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Last Updated: 04/01/2008
Pacifism Post 9/11
Amardo Rodriguez

Amardo Rodriguez discusses the charge, raised in many mainstream media sources in the United States, that pacifism cannot be defended in the post 9/11 world. A new framework for communication is suggested - an ecology of communication - so as to broaden the scope of possibility amd allow for a deeper understanding of violent conflict.

After September 11, 2001, Michael Kelly, columnist for the Washington Post and editor-at-large for The Atlantic Monthly, did a series of columns denigrating, ridiculing, and mocking pacifists and pacifism.  Again and again, pacifists were accused of being hypocrites, immoralists, pro-terrorists, and, echoing George Orwell’s claim, even pro-fascists.

Pacifists see themselves as obviously on the side of a higher morality, and there is a surface appeal to this notion, even for those who dismiss pacifism as hopelessly naive. The pacifists' argument is rooted entirely in this appeal: Two wrongs don't make a right; violence only begets more violence.

There can be truth in the pacifists' claim to the moral high ground, notably in the case of a war that is waged for manifestly evil purposes. . . .But in the situation where one's nation has been attacked—a situation such as we are now in—pacifism is, inescapably and profoundly, immoral. Indeed, in the case of this specific situation, pacifism is on the side of the murderers, and it is on the side of letting them murder again. . . . .

The American pacifists wish the Americans to not fight. If the Americans do not fight, the terrorists will attack America again. And now we know such attacks can kill many thousands of Americans. The American pacifists, therefore, are on the side of future mass murders of Americans. They are objectively pro-terrorist.

There is no way out of this reasoning. No honest person can pretend that the groups that attacked America will, if let alone, not attack again. Nor can any honest person say that this attack is not at least reasonably likely to kill thousands upon thousands of innocent people. To not fight in this instance is to let the attackers live to attack and murder again; to be a pacifist in this instance is to accept and, in practice, support this outcome.

Washington Post, Sep 26, 2001

Do the pacifists wish to live in a United States that has been defeated by Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein? Do they wish to live in a United States that has been defeated by any foreign force? Do they wish to live under an occupying power? Do they wish to live under, say, the laws of the Taliban or the Ba'ath Party of Iraq?

These questions, you may say, rest on an absurd premise: Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein cannot ever hope to defeat and occupy the United States. Yes, but that is true only because the United States maintains and employs an armed force sufficient to defeat those who would defeat it. If the United States did as the pacifists wish—if it eschewed war even when attacked—it would, at some point, be conquered by a foreign regime. What stops this from happening is that the government and generally the people of the United States do not heed the wishes of the pacifists.

Washington Post, Oct 3, 2001

There is risk; and if things go terribly wrong it is a risk that could result in terrible suffering. But that is an equation that is present in any just war, and in this case any rational expectation has to consider the probable cost to humanity to be low and the probable benefit to be tremendous. To choose perpetuation of tyranny over rescue from tyranny, where rescue may be achieved, is immoral. . . .

To march against the war is not to give peace a chance. It is to give tyranny a chance. It is to give the Iraqi nuke a chance. It is to give the next terrorist mass murder a chance. It is to march for the furtherance of evil instead of the vanquishing of evil.

This cannot be the moral position.

Washington Post, Feb 19, 2003

Tyranny truly is a horror: an immense, endlessly bloody, endlessly painful, endlessly varied, endless crime against not humanity in the abstract but a lot of humans in the flesh. It is, as Orwell wrote, a jackboot forever stomping on a human face.

I understand why some dislike the idea, and fear the ramifications of, America as a liberator. But I do not understand why they do not see that anything is better than life with your face under the boot. And that any rescue of a people under the boot (be they Afghan, Kuwaiti or Iraqi) is something to be desired. Even if the rescue is less than perfectly realized. Even if the rescuer is a great, overmuscled, bossy, selfish oaf. Or would you, for yourself, choose the boot?

