Monday, September 28, 2009

Pacifism on the Road

You click a radio preset to test what the morning zoo show will be discussing during this commute. Maybe I'll pop in a CD instead, you think, but then realize (as you do so many mornings) that you've listened to these CDs too many times and keep forgetting to rotate them out. You notice some movement in your rearview and watch a Ford Explorer rush up behind you and nearly bump your car. Instead of pulling off, it keeps its close proximity, as if its driver wants to tunnel through your car. You alternate looking at the road ahead and glancing at the rearview toward the Explorer. With each glance, its headlights appear brighter. Finally, there is a straightaway and the Explorer weaves into the opposite lane to blow past you.


You can probably relate to the experience above. If it's not someone tailgating you, it's someone cutting you off, or not properly yielding to you, or perhaps not letting you merge. There are lots of opportunities to feel wronged and aggrieved on the road.

For me, these situations would induce a rush of negative feelings and sometimes even lead to dangerous retaliatory actions. Eventually I knew I had to re-evaluate my approach to driving. I had to reject the negative feelings and their justifications. Further, I realized that some of the same feelings and rationalizations that fed my responses were the same ones that lead people to justify the evil of government. In particular, there were three psychological obstacles I had to overcome before I could "let go" of road justice and instead adopt road pacifism:

1. Desire for revenge

This was the most base response of mine; the desire to pay back evil with more evil. If another driver caused me anxiety or stress, I wanted to inflict that same suffering back onto him. But the primary effect of this desire was to cause more suffering for myself! If I did not act upon my desire and instead let the other driver "get away" with it, then I would stew in loathing and frustration. But acting upon my desire would only serve to escalate the situation and perhaps even endanger myself and others.

I realized my responses were unhealthy and harmful after one incident where I tailgated a car that had just been tailgating me. I was glad to be causing the driver anxiety and stress, just as he had caused me the same a few minutes before. Now he was in the same situation I had been in, only the situation was escalated with more tension. His response was to hit his brakes, and I almost bumped into him. After counting my blessings that no accident had occurred, I understood that my desires for revenge on the road only caused suffering.

2. Justification of punishment

The desire for revenge was an emotional response to situations on the roads where I felt wronged, and it was the strongest influence that I had to overcome on my way to a more peaceful driving practice. But there is also a more intellectual counterpart to the base desire for revenge, and that is the justification of punishment. That is, once I could suppress the emotional response that I knew was unhealthy, I was still left with the thought that enforcement of rules and punishment were necessary. After all, there have to be some rules to dictate how to behave on the road, and we all had to follow them.

But this line of thinking can only lead to support of institutionalized violence. Once you start drawing arbitrary lines to justify force, you immediately justify an imaginary government that enforces your lines. And so even if I had no desire to personally "get back" at a driver, I nevertheless would approve of (and hope for) a policeman punishing him accordingly. If there was no policeman around, I took some solace in the fact that eventually he would be pulled over for a similar infraction and be punished.

It did not take me long to realize the great contradiction in my position, which was that the people who were the worst drivers on the road, who caused me more anxiety and stress than anyone else, were the police themselves!

Aside from the issue that no one can police the police, there are lots of problems with the intellectual justification of punishment. I will highlight one here that is especially relevant to driving. This is that this justification anesthetizes one to the pain caused to others. Whereas the desire for revenge makes one wish to cause pain to someone else, the justification of punishment makes one unsympathetic to pain caused to others. It was, after all, "what they deserved." Ultimately, this coldness and lack of compassion struck me as potentially more dangerous than the desire for revenge.

3. Thinking in terms of external rewards or punishment

Even after intellectually accepting that the desire for revenge only caused suffering, and that I could not justify punishment, there was one niggling issue that prevented me from accepting road pacifism. This was the more existential moral quandary of why we should do good for others instead of evil. Or more relevantly with respect to driving: why not drive like a jerk if it gets you what you want? Shouldn't there be some ill consequences for driving like a jerk?

But these questions rely on a sort of materialist way of thinking, where we think of good and evil as external things that happen to us. If we see someone drive like a jerk and get away with it, we think that something good happened to him because he met his goals without any ill effects to him. It's similar to that old childish question: why do bad things happen to good people?

