this sense, we are all leaders—that is, we seek to catalyze the (r)evolutionary potential immanent in all whom we meet. Moment to moment, one by one, we reflect back to our cohorts their own (r)evolutionary intent, which is nothing other than their yearning for a more meaningful life.

Indeed, leadership in the usual sense has moral legitimacy only so long as it occurs at the nexus of authenticity, clarity, and inspiration in the expression of the collective will. The moment that leadership becomes institutionalized in a single person or hierarchy, it loses its authenticity. From this point of view, King passed in and out of legitimate leadership throughout his career. Indeed, he was more often out of step with the movement, trying to catch up, than he was directly at the authentic razor’s edge of the moment or, to return to my earlier metaphor, at the cusp of the cresting wave. In those moments, King had enormous power and advanced the social good. At other times, despite the reverence that now attends his every recorded remark, he was widely seen by his peers as missing the mark, even draining energy that might have been better spent elsewhere.

All of these considerations focus our attention on, and hone our understanding of, our own individual roles as activists in the present moment. What can we, each of us, do to offer the leadership of which we are now capable, and to participate in the collective action led by our peers and guides? This brings us to the fourth key strategy for making the world a better place (see Table 3, p. 174). We need to articulate our visions and values, and our strategic plans to bring those visions and values into full expression. I see this not so much as a private exercise of imagination and composition but a shared process, a community exercise that inspires, excites, and activates human potential to wage (r)evolution. This includes doing philosophy, reading books and blog posts, arguing ethics, sitting at the feet of those who know better than us, coaching those who know less, drawing up concrete plans, writing manifestos and emails, posting compelling images on Instagram—the whole gamut of human endeavor organized around the shared desire to make this world the one we deserve, especially for those for whom such a world has been most elusive. Another way of putting this is to build a community of shared visions, values, and action. The (r)evolution will only ever be as strong as the human bonds that forge it.

The fifth and final key strategy I recommend is simply an extension of the previous one. Having built our community and honed our ideas and planned our strategies, we now create in the world new, alternative institutions that can take the place of those institutions that protect and advance the violence and oppression we aim to dismantle. Known as a dual power strategy, building new institutions even as the oppressive structures continue to exist both offers the opportunity to develop increasingly effective alternatives and gradually siphons people away from the systems that oppress them. Rather than destroy a faulty world without any clear vision of what would replace it (which reliably results in a new regime just as violent as the old one), we gradually replace oppressive structures with liberatory ones so that when the old order collapses there already exist peaceful forms and norms to fill the vacuum.

Only the limits of our imagination constrain what alternative structures we could build starting right now. In addition to many existing projects, such as food coops, intentional communities, community gardening and resource-sharing programs, shared risk pools—the list is impressively long—many additional projects await invention. For any aspect of modern life that relies on oppressive structures (e.g., capitalism, the military-industrial complex, patriarchy, racism, etc.) a non-oppressive or liberatory alternative is likely possible; it needs only to be thought of and implemented. There awaits a huge creative space that remains mostly unfilled and thus a huge demand for your genius, whatever it may be. Moreover, all of these projects require many hands; whether your gift is invention or implementation, it is sorely needed.

This fifth key strategy also includes the whole category of alternative forms of life known as direct action, civil disobedience, and protest. These methods directly contravene the expectation that people will comply with the systems of oppression without dissent. As we saw in the case of the Philippines under Marcos, the assembled masses nonviolently proclaiming their right to self-determination provided a stunning alternative to the vision and reality offered by Marcos. What makes this example so compelling is that the protestors were not merely offering a negative image, a purely destructive response, but a positive image, a constructive response. They both advocated for and demonstrated peace—they modeled a possible world.[vii]

Authentic Society

Let us conclude our meditation by considering more deeply the possible world toward which our (r)evolution strives. In many ways, that question is already answered in describing the means of (r)evolution. We can certainly say, as an axiomatic truth, that the society that emerges from our (r)evolution will be, precisely, of the (r)evolution—it will possess exactly the same character. So, a definite and specific form of future society will emerge only as the (r)evolution itself continues to unfold. Indeed, even if there is no (r)evolution at all, even if we continue along our current fraught path to the bitter end, the same axiom applies. Our end will match precisely our means. I believe this to be a fundamental and inviolable law of history.[viii]