Washington Post, Feb 26, 2003

Kelly is exploiting a conflict that many persons who would like to support pacifism grapple with.  Indeed, the problem for many of us who want to believe in peace, even after reading many of the most important writings in peace studies, are the questions that never seem to go away, such as, Is every war unnecessary?  Is every war morally unjust?  Could peace have stopped the Holocaust?  Was John Brown morally wrong for waging war to end slavery?  If some wars are morally just, as even many Nobel Peace Laureates believe and most religions acknowledge, what is the case for peace?  That is, how can peace be morally comparable to war if war is ultimately necessary?  The promotion of peace no doubt makes for less wars, but this is in no way makes peace morally comparable—much less morally superior—to war.  In short, the problem many of us have who want to believe in peace is that, ultimately, we cannot honestly convince ourselves that peace is morally superior to war.

So we fudge.  We speak about certain wars being unnecessary. We speak about the futility of certain wars.  We demand that negotiation be given more time and effort.  We speak about the cost of war.  We speak about how the money spent on war could be better spent on education, healthcare, housing, and so forth.  But many of us simply cannot imagine a world where war is unnecessary, or even want to be devoid of the military means to at least neutralize the aggression of others.  We still believe we have to invest in our ability to wage war so as to at least maintain military parity with those who wish to vanquish us from the planet.  We can make no compelling case for peace.  So to believe that even some wars are morally just, does nothing much to spare us from the perils of war. 

But peace is by no means the negation of war.  Peace is the negation of violence.  War is the most intense and extreme form of violence.  It is therefore unfair to offer peace as an alternative to war.  By the time the conditions are in place to make war even a reasonable option in resolving our affairs, the only constructive alternative is to focus on the cost of war, on lessening the intensity of war, on limiting war, on exploring other options to war, and evening trying to avoid war.  But ultimately our goal should be on avoiding the practices and ways of being of being that make for the conditions that legitimize and encourage war.  In other words, to seek a world without war is to seek a world without violence.  We cannot be of a world that is laden with violence and then advocate for the end of war.  Violence will eventually beget war, and our tolerance of violence will always make war a reasonable option in resolving our affairs.  Indeed, many who call for war exploit the fact that many persons who claim to be against war already believe in the necessity of violence and vengeance.  Thus the case for peace is often reduced to the need for less war rather than the need to end the violence that pervades our society in all kinds of subtle ways.  But again, as long as our society continues to legitimize violence, such as promoting a justice system that emphasizes retribution, war will always be inevitable.   Yet nuclear proliferation is exposing this inevitability as insanity.  The world can no longer afford the inevitability of war.  We are now at the end of war.  However, in order to avoid the peril of that war that will end all wars, we have to release ourselves of the supposed necessity of violence and end the many natural ways violence pervades our society.

Our work needs to begin with enlarging what we define as violence.  I would suggest that we define violence in terms of possibility.  Violence constitutes any arrangement, any relationship, that is, any human ecology, that hierarchically forecloses on the possibility to experience the world in ways that enlarge our sense of what is possible.  We foreclose on such experiences by suppressing ambiguity.  Ambiguity is the womb of possibility.  It impregnates the world with possibility, which means that ecologies that are laden with ambiguity are laden with possibility.  To oppose violence is to oppose ways of being that ideologically undermine ambiguity, such as those ways of being that try to impose a finite set of meanings, experiences, and understandings.  As such, to promote peace is to cultivate ways of being that encourage multiplicity, hybridity, diversity, and, ultimately, possibility.  War is therefore the most intense and extreme kind of violence because it gives us the least and worse possibilities.

The origins of violence are both primal and ideological.  On one hand, violence is about impulse for safety and security.  However, on the other, violence is also about us wanting to bring order to a world that seems to us to have none.  We therefore all share a proclivity for violence, but whereas some ecologies and cosmologies heighten this proclivity, others lessen it.  Thus promoting peace is about cultivating those ecologies and cosmologies that do the latter.  One way we can begin to do so is by embodying a different definition of communication.                        

