In 1970, renowned lesbian antiwar activist and journalist Barbara Deming gave a talk in Palo Alto. By then, the antiwar movement that took off in the 1950s had inspired and influenced many more progressive social movements, but had also attracted much criticism. This speech addresses some of the nuances of nonviolent action, putting forth a practical argument for the strategy. The talk speaks for itself, but a few parts may stick out as particularly familiar to the modern reader.
For example, Barbara Deming points out how easy it is in modern society to commit sabotage and severely disrupt the normal flow of public life. In fact, disruption has only become easier since this talk was first given — a central ethos of the modern tech industry is to “disrupt” traditional industries with the combination of new technologies and a flood of capital. Famously, the internal motto for Facebook has been “move fast and break stuff,” representing a wildly careless and irresponsible attitude about their actions. Indeed, we have already seen the deleterious effects of the tech industry’s arrogance on our society, our economy, and even our politics. According to Deming, however, societal disruption for the direct actionist should be intentional and well-thought out — the exact opposite of the tech industry’s mentality.
Easier said than done. Intentionality and careful consideration are difficult in a society that often encourages participation without comprehension — no one really reads the Terms of Service on new digital products before purchasing or signing up, and very few refuse a new iPhone specifically because of the unethical supply chain involved in its manufacture. We tend to excuse all kinds of atrocious acts if we’ve participated in them. And those who do manage to stick to their independent convictions often tend to face challenges from within and from without. Barbara Deming gives a short anecdote about a young US soldier in Vietnam who — after refusing to participate in a massacre — felt “left out” of some secret or implicit understanding about the truth of war. His mental health suffered, leaving him confused and disoriented, unsure of himself, perhaps even paranoid. Sometimes, it seems easier to just go along with things.
But that’s exactly how we got here, isn’t it? A world with not just the old universal threat of our own design (thermonuclear war), but with a new one in climate change, too. In a world with so much danger and such carelessness, the thoughtfulness and discipline of nonviolent action is both a means to an end as well as a representation of the end itself. The urgency for such action is as great as it has ever been. Technology may have advanced, social values and politics may have evolved, and the geopolitical situation may have changed — but the basic, practical logic of nonviolent action remains.
(Click on any of the images below to view the full PDF)
We at VPT are already starting to plan some summer events, including the arrival of the Golden Rule in New London, CT in June. As the world’s first modern protest ship and a vessel originally operated by the CNVA, the Golden Rule has strong historical ties to VPT. We at VPT will put on some public events related to the ship in the months before it arrives as well as when the ship is here. To stay in the loop about these events, sign up for our newsletter: http://eepurl.com/Oqf99
We commit a significant amount of research and writing to produce A Peace of History each week. If you like our weekly posts, please consider supporting this project with a one-time or recurring donation. Your gift will be used to continue producing more A Peace of History posts as well as the greater mission of VPT. You may type in however much you would like to give; contributions of all sizes are appreciated. Click this link to learn more about what we do and how you can donate: https://www.mightycause.com/organization/Voluntown-Peace-Trust
Deming, Barbara. “On the Necessity to Liberate Minds,” We Are Apart of One Another. New Society Publishers: Philadelphia, PA, 1984.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.