Amitai Ben-Abba: “The Term has Become Meaningless to Me” – On Violence, Social Change, and Nonviolent Communication

“The Term has Become Meaningless to Me”: On Violence, Social Change, and Nonviolent Communication

Amitai Ben-Abba, Counterpunch, April 15, 2016

“Paying your taxes is violent.” I signal to both ends of the hall and say, “This side is ‘totally agree’ and this side is ‘totally disagree.’”

The workshop participants spread across the spectrum and stand at places that best signify their level of agreement with the statement. One participant sighs in frustration as he stands in the same place somewhere in the middle, clenching his fists as if unable to move.

A Palestinian participant stands at the far edge of the spectrum showing she totally agrees. “Would you like to explain your position?” I ask.

“When I pay taxes to the Israeli government,” she says. “I contribute to the occupation and to all of the violence against Palestinians. So in my opinion paying your taxes is violent.”

I hand the microphone over to the participant who sighed in frustration earlier. “I can’t move.” He laughs. “I am torn by my wish to express my political position to the rest of the group and by the understanding that the term has become totally meaningless to me.”

This workshop comes at the beginning of the very last section – the social change section – of a March 2016 two-week residential training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) at EcoME Center in the occupied West Bank. The conclusion of the (Dis-)Agreement Spectrum described above is clear: violence means different things to different people. While some people find it important to show their opposition to acts like touching someone against their will or supporting an oppressive regime, others mill about in confusion around the middle of the space when facing supposedly unambiguous statements such as “murder is violent.” Participants from the same family or the same activist group disagree on the classification of certain acts as violent. In our context, two important questions arise out of this apparent incoherence of the term: what are the implications for Nonviolent Communication? And, what does this mean about nonviolence as a political strategy for social change?

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