I believe that the solution to these questions is to recognize that ultimately doing good can only be its own reward; doing evil its own punishment. Even if an evil-doer seems to live a plentiful life and reach his apparent goals, he has chosen the wrong goals and at the very least missed an opportunity to live a more fulfilling and happy life. Happiness can be obtained by anyone and has to do not with external wealth or conditions but with how one chooses to live.

Once I overcame this final obstacle, I could internalize what I knew to be right, which is that I should never respond to other drivers with anger and should not even hope that they are punished for bad deeds. Rather, I ought to pity them for what I know their frame of mind must be, and when faced with a dangerous situation on the road I respond by doing what I think is best for everyone's safety and well-being, even if it means letting other drivers "win".

I am not a perfect driver and occasionally I may still succumb to anger and frustration, but overall after having undergone this process I can say with certainty that my driving experience is more fulfilling, and it is one area where adopting pacifism has both spiritually and materially improved my life. Perhaps it seems like a trivial area to say such a strong statement, but if using peace and compassion can have such an effect in this area, I think of the power it can have in other areas.

Friday, September 18, 2009

In Defense of 9/11 Truthers

I don't know what exact role the federal government played in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, I do reject the official "fairy tale" version that goes like this: radical Islamic terrorists planned and carried out the attacks because they hate freedom. I suspect that at least a near-majority of people also reject this explanation of the attacks and subscribe to some form of "conspiracy theory". A conspiracy theory here is an explanation that assigns a non-innocent role to the federal government. There are of course multiple theories, and you could think of them as forming a loose continuum based on the extent and nefariousness of the government's role. Here are a few points on that continuum:

conspiracy of explanation

This is essentially the Ron Paul position, which does not question the official account of what occurred on 9/11 but disagrees over the causes. That is, the attacks are explained as blowback from years of inappropriate U.S. intervention and foreign meddling.

conspiracy of incompetence

This theory does not question that radical Islamic terrorists carried out the attacks but instead claims that the government has covered up its own incompetence regarding the events that occurred on 9/11. That is, proponents of this theory believe the attacks could have been prevented, either through better intelligence or better response on the day of the attacks.

conspiracy of weak complicity

The two explanations above do not assign a nefarious role to the government in the attacks themselves but instead view the role of government in the attacks as instigator or incompetent enabler (or perhaps both, since the explanations are not mutually exclusive). The explanation of weak complicity is that a "criminal element" within the government assisted the Islamic terrorists or else directly executed the attacks. Within weak complicity, "weak weak complicity" would be that some people within the government knew with certainty of the attack plans and knowingly did nothing to prevent them (as opposed to just being too incompetent to properly respond). In any case, the "weak complicity" explanation does not accuse high-ranking public officials of direct involvement.

conspiracy of strong complicity

The explanation that assigns the largest government role in the attack is that it was orchestrated by Bush administration officials, perhaps even with input or approval by the vice president or president. In short, "Dick Cheney took down the towers."

While I believe the government played a non-innocent role in the attacks, I don't really have a position as to the extent of that role. Any of the explanations above seem feasible to me, and I have never researched the details of each position enough to favor one. Ultimately, it is not even important to me which exact theory is closest to the reality of the events, because it would not change my view of the government in the least. Even if the conspiracy of strong complicity is not right, the important point is that it could be right. As the primary manifestation of man's desire to use force on his neighbor to get what he wants, government is capable of the greatest evils and atrocities we know. Just look at what government does in plain sight! Millions of people who have harmed no one sit in cages. Many millions more are prevented from living a better life for fear of what the government would do to them should they break its laws. Wars are executed halfway around the globe in countries most people know almost nothing about, and for reasons few understand.

I might disagree with arguments or emphases of some 9/11 Truthers, but I would not ever dismiss or belittle the general idea that the federal government could have had a role in such a brazenly evil act. The people who would want to belittle this idea are really belittling the idea that government is capable of evil. The idea that we should dismiss a possible government role out-of-hand is more dangerous and ridiculous than the position that Dick Cheney personally oversaw the planting of explosives in the towers.