Given the nature of the (r)evolution I have described—spontaneous, authentic, collectively inspired and implemented, and extremely variable from place to place and time to time—I can hardly anticipate the specific forms that will emerge in a post-(r)evolutionary era, if such is to be had. One could make an excellent argument, indeed, that an authentic society would be one in a perpetual state of (r)evolution, without any finality of form, and certainly without a universal form that would apply consistently across the globe. This vision of perpetual (r)evolution rejects the absurd notion that has captivated many utopians: that history will come to an end after some great revolution, as if all conflicts would cease and all the problematics of social life would be completely and permanently resolved. Nonsense.

Theorists and dreamers have developed many fairly sophisticated utopian schemes, suggesting how a post-revolutionary society could work. These are useful exercises, but we must not become confused about their purpose. In no sense can a nonviolent (r)evolution operate with a fixed blueprint for post-(r)evolutionary institutions as its goal. These schemes can serve as points of inspiration, models for local groups to adapt as circumstances allow, and reinforcement for the crucial argument that peaceful structures and institutions are theoretically possible and could become the norm at some future time. I must emphasize nonetheless that the great danger in this otherwise admirable work is that its proponents will become attached to specific forms or the personal power those forms afford them, whether intentionally or not. So let us develop these plans and visions with fertile abandon but remain open, flexible, and inclusive as we build a world not only free and peaceful but also diverse.

Arguably, this whole book flows from one basic principle: that everything in the universe naturally and spontaneously expresses its true nature. But this becomes somewhat more complex when humankind arrives on the scene. We can make a mistake about what we are (this is our tragic flaw) and, so, become internally divided. From this, much follows, including violence, as I described in Part One. I have tried to articulate, however, that even this mistake represents an expression of our true nature, as a function of the paradox of existence. And thus, in accordance with the principle itself, we also seek to remedy our mistake, to return to our undivided self—that is, to integrate the complex and paradoxical nature of our existential situation. In this way, an element of striving enters the human psyche.

Superficially, this striving is motivated by a simple desire to escape suffering. More deeply, we aim for a kind of fusion with the world, our many selves, and our own authentic nature. So long as our striving amounts to no more than mere escapism it embodies the mistake itself and offers no remedy. Worse, if we remain too much under the spell of the disconnected pole of the paradox of existence, our striving can become distorted and dysfunctional. We then reject ourselves with all the heat of our shame, and we undertake an enormous effort to become something else, which, of course, divides us against ourselves still further.

Peace depends upon the realization that we, like everything else in the universe, simply are ourselves. This is the subjective, personal form of V + (-V) à E: if we subtract our violence we get ourselves as we actually are. Knowing that we do not need to reject ourselves, or become something that we are not—knowing that we are worthy just as we are—enables us to relax our striving. When we relax, the anxiety of our shame, the fever of our greed, and the heat of our violence begin to dissipate. Without these disruptions, the organic relationships between things in the world, between ourselves and the world, and among our various selves spontaneously become visible.

Even as we relax into a greater acceptance of ourselves just as we are, still the path of peace requires a certain kind of vigilance, that special effort we call nonviolence. A keen vigilance to the patterns of our minds and social dynamics allows us to discern early signs of separation and dysfunction. In a state of sharp awareness, we automatically let go of what is not authentic to ourselves, and so we spontaneously express our true selves more fully. Accordingly, the quality of our striving shifts. Before, obstructed as we were by our shame and underdeveloped powers of awareness, we strove after an illusion and inadvertently deepened our commitment to violence. Now, under the influence of a strong awareness practice, and a consequent relaxation of shame, greed, and violence, our striving becomes useful, indeed necessary. It becomes less an ambition to achieve some fantastical, perfected state, and more an aspiration to penetrate and disperse all fantasy. In short, we strive to become truly and deeply authentic.

Authenticity is a moving target. The demands of the moment never stay put. Circumstances always shift; causes and conditions continuously arise and pass away. Similarly, the mind constantly seethes with new impressions, fresh ideas, and powerful feelings. The social environment we must navigate is especially complex, fluid, and volatile. To remain authentic in the flow of events demands a continuous effort of relaxation and awareness—in effect, a constancy of striving. No mere mortal is perfectly adequate to this stupendous task. We necessarily and regularly fail. We become ignorant whenever we turn away from the flow of events, and we become rigid whenever we grasp at one thing or another as it passes by. All of us, no matter how skilled and practiced we may be, endlessly fall into ignorance, get stuck, and make mistakes.

