What does it mean to be a pacifist? Sometimes we are still figuring it out ourselves. I asked my friend Lisa M. Perez to consider the topic, and she sent back this searching, positive, honest piece. —Marc
On Election Day, I stared at the Presidential Election results in complete disbelief. I cried. I demanded a re-count. I saw rallies and people in the streets. Then, on Saturday, January 21st, 2017, I celebrated as women banded together in solidarity across the nation and around the world to express their anger and discontent. I cried happy tears. I cheered.
Let's go further back here.
All of my life, I have been the product of careful conditioning. Born in the 1970s, I was brought up to "Buy the World A Coke" and prevent forest fires and Give a Hoot. I was taught in public school classes that still used chalk and blackboards, and recited The Pledge of Allegiance where the phrase "One nation under God" was never questioned. My childhood/teenage years spanned from Sesame Street to The Brady Bunch and my Charlie's Angels lunchbox. In later years, I'd want my MTV, Say No! To Drugs and get all of my morals from Afterschool Specials and One To Grow On commercials on NBC.
So, unbeknownst to me, without my official consent or awareness ... I was being taught from an early age to be, well, a pacifist.
"WHEN I SAY IT'S YOU I LIKE, I'M TALKING ABOUT THAT PART OF THAT KNOWS THAT LIFE IS FAR MORE THAN ANYTHING YOU CAN EVER SEE OR HEAR OR TOUCH. THAT DEEP PART OF YOU THAT ALLOWS YOU TO STAND FOR THOSE THINGS WITHOUT WHICH HUMANKIND CANNOT SURVIVE. LOVE THAT CONQUERS HATE, PEACE THAT RISES TRIUMPHANT OVER WAR, AND JUSTICE THAT PROVES MORE POWERFUL THAN GREED." — FRED ROGERS
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Look, I hold truths to be self-evident. I follow the rules, the law and value justice for all. I pay my taxes and let my true colors shine through. But when my nation chooses a narcissistic, Twitter-loving billionaire fascist who doesn’t read, has no moral code to speak of and is an ethics major's primary case study of what not to do, I balk. Well, why does this offend my sensibilities? Why am I so shocked? This is a time when I need to explore what ideals of peacefulness actually mean to me.
We start with an inescapable truth: I am a hypocrite. The images that I draw up from history don’t resemble my reality at all. I am not denied entry in and out of the country. I am neither malnourished nor hungry. I do not get executed in the street for being a different shade or type. Yet, collectively, I feel cheated and do what a majority of my family and friends do; I criticize the very democracy that I believe in. I find myself observing the negative aspects of our current reality from every angle, incredulous as I was the day of O.J. Simpson verdict.
Here is where I feel a pang of incongruousness between the person I thought I embodied and the person that I actually am. I picture pacifists having an idyllic sit-in at a lunch counter as people pour condiments and spout hatred just inches away from stoic faces. I envision the image of the Vietnamese monk who burned himself alive at a busy intersection in protest of the American War. I pictured John Lennon and Yoko Ono protesting in bed. I find myself angry about a lot of things, not just one singular thing. I find my thoughts muddled, misdirected without a target.
Of course I was never so naïve as to believe that racism is over or that fighting this age-old evil would be suddenly eradicated now that the first African American family served this nation. But the very foundation of passive-resistance has now been broadened to include every culture and its struggles toward the equality we say we want to spread across the nation and the globe. In recent years, before our current ordeal began, pacifism was routinely offered as a solution, but it was never clear just what it could do.
As an active (not passive) strategy, Pacifism offers an option to counter violent conflict and war. I have personally never had to experience warfare firsthand, thankfully, but I have managed to witness and experience several forms of violence and shows of force in my life. While I wouldn’t wish these on anyone, these life experiences forever changed my perspective and altered my initial perceptions. I can relate to someone who is experiencing trauma as the result of basic instincts like hatred and violence. I can’t however, educate anyone—let alone the head of a nation—on the workings and nature of violence. Unless these are personally experienced, how can anyone understand how damaging conflict and war can be? These lessons cannot be magically produced out of thin air and transferred into the consciousness of someone else.
I am no stranger to authority and consequences. Following The Golden Rule to avoid doing something harmful to someone else was always seen as the quintessential way to live in a rational, logical world. If I did something wrong, I was punished for it. If one of my friends, family members, or classmates did something wrong, they were punished for it. I was never rewarded for bad behavior or for lying. I was never lauded for taking advantage of tax law loopholes or cheating and stealing. In the end, I was always punished for my wrongdoings no matter how big or small they were. I paid the piper.
