Is pacifism the best way in today’s world?

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Is pacifism the best way in today’s world?

You must not kill. It seems simple. But can pacifism work against violence and injustice? Tim Gee and Rahila Gupta disagree.


A woman holds up painted hands at a New York protest against the freeing of the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man, Michael Brown. November 25, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Is pacifism the best way in today’s world? Tim Gee says YES. He is a writer and activist in the UK. Rahila Gupta says NO. She is a journalist, writer, and activist.

TIM: I am a pacifist because I don’t think I could kill another person. It’s an old idea but I think it is still wrong to kill other people. Many of today’s wars come from colonialism and from competition for control of oil and other industries. Weapons from abroad and the idea that to be a man you must be ready to fight too often make things worse. I think that to be a pacifist means a lifetime of action that helps to stop the systems that lead to violence. This includes the arms trade, racism, patriarchy, and environmental destruction. I worry that when people want social change through violence and even with a good reason, it often leads to long civil wars that kill many people. Or it means a new government which continues with the violence that brought it to power.

RAHILA: Does the idea that you must not kill leave any place for abortion and euthanasia?

I agree with you about systems that lead to violence. I have spent a lifetime using nonviolent ways to campaign against patriarchy, racism, the arms trade, and environmental destruction. But that does not mean I am a pacifist. I am against military action but that does not mean I am a pacifist.

Pacifism is a good idea but mostly it does not work.

We live in a world with more and more danger from fascist and ultra-nationalist movements. Not to use violence for self-defence means pacifism becomes passive-ism. International law. mostly accepts self-defence. For people with no power, armed violence is sometimes the only way.

The success of ‘peaceful’ non-co-operation is partly because of the ‘violence’ or the threat of violence from angry people.

TIM: There is certainly a place in pacifism for abortion. On euthanasia – I don’t think I could help another person’s suicide.

I am also worried about the rise of the far right, which supports the military, racism, patriarchy, but not the environment. One way to answer the rise of the far right is to support the anti-militarist ideas of pacifism.

The idea of self-defence is difficult. The First World War killed millions of people, and most countries believed they were fighting to defend themselves or others. The way to security is through peacebuilding and disarmament. But this receives very little funding. There are effective and ineffective ways through nonviolence, but research shows that nonviolence is nearly twice as likely to succeed as violence.

RAHILA: To believe that we can defeat racism through pacifism is a very dangerous idea.

Madeleine Rees is Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). She agrees with this. She was against the Kurdish battle against ISIS in Syria and said it was only a question of waiting because tensions between the different ethnic groups in ISIS would lead to its end. But hundreds would have died but the violence of extreme religious ideas would affect thousands. But older members of WILPF who lived in Hitler’s times understood that you could not defeat Nazism through blockades and negotiations.

Take, for example, the battle for Kobane in 2014-15, a region of northeastern Syria. There the Kurds have an administration which is trying an anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist, anti-state, ethnically inclusive, and ecologically sustainable democracy. ISIS invaded them. They decided to fight in self-defence. Today, the ‘caliphate’ is gone.

Self-defence saved lives and it saved an idea and gave hope for all of us who are fighting for that kind of world.

TIM: For me, pacifism is about making a society with the values that we both support, sustained through peace. It isn’t about speaking against people who fight in defence – especially if I am not in their situa¬tion. Peace work can often mean working closely with people who have decided to fight.

Pacifism is about looking at the causes of wars. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the rise of ISIS. The sale of arms by global powers to different sides of the war in Syria and their active involvement has made the conflict worse.

As a result of the civil war in Syria, thousands of people are dead – many are civilians. About half of the population needed to leave their homes.

I understand that our ideas are not simple and, of course, we are here to talk. We agree on some things. We don’t have any time for passive-ism. Could we agree too that the world would be more just with more people actively making peace?

RAHILA: Your last sentence shows the difference in our opinions. It is not about individuals coming together to make peace, it is about changing systems. Militarism and fighting are important for the success of capitalism and imperialism in being competitive, winning more markets, territories, selling arms. The inequalities of capitalism have their own kind of violence. Hunger and poverty are a form of violence. Peace work will only touch the surface.

This doesn’t mean that peace work is not important. It means we should understand it is limited.

Isn’t it wrong to say that you are not against people who fight in self-defence because you are not in their situation? Does that mean that pacifism is an idea that is not necessary in all situations? I could agree with that. But I would go further and offer the Kurds in my example my full support. Not just because I agree with their political ideas but because they helped to stop the ‘caliphate’ of ISIS.


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