On Re-imagining Communication

I am neither defining communication as transmission nor about the negotiation of meaning, which is to say that I am defining communication in ways that are outside of the mainstream in communication studies.  In my view, neither of these mainstream definitions speaks well to the relation between communication and being, to the relation between communication and our social worlds, or to the complexity of what being human means.  Instead, I define communication in terms of vulnerability.  Communication is about being vulnerable to the humanity of others.

Being vulnerable means being open to the interpretations, experiences, understandings, and even confusions and frustration of others.  It also means recognizing that our own meanings, interpretations, and understandings will never exceed the world’s ambiguity, complexity, and mystery.  Confusion and frustration are common human experiences that demand patience and tolerance.  As such, being vulnerable also means being tolerant of the anxiety and chaos that come with being human.  Moreover, being vulnerable means recognizing that our humanity is bound up with the humanity of others.  Thus being vulnerable to the humanity of others is about being vulnerable to our own humanity as what impacts my humanity also impacts your humanity.  Finally, being vulnerable means, as Bishop Desmond Tutu nicely puts it in No Future Without Forgiveness, being “generous in our judgments of others, for we can never really know all there is to know about another.”  Compassion, mercy, and forgiveness are integral to being and becoming vulnerable. 

To define communication in terms of vulnerability foregrounds the human component in the study and teaching of communication by shifting communication away from expressing and understanding to one of experiencing and embodying.  Rather than something one does to another, communication now becomes something one is to another.  This emergent definition thereby moves notions of communication competency beyond that of skills, techniques, and strategies, to one of capacity, resiliency, and muscularity.  It makes for the natural entry of compassion, mercy, grace, and forgiveness into communication studies as such notions are vital to being vulnerable.  It also pushes us to attend to the larger discourses, worldviews, and institutions that situate and permeate our humanity.  Do such discourses, worldviews, and institutions promote or undermine communication?  Moreover, in foregrounding the notion of vulnerability, this emergent definition of communication places the burden of communication on us.  It obligates us to help each other understand our interpretations and orientations, regardless of the differences that seem to hopelessly divide us.  We have to own our own ways of encountering others.  It also pushes us to examine the larger social, political, and cultural contexts that recursively situate communication by looking at how different contexts bear upon our ability to be vulnerable to each other.  But most importantly, this emergent definition of communication elevates the study of communication by showing our own potentiality to create and shape our worlds.  Communication is no longer reduced to merely an expression or product of various mental, psychological, biological, social, or even historical forces.  Rather, communication constitutes our capacity to help with the completion of the world.  It expands our humanity and enlarges our worlds by constantly demanding of us new meanings, new understandings, new experiences, and, ultimately, new modes of being in the world with others.  In this way, this emergent model of communication commits us to identify and support only those contexts that promote communication, beginning of course with those that allow for a much more expansive and inclusive definitions of communication. 

Thus in contending that the origins of communication reside in our vulnerability, I am pushing us to look anew at what being human means and to imagine new ways of being in the world.  If the origins of communication reside in our symbolic and linguistic capacity, as is commonly assumed in communication studies, then our moral capacity is in no way fundamentally larger than that found in apes, chimpanzees, and bonobos.  It therefore makes sense to continue to look to these animals for moral direction.  If, however, our communication capacity resides in our vulnerability, then we have to look beyond these animals for moral direction. We thereby gain the opportunity to imagine new worlds.  We also acquire a more expansive morality, a larger sense of what is moral.  In this regard, what makes this emergent definition most heuristic is that it stretches our notions of what it means to be human and decent.  We can now look anew at what being human means.

On the Ecology of Communication

Communication constitutes a naturally-occurring ecology.  It changes and evolves, flourishes and vitalizes.  It promotes life by encouraging new and different interpretations of the world.  It is also laden with a variety of quantum tensions, such as that between meaning and ambiguity, chaos and order, and so forth.  On the other hand, the fact that communication is ecological also means that our communication ecologies can devolve, disintegrate, and die.  Communication can be reduced to information, expression, and interaction, and in so doing undercut the evolution of new and different ways of experiencing and embodying the world by blocking the formation of new relationships, the realization of richer and deeper relationships, and the evolution of new understandings of the world.  In this way, communication makes for the conditions that promote war. 

