Mahatma Gandhi Community Forum

by Ermete Ferraro

Approaching the date of Oct. 2 - declared by U.N. as the “International Nonviolence Day” - I want to
give my small contribution to dissemination of this political alternative, almost completely ignored by the
media . It would be pointless, in fact, if we celebrate once a year Nonviolence with the capital ‘n’ if, for all
other days, we’d put this prospect of change in a purely mental and utopian perspective, without any real
impact on everyday life.
A book I think essential in this quest for something lightening, today, our "journey" towards nonviolence,
is "The Antibarbarie" by Giuliano Pontara, one of the greatest scholars of Gandhi’s thought. He has clearly
shown us that we are facing the problem of a recurring and relentless savagery permeating our world, that is
increasingly globalized, unfair, violent and led to a single thought. It urges us true alternatives to everyday
solutions that policy seems to offer. But this will be possible only if our perspective really will oppose, both
in the means and in the ends, the eight categories that, according to Pontara, characterize the "neo-
barbarism": (1) the struggle for world supremacy (2) the absolute right of the stronger (3) the release of the
policy from any moral limit (4) the elitism (5) the contempt for the weak (6) the glorification of violence (7)
the cult of absolute obedience (8) the fanatical dogmatism.
Some of these points bring us back dramatically towards Nazi-fascist ideology, from which our world
seemed to be released at the end of World War II, coming out of that authentic "barbarism" in the name of an
exciting prospect for freedom and social justice. However, it is hard to deny that these ‘categories’ continue
to pervade contemporary politics. Just look around, in fact, to verify that the power, at all levels, remains
firmly based on the same motives: supremacy based on force, no ethical limits, justification of violence both
as obedience to the orders of those in power, and as a tool by which the "winners" sweep away the weak,
perpetuating a sort of 'selection of the species'.
The problem is, in the minds of most people, that the very word "nonviolence” still evokes a negative,
passive and unconstructive concept. Instead we should know that, as appropriately explaned a manual
published by University of Berkekey, California: "In fact, [it] is a positive force, a presence of mind human
beings can achieve that generates power from within us to use compassion and empathy as catalysts for
social change. ... Nonviolence is a compelling and pulsating fountain of energy, available to all human
beings; few, however, become aware of its might."
( ).
Aldo Capitini rightly said that nonviolence is a way to do that comes from a way of being. It is then not
enough choosing it as a simple method of action, because action without violence can only be a result of a
personal – and more general and complex – choice of “in-nocentia”, the Latin word that perhaps best
reflects the original meaning of the Sanskrit word "Ahimsa".
But just talk to some young people, as I've recently done even on the occasion of explicitly anti-militarist and
pacifist manifestations, to realize how many misunderstandings still there are about "nonviolence" and how
many platitudes and cliches reign again in this field.
Those refusing 'a priori' the perspective of nonviolent action - on the assumption that it is a mere passive
resistance or only an ideal opposition, without any real impact on problems to be faced - not only do not
know what nonviolent struggles have actually achieved worldwide, but also confuse the "result" of a conflict
with the traditional logic called 'zero sum', undoubtedly assuming that one party wins and another loses.
The second cliché, after that one of the alleged 'passivity' of NV is that it would be a fighting method suitable
for the weak and the cowards. But just the opposite is true, as courage is a prerequisite of Nonviolence, so
much that Gandhi said that "there is hope that a violent person someday become a non-violent one, but there
isn’t for a coward. "
The question that arises is that those who rule out the choice nonviolent solution, because it would not be
as sharp and clear as those of a military confrontation, rather did not have the courage to renounce violence
and they are afraid to risk trying a third way between denying of the conflict and addressing it in a
destructive way.

We have to explain to our children that being a nonviolent requires a proactive mind, respect for truth and
courage, possibly with a personal witness of that. Our kids are now breathing daily violence and abuse.
Worse, they are still poisoned by the insidious gas of this daily moral pollution, so that they do not even
recognize violence as a choice. Many, in fact, live it as a necessity, making it fully pervade them as if it were
the only possible way for personal and social affirmation. The problem is that those of previous generations,
despite lived through a period where young people had learned to defy conventions and established order,
failed to convey their experiences, clearly showing that another world is possible.
Personally, when I began to understand something about Nonviolence, I immediately had to verify that it
was an unpopular choice; often a misunderstood, always openly opposed, ridiculed and belittled one. Almost
40 years later, I don’t feel like a hero or an exceptional person and I do not think I’ve ever done something
that was particularly alternative or revolutionary. I just tried to stay consistent with my beliefs, choosing the
less easy path, or perhaps the least useful way, not to betray them.

My choice of conscientious objection and civilian service was the first step on this path that, quoting a
Gandhian sentence, I could call "my experiments with non-violence”. My antimilitarist and pacifist
commitment, enriched by that one as a social worker and a teacher, has also generated my interest in peace
education and a new dimension capable of embodying my option for nonviolence in a broader operating
ground. Then my interest in ecology and environment increased, but again I could not imagine this
commitment except in the light of my initial discovery of nonviolence as an alternative, and then in an
ecopacifist perspective.

Also my work as language arts teacher in junior high schools has been deeply “infected” by nonviolence,
so I’ve chosen apparently less rewarding fields of action (younger children and socially 'at risk' areas),
because I felt I could be there more useful, so following the educational experience gained in my first ten
years of 'sociocultural animation’ with groups of boys of the underprivileged districts of Naples.
Frankly, I do not know if being a "convinced of nonviolence" - to quote again Capitini - really turned in a
coherent and effective commitment, since I know my contradictions and I know how hard it is not falling
into it. What counts - and I think it’s right to share with others - is that 35 years of "nonviolent experiments"
taught me that "there are alternatives" - to quote Galtung - and that pursuing them, after all, is less difficult
and heroic than it seems.
Even my experience with politics, especially that undertaken at the institutional level, made me realize that
there aren’t settings too dirty to be attended. Politicy as a service, in fact, is not a naive myth, but a real
opportunity for those who have previously learned to make less obvious choices and not to conform to the
common bad habits.

So, I wanted to make a good speech on Nonviolence with a capital letter and instead I slid to talk about
my modest personal experiences, to try to find some answers to these daily challenges. But maybe it's better
that way. For those who want to learn about nonviolence, its theoretical foundations and its action
techniques, there are lots of books, but it is clear that few know that, so we certainly do well spreading its
What really matters, however, is to find someone who makes us realize that is not a utopia, a charming ideal,
but bread for our teeth, cloth for our body. Especially in this case, we also need witnesses, not just teachers.
We need someone helping us to verify that the swamp in which we seemed to sink is not the only possible
living environment, but a reality from which we must leave, freeing us. And we must also be careful not to
try not only to save ourselves, because, as Don Milani warned: "I learned that the problem of others is the
same as mine. Sorting all together from it is politics, but arising alone from it is avarice.
"( ).
This finding obviously does not prevent us to experience personally nonviolence in all occasions and
contexts in which we can do it, but still asks us to look for a collective dimension of action and of ideal
sharing of it, also sacrificing the supposed "purity" of our choice to the need to share it with others and to
testify its effectiveness, as well as its rightness.

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