Over time, I felt as though I were part of a unified conscience that backed these beliefs. These beliefs were reinforced again and again by my parents and authority figures that said that the world bent toward Reason and Truth. Beliefs that I assumed were part of the universal conscience of this nation, having witnessed some of the greatest pacifists this world has ever known, a world that had suddenly recognized that they needed diplomacy over militarism, preferred the truth to alternative facts, and would select experience over a reality TV personality. But what I saw instead were people ignoring what seemed to me glaring personality flaws, inflammatory, ignorant, and dangerous remarks and despite their voter charts and figures stating the contrary, the nation was schooled by what was termed "the silent minority". This undercurrent of evil that persists just when you think you’ve somehow mastered your own flaws and elevated from your upbringing. To quote Doctor Phil: "Rise above your raisin’."
My faith and overconfidence in progress is the result of what pacifists take for granted: that all generations will see the world as we see it. We should never think that it's a no brainer to perceive the differences between right and wrong, good and evil. People love to preach "common sense", but not everyone sees situations the same. What one society or culture views as morally wrong could be completely acceptable to another. Even educated scholars debate over the definition of morality.
In an excellent online Coursera course I took, Paul Bloom, a professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University argues against one of the fundamentals of pacifism: empathy. He writes in his Boston Review article, “Against Empathy”:
CERTAIN FEATURES OF EMPATHY MAKE IT A POOR GUIDE TO SOCIAL POLICY. EMPATHY IS BIASED; WE ARE MORE PRONE TO FEEL EMPATHY FOR ATTRACTIVE PEOPLE AND FOR THOSE WHO LOOK LIKE US OR SHARE OUR ETHNIC OR NATIONAL BACKGROUND. AND EMPATHY IS NARROW; IT CONNECTS US TO PARTICULAR INDIVIDUALS, REAL OR IMAGINED, BUT IS INSENSITIVE TO NUMERICAL DIFFERENCES AND STATISTICAL DATA. AS MOTHER TERESA PUT IT, "IF I LOOK AT THE MASS I WILL NEVER ACT. IF I LOOK AT THE ONE, I WILL."
But how could this be? Well, take my grandmother. She was one of ten children hand-picked by her parents to be the child that would work in lieu of attending school. She was loaned to neighbors as a live-in slave at the age of five for twenty-five cents a week which she would turn over to her parents in full. She was illiterate, and after marrying my grandfather she came to the States to serve her alcoholic husband ... and his extra-marital activities. As she began to become Americanized, she decided to join the workforce but could only manage factory labor in New York while raising two daughters. Both of my grandparents would survive the Great Depression. They brought over all of their relatives with their earnings to occupy a shared floor in a tenement building, with one bathroom.
My mother, like me, was born on the island and was raised in the United States. She met and fell in love with my father, married him a week after her high school graduation, and traveled with him while he was stationed in the US Army. Both of my parents themselves survived political unrest on the island as well as in the States. Although my father never was sent to Vietnam, he also never recovered from the knowledge that he was the lone survivor of his platoon. Guilt and promise of a future brought him to serve on the police force in New Jersey for over twenty years.
In contrast, my birth was not one of survival or hardship. It was my parent’s justification for staying together bound by lack of understanding, manipulation and strategy. That may sound cold, but my existence taught my parents how to grow up. And I was given a job at birth: to carry out my parent’s vision, to champion their failures and fulfill their dreams so that they could feel as though they did a bit of good in the world.
Hence, I was their clay. It took two generations of survival pitched to me as “sacrifice” to get me what I earned myself: a stellar education, a degree (the first in my family), and the exposure to a "We Are The World" high-school experience which shaped my life for the better. But in the process, I was also learning lessons that neither my grandparents nor my parents could ever teach me. I was learning that I was smart, that I wasn’t a bully, and that I could really gain traction with my words. English was my strong suit — an armor that protected me from those who wished to do me personal harm. It was also my weapon of choice in college as I debated students on various topics, sometimes even convincing them to switch sides.
My education was not limited to scholastics. I was also taught the basics of spiritual practice: a hodgepodge of Roman Catholicism and folk tradition with a little Santeria thrown in for good measure. Some of those doctrines were confusing to follow, steeped in superstition and ritual supplying even more pacifist solutions to combat the things I saw as a child but could not explain.
Like the all-white congregation that blocked us, that refused to allow Hispanics to hold weekly masses in their church. Our first several years were spent huddled in a dark basement, singing hymns until all of us, men, women, and children, spilled out onto a crowded pavement to worship on the street.
These examples are part of my history. They are as ingrained as a tattoo. And this is why it is so simple to forget to think, to categorize, to demonize.
I'm a GenXers. Immediately after the fiasco of the Trump election, many of my fellow GenXers were all too comfortable passing the blame on to “Millennials” — some mysterious generation which sprouted a batch of young voters.
Well, guess what? My generation made them. We expect the same "Millennials" we've been labeling "spoiled" and "entitled" to fight our battles for us? And what of our other demons, who we also fail to understand? Tea Party conservatives, establishment Republicans, the odious and newly outspoken White Nationalists, the nebulous "Religious Right".
It is so much easier to condemn than it is to understand.
It’s hard to look inward and realize that understanding another person’s point of view is the only way to pacify a disagreement.
The war is not against these vague groups, or against any external threat. Perhaps the real threat is the bold lie my generation has been taught: that we must fight, argue, oppress and suppress anyone whose political or religious or personal beliefs we don't understand.
So how’s that working out?
And how's the drive for greater awareness of women's rights working out? Historically disdained as the "weaker" sex, we women are still a territory that must be claimed as a political prize. We fight to stand among the Founding Fathers, and fail to question why there are no Founding Mothers, or Founding Persons. Our Constitution declares that "all men are created equal", and characterizes social communities as "brotherhoods" and "fraternities". Are we surprised to find a constant devolution to "The Boy’s Club"?
"FRATERNIZE MEANS TO BEHAVE LIKE A BROTHER. LUKE TOLD ME THAT. HE SAID THERE WAS NO CORRESPONDING WORD THAT MEANT TO BEHAVE LIKE A SISTER. SORORIZE, IT WOULD HAVE TO BE, HE SAID. FROM THE LATIN." — Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
Women had to become pacifists long before men did. Sometimes this provided our only chance to be acknowledged at all. As reported in Sarah Mirk's "Popaganda: Navigating Workplace Patriarchy" even women working at high levels within the Obama administration had to implicitly band together to develop “a special tactic to make sure that their ideas are recognized and respected. When a woman shares an idea in a meeting, another woman repeats it and makes sure to credit her by name. They call it amplification." If this was needed in the Obama administration, we can only imagine what women who attempt to use their natural powers have to deal with in less "enlightened" conference rooms.
So, what do we do? And how can I declare a pacifist renaissance (Pacifism 2.0, if you will) if all I have in my arsenal are The Vitruvian Man and Beyonce? How do I elevate my own self-esteem, accept myself just as I am, and accept others just as they are without judgment? How can I incorporate Bloom’s rational compassion, promote the right to bear woes of the human condition rather than arms, and grow in Love, Peace and Understanding?
First, I have to stop flippantly labeling myself and others.
Second, I have to tell the truth. Just as pacifist leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi did not shy away from the horrible truths they found, I need never sugar-coat what I see. The truth is always simple, straightforward and requires no dressing. A truly mature person need not lie.
Third, I can respond to negativity with an attitude of openness and gratitude. I do not have to be on the offensive, win an argument or point out someone’s flaws. There is no enemy. It is not my life’s purpose to correct, bully, assault, demean, belittle and deny another person's right to fairness and the same inalienable rights of our country's Constitution. Instead, I can choose to remove anyone from my life who I see as a threat. I can redirect their "issues" to themselves by being gracious and patient as I would to a petulant child.
Fourth, I will offer my gifts to those who would benefit from them. The skills that earned me a degree, the things I know, the contributions I can make.
I am a pacifist and a woman and I am also a New Yorker. Every one who shares in the life of this great city has their own back story, their interwoven history of struggle and resolution, which they’d would be happy to tell you (in laborious detail) over a cup of coffee and a bagel. Yes, the East Coast experiment in tolerant coexistence and practical pacifism is as close as I have ever gotten to true harmony. In New York City, everyone is welcome to be who they are. This society isn’t perfect, but it survives.
If this small island surrounded by the Hudson river can welcome huddled masses, why can’t our entire nation?
As far as I know, no one’s drowned yet. I’ll just hold onto hope and keep on swimming.
Lisa M. Perez is a published poet, writer, editor and artist. The co-creator of the first ever ArtSpace in Jersey City NJ, member of IUOMA (International Union of Mail Artists), and administrator for an online Mail Art group, Lisa supports the arts and advocates for creativity. Her successful, Art Journal and Notes from my Brain projects are ongoing. In addition to being an active blogger since 2005, Lisa scripts and edits copy for various online articles and videos. In her spare time, Lisa studies, reads, and creates while maintaining a day job in a STEM field and being a full-time fur-mommy to her her shih-tzu, Cher.