So the condition of communication reflects the conditions of our social and relational worlds.  When our communication ecologies perish, our relationships and social worlds also perish.  We become less human, less moral, less decent, less civil.  We also become myopic, ethnocentric, hegemonic, and necrophilic as we lose the ability to view the world in wholes.  Our relationships and social worlds also lose resiliency, elasticity, diversity, and possibility as communication is reconstituted as persuasion and instruction—that is, as the means we use to convey and even impose our thoughts, emotions, and worldviews upon others.  Devolving and dying communication ecologies therefore divide and separate by dismantling the complex web of relationships that vitalizes life.  The result is fragmentation, isolation, and the beginnings of our moral descent.  Thus what most distinguishes a dying ecology from a flourishing ecology is the abundance of possibility.  It is also this abundance of possibility that vitalizes ecologies, allowing ecologies to achieve superior levels of diversity.  In the case of communication ecologies, this means the ability of these ecologies to create new ways of interpreting and experiencing the world, new relationships, new meanings, new understandings, and new modes of being human.  In fact, violent conflict is the last expression of a devolving communication ecology.  Thus to be against violent conflict is to be committed to the promotion of those conditions, arrangements, and practices that allow communication ecologies to flourish.

On Questions of Authenticity and Purity

This emergent communication framework gives us a heuristic and complex way of framing and managing violent conflict.  It allows us to understand the underlying communication forces that are common to all violent conflicts.  It also allows us to identify the trajectory and intensity of violent conflicts and move beyond the commotions and distractions that are at the surface of every violent conflict.  Moreover, this emergent definition of communication gives us a different point of entry into these conflicts—one that is about improving the communication ecologies that the warring agents are sharing and co-constructing.  In this case, as the communication condition of these ecologies improves, the intensity of the conflict will dissipate and the possibility of reaching a constructive resolution—one that is organically derived by the agents rather than imposed by a third party—will increase.  Within any flourishing and striving communication ecology, such a resolution is always possible.

Vulnerability also means permeability—openness to other ecologies, such as openness to new experiences, new meanings, new relationships, and new communities.  Vulnerability allows an ecology to draw from diverse resources and influences, which in turn allows the ecology to increase its diversity, capability, and possibility threshold.  In this way, vulnerability actually binds diverse ecologies and, in so doing, enlarges what constitutes the self-interest of any ecology.  But lack of vulnerability does the opposite.  By making us impermeable it makes inflexible.  For example, Pope Benedict XVI, believes that “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything is for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”  He is adamant about the Church returning to a doctrinal faith that stresses certainty and authenticity.  Presumably, only in doing so can the Church be spared from the ravages of moral relativism.  As such, Pope Benedict XVI wants Roman Catholics to reject the idea that one religion is as good as the next.  There is supposedly only one abiding Truth—“The redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is at the center of the universe and of history”—and that “Jesus Christ is the only true way to salvation.”  Naturally this stridency and militancy by Pope Benedict XVI is generating a lot of anxiety among persons of other religions as history seems to make plain that nothing constructive will come out of this new turn by the Roman Catholic Church.  Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI is fostering a communication ecology that is potentially destructive.

Certainty is alien to naturally occurring ecologies.  In such ecologies everything is continually changing and evolving.  The only certainty is that everything will change.  Moreover, all change comes with an element of ambiguity as many forces are shaping the way things change and evolve.  Being able to fully command how change will occur or needs to occur is therefore ecological impossible.  Authenticity and purity are also alien to human experience.  There is no reading of texts that is ever or can ever be devoid of interpretation.  Our histories and experiences mediate and shape how we read and understand things.  There is therefore no interpretation of anything that is outside of our experiences and histories, which is to say that meanings reside between our relation to things, and our relation to things is shaped by our experiences and histories.  To believe that persons can achieve pure and authentic interpretations is to assume that meanings actually reside within things and the purity of such meanings can be found by removing the human element.  But such a maneuver, regardless of how much one meditates or prays, is theoretically impossible to achieve.  We are meant to get in the way and we will always get in the way.  Ideologies that promote purity and authenticity undermine the flourishing and striving of communication ecologies by suppressing the interpretive vitality that makes such ecologies strive and flourish.  Put differently, our inability to achieve pure and authentic meanings in no way constitutes an imperfect defect.  The fact that our histories and experiences play an integral role in how we understand and interpret things means that no text is capable of completely ruling us by imposing one meaning upon us.  Diversity is the proclivity of all naturally-occurring ecologies.  We will never achieve dominion over anything through the imposition of one meaning, or one anything.  We possess though our interpretive proclivity the power to help complete the world.   