Authenticity, then, involves incredible resilience of mind and spirit. It requires us to surf a dizzyingly complex series of waves with skill, nimbleness, and humility. Authenticity is a groove that we fall into and out of, reeling and shifting, floating and drifting—dancing as we go. It’s a wild, bumpy, unpredictable, painful, ecstatic, sublime ride. No one remains always in the groove—the ride is just too fast and turbulent. Out of the groove, we meet with much suffering that we might have avoided. But when we can find the true groove and twist and bend as it changes, we discover the wellspring of joy itself. This is the reward of authenticity, and the very purpose of being.

The spontaneous expression of authenticity is a kind of play. Life represents an enormous field of play upon which we may build any number of worlds, depending on our fancy and wisdom. Art is a subset of play. Whereas any kind of whimsy is playful, we may define the arts as the domain of play that is also skillful. Play can be anything it wants, without limit; its subset, art, aims to be true. The ultimate art, of which the fine arts are but symbols, is the art of being. Like all play, being can be spontaneous, whimsical, and capricious, but if it is not also artful, it is likely to end in injury and tears.

Our capacity to play artfully at being—that is, to be truly authentic—finds much to inhibit it. Our shame thwarts us at every turn, arguing that we dare not reveal ourselves as we really are. Under its repressive influence, we resist play or we subvert it into harmful forms. Shame, as I have suggested, is the mechanism by which social forces influence our internal sense of self. Originally, shame comes from outside of us, and we internalize it at any early age. In this sense, dysfunctional shame is a social disease like abusive family relationships and traumatic social conditions such as tyranny, famine, or warfare.[ix] All of these work directly against the grain of authentic self-expression. Authenticity of self, therefore, entails authenticity of culture, politics, and economy. We cannot be completely authentic as individuals until we live in an authentic society, and we cannot live in an authentic society until we are authentic as individuals. We must approach both objectives at the same time if we hope to achieve either one. This is the (r)evolution that the present crisis compels us to imagine and, in courageously doing so, we might accomplish.


[i] Shakespeare, W. (1596), The merchant of Venice. Act II, Scene 2, Lines 84-85.

[ii] The admittedly awkward notation r/(r)evolution indicates both senses: of revolution that is likely violent, and (r)evolution that is nonviolent.

[iii] To counter this point, the following passage from Martin Luther King’s (1963) Letter from a Birmingham Jail is often cited: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Without getting too far into detail here, it is my understanding that King is making exactly the same point I am here expressing. His issue is not with those who would urge nonviolence (because, of course, that was his position precisely) but those whose ultimate goals were not sufficiently radical (i.e., “moderate”), and who rejected the use of “direct action.” See Chapter 7 for my extended endorsement of direct action, as well as the remainder of this chapter. Moreover, much of King’s letter argues for the urgency of radical social change, to which the whole argument of this book is also devoted. I am only saying here that it cannot be forced or manufactured, and is not served by violence in the long-term, but must emerge of its own accord, by virtue of its own inherent necessity, which is both great and immediate.

[iv] The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 may be the most striking example of this.

[v] See Branch, 1988, 1998, and 2006 for an encyclopedic account of the civil rights movement, and especially the role of Martin Luther King, on the basis of which I make the observations in this section. For the Montgomery bus boycott, see Branch, 1988, pp. 143 ff.

[vi] Although, to be fair, and this is an important point: leadership affects the multitude, too. In our metaphor, the wave determines the surfer but the surfer also determines the wave. There is an interaction here in which each part (leader and multitude) defines and is defined by the other. See Gendlin, 1996/2018. My main argument here is that leadership is far more complex than our usual thinking about it, which Martin Luther King and others often painfully discovered.

[vii] This is the whole idea of Gandhi’s Constructive Programme. See Gandhi, 1945.

[viii] The very best explanation for this law is to be found, I think, in Gendlin, 1996/2018, but to show that is a project for another time.

[ix] And, as I have argued, shame is very much both the cause and the effect of these.