Don't let pro-government people intimate dissenters who put forth a position that government is capable of evil. We know from the daily functions that government carries out that it is. If you are met with incredulity, you can even point to historical proof that the United States government is not above planning brazen terrorist attacks on Americans in order to provoke war. Read about it on wikipedia here:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why Pacifism

What “I am” depends largely on who is asking me and the context of the conversation. Sometimes I am an anarchist, sometimes a pacifist, sometimes a libertarian, and sometimes a Tolstoyan Christian. Sometimes I am even a Ron Paul Republican. These may seem highly disparate labels, but I hope there is one common thread in each: advocacy of peace and non-violence; opposition to war and government.

The exact term I use in any particular conversation would depend on the topic and who I am talking to. To most pro-government people debating national policy, Ron Paul’s position of ending foreign wars and dismantling most of the federal government might as well be one of an anarchist, so there is no point in bringing up subtleties of position at the risk of visceral reactions. On the other hand, a debate among libertarians would tend to focus on what laws are just or what the maximum scope of government should be, and then there may be more to gain from distinguishing between a libertarian and an anarchist. In general, if I want to effectively communicate my attachment to non-violence, I must put it forward in a position that meets people where they are. The important seed to plant in all cases is this: perhaps I should not seek to solve problems through use of force.

The label that jumps right to this conclusion is “pacifist”. Unfortunately, this label may be even more loaded than “anarchist”. It seems that “pacifist” is used almost overwhelmingly as a pejorative term, when one wants to accuse another of appeasing some evil-doer. Another problem I have with the term is that for most people it emphasizes the least important positions or scale of positions. On one hand, mention of being a pacifist seems to invite a cascade of what-would-you-do questions, like: what if someone attacks you? Or: what if someone is raping your wife? On the other hand, some people don’t interpret pacifism on such a personal level but instead on the opposite scale of human interaction, government relations. To them, pacifism means nothing more than the foreign policy of Switzerland. Their challenges would be more like: what about Hitler?

Labels are abstractions, and as a result they must leave out details and can never be perfect. Given the challenges of the term, however, I still suppose “pacifist” to be the best abstraction of my beliefs. This term means for me a radically different approach to moral and ethical issues than is otherwise common, even by most anarchists and libertarians. It seems to me that the misguided approach is to seek to divide all possible actions into hard categories: “good” or “bad” for moral questions, and “proper” or “improper” for ethical questions. We try to derive the “just” outcome for any scenario, as if any interaction can be approached dispassionately and judged according to some objective laws that have been formerly derived.

I disagree with this approach. I believe the alternative approach, embodied by pacifism, is this:

Do not seek justice but rather love and compassion.

This statement forms the core of my beliefs, though I would not be so attached to these particular words or sequence thereof to say it is the best statement or not open to semantic quibbling (as all statements must be).

I also do not wish to make this statement some sort of axiom from which to derive correct actions or subsequent moral laws. That would be to miss the point entirely, which is to say that the whole approach of deriving just laws is flawed and that instead we might rely on more spiritual, personal, and religious guidance in deciding what we are to do.

The desire to replace justice with love means that one builds voluntary relationships based on cooperation and mutual benefit, rather than relationships based on coercion and force. It means that one tries to serve others without demanding anything in return and without ever feeling that one is owed anything. It means that one does not seek to build great material wealth, and that one should not prepare to violently defend the wealth one possesses.

The desire to replace justice with love also means rejecting, through non-cooperation and non-violent resistance, all human institutions of government and law that enforce their decrees through violence. It means rejecting any institution that would systematize the use of force.

In any case, this is what being a pacifist means to me and are some of the ideals I strive toward.

I am far from perfect with practicing pacifism. I become angry and have bad thoughts. I pay an uncomfortable amount of tax money to governments. I can wish ill upon my enemies. I am sure there are situations where I might be moved to act violently. However, I view practicing pacifism as a process of self-improvement. For me, this requires constant meditation and self-awareness. I might not always know the way, but sometimes I at least see the next step.