But Pope Benedict XVI remains adamant.  He continues to champion the virtues of certainty, authenticity, and purity.  He insists that Roman Catholics submit to one meaning, one Truth, one understanding of God.  He no doubt believes that such stridency is necessary to keep the church from fracturing and dismantling in the face of a world that is undergoing enormous changes.  He also believes that the church needs to be defended from various forces that aim to make only mischief.  But again, Pope Benedict XVI is merely cultivating a communication ecology that promises nothing good.  Only a dying communication ecology will allow Pope Benedict XVI the illusion that any authority can rigidly impose one meaning of Roman Catholicism on the world’s millions of Roman Catholics.

Yet the stifling of dissent does nothing good for any ecology.  Flourishing and striving communication ecologies promote diverse interpretations and meanings.  Diverse and conflicting interpretations are given the opportunity to challenge and neutralize each other.  No interpretation can avoid scrutiny or inquiry and thereby continue to believe that claims of authenticity and purity can save it from criticism.  Yet the fact that flourishing communication ecologies promote and nurture diverse interpretations in no way means that all interpretations are morally equal, or what Pope Benedict XVI refers to as “the dictatorship of moral relativism.”  It simply means that through open scrutiny and inquiry those interpretations that are morally superior will rise and flourish and those that are inferior will fall and perish.  Flourishing communication ecologies therefore possess a natural and organic way of neutralizing potentially destructive interpretations.  On the other hand, however, interpretations and meanings that are spared scrutiny and inquiry under the disguise of being pure and authentic are most susceptible of becoming hegemonic and ethnocentric by being given no opportunity to evolve and change by encountering other interpretations and meanings.  For interpretations too are organic, which means that interpretations must either evolve or perish.

But of course Pope Benedict’s mission is in no way fundamentally different to what is happening with other religions.  It is also in no way fundamentally different to what has occurred throughout history.  The result is always destruction.  When we destroy communication ecologies we also destroy everything else that these ecologies sustain, such as the opportunities and possibilities that make for the creation of new relationships, new communities, new societies, and, ultimately, new worlds.  Such destruction, though often bloodless, is still perilous.  As such, the destruction of any communication ecology undermines our prosperity.  It is therefore misleading to look at the origin of violent conflict as residing within the differences of great abstract doctrines.  Such a view masks the everyday communication ecologies we co-construct that make us hostile to new and different ways of experiencing and understanding the world.  It thereby absolves us of responsibility for the conditions that really make for violent conflict.  However, with the rise of nuclear proliferation, as well as the rise of virulent forms of fundamentalisms, such an illusory absolution threatens us all.

Final Thoughts

When paradigms shift, the questions, concepts, and concerns that are of the old paradigm have no currency in the new paradigm.  For instance, questions about the inevitability of war have no meaning in a communication ecology paradigm.  Whether war is inevitable has no bearing on the fact that a world laden with flourishing communication ecologies can plausibly make for a world without war.  Ultimately, what matters is whether the new paradigm is more heuristic and can be potentially more useful than the old one.  That is, does the new paradigm give us a more constructive way of framing and understanding things?  Does it present a world with more opportunities and possibilities?  Does it enlarge our understanding of what is possible?  In my view, of course, a communication ecology framework meets all of these measures.  It presents us with a larger set of tools and thereby allows us to imagine worlds that are plausibly within our grasp.

Amardo Rodriguez, PhD, is a Syracuse University professor in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies.