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Pacifism, which literally refers to making peace (from pace and facere) is often mistakenly understood as passivity.
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Vision and compassion are the imaginative well-springs of the pacifist idea. Compassion prescribes the desirability of the abolition of war, vision its possibility.
The compassion of pacifism is suffering, even despair, and a sense of identity with all suffering and despair. It is an exploration of the humanity within us in its strengths and weaknesses, and a reaching out to the humanity in others, affirming the precept, 'as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise'. This imaginative projection of self into the condition of another human individual or group, concurs with a passionate concern to alleviate suffering and to oppose its causes.
The vision is a glimpse of how it could be – a divination of a peaceful world and how it might come about. It is a willingness to look beyond the expediencies and exigencies of the immediate to more permanent realities, more far-reaching potentials, of the human disposition.
The following passage by Louis Nazzi, a French writer who died young just before the First World War, is remarkably expressive of pacifist vision and compassion:
Persistent attempts have been made to discredit pacifism as naive and unrealistic. But to pacifists it is the war method and the way of violence which appear to be rooted in the crude emotions of fear and vengeance, in prejudice and unreason, and to stem from an unrealistic assessment of human psychology and needs, and of long-term interests. Pacifism is based on reason and reality, building the firm structure which underpins and ultimately fuses with the pacifist vision and compassion.
Alex Comfort has seen pacifism as having the clearest relevance to historical realities. One may note here the insistence on pacifism as a counter-force to totalitarianism:
Martin Luther King has also given reasons for thinking that the nonviolent way is the practical and realistic one:
Means and ends are inseparable. The means represent the ideal-in-the-making; in the long run of history, destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.
These appeals to reason agree in suggesting two things: that pacifism will be vindicated by long-term historical realities; and that realism and morality are finally coincident – that what is wrong is also impractical. Our real interests are best served by nonviolence.
Moreover, the whole pacifist idea grows out of the recognition of a certain set of realities about human psychology, and about our political and social behaviour, which non-pacifists seem to find difficult to grasp. This can be briefly represented as follows:
Fear, suspicion and bitterness – like envy and greed – feed upon and regenerate themselves. The deterrence concept sustains an atmosphere unlikely to produce harmonious relationships. Negotiation from strength is a contradiction in terms: threats and counter-threats are not negotiation. Similarly, repressive and authoritarian concepts of civil order tend only to inflame and entrench antagonisms. The use of force does not solve problems: human problems whether individual or international are invariably too complex to be settled by brute force. It merely imposes arbitrary settlements which sooner or later must break down again.
But if pacifism is based on reason and reality, it has to respond positively to two sets of questions which seem to most people overwhelmingly real and reasonable.
To many ordinary people, pacifism appears unsatisfactory because it does not provide readily understandable, immediately useable, or clearly effective methods of dealing with the realities of the world as they have experienced them in their own lives.
Secondly, given that the way of peace and nonviolence is best, how do we actually set about abolishing war and violence?
It would be disingenuous for pacifists to pretend that we know all the answers, or indeed that we have any full or infallible response to the questions. The way in which we can meet the questions is with this insight or understanding: if human suffering and exploitation are to be in any degree reversed, and if our potentiality as a uniquely creative phenomenon is to be redeemed, a way must be found of superseding war and violence. In the full awareness and sensitivity to our common humanity, it is impossible to deliberately kill or inflict suffering for any reason. The effort must be made to carry out the implications of nonviolence in one’s personal life, to develop a nonviolent discipline of living. In any case, even those who justify war preparations have to come to terms with such immediate and concrete facts as the extent to which such preparations deprive millions of people of any improvement in living standards, or the unspecifiable dangers involved in manufacturing, testing and storing modern weapons – nuclear, chemical, biological.
Prompted by this insight, pacifists have embarked on extensive studies of the psychological, social, economic and political causes of war, and have enquired into practical steps towards removing these causes, as well as methods of bringing about resolution of actual conflicts. But pacifists have learned above all that the conditions which perpetuate those causes must somehow be changed: we need new patterns and habits of life.
Pacifists vary considerably in the degree and character of change that they conceive to be necessary. Some call themselves ‘nonviolent revolutionaries’; some incline towards anarchist solutions; some are in the main stream of liberal humanism; some are relatively conservative in their attitudes. But throughout this spectrum it is recognised that pacifism is at once cause and effect of some kind of mutation in human behaviour, both in the collective and individual spheres.
It is recognised at the same time that power politics and the structures of force, coercion and violence that support them, are simply not going to end quickly, whatever proposals for rational policies may be made. Too many other things have to happen first, and hence pacifists apply themselves nowadays to a very broad field of concern.
The Peace Pledge Union is a non sectarian organisation and has no collecive view on religion.
The question of exactly how individuals, groups and nations can compass these changes presents pacifists with their essential task. Somehow men and women must be brought into more constructive dialogue with each other, and the often tragic hiatus between the world as it is and the world as we would desire it – though in a sense ineradicable – must be made subject to a more intensive dialectic of change. If the primary psychology of pacifism is a withdrawal from the world as it is into a fantasy of the world as it might be, pacifism is nevertheless a dynamic fact which has affected, and must more positively act upon, reality.
Whether or not we choose to exercise our capability to end war, to redeem civilisation, depends upon the strength of the pacifist will. The pacifist’s task is to build this; not to provide all of the answers all of the time, but to generate the will to find the answers, and to create the climate in which they can be found and implemented. This is what organised pacifism is about.