Moran, Gabriel — Living Nonviolently: Language for Resisting Violence

Moran, Gabriel. Living Nonviolently: Language for Resisting Violence. Laham: Lexington Books. 2011. Print.

Moran is interested in the language of violence and peace, and he spends the majority of this book discussing how we might identify these violent tendencies in speech. He defines “violent action” as “a destructive activity performed by one or more human beings […] directed at the body or bodies of other human beings. Spreading from this core meaning, violent actions can include those directed at nonhuman animals that suffer pain and also at life processes that sustain sentient beings” (7). He also notes that “structured violence […] is administered by an organization or society in a way that shields the individual from the emotional impact of face-to-face violence. A society that is radically split between the rich and the poor might wreak violence on the lives of the poor while the rich can remain oblivious of their part in causing such violence” (7-8). In this way, a violent society does not have to look like murder and burglary; a violent society can look like a white, Protestant, heteronormative college classroom, in which no one thinks that any violence has gotten them to their position. Violence can also look like strip mining, meat eating, and minimum wage.

Moran seems especially concerned with interpersonal violence—that is, violence between two people because of a power imbalance. He notes that “Rape is not a sudden explosion of sexual energy […] it is mainly an act of violence, an invasion of another person’s body that causes external and internal injuries” (9); the internal injuries here, we may assume, are both physical and psychological.

This piece is aware of its own limitations and how it will be received, with Moran noting, “A life of nonviolent activity is taken to be a nice idea which does not have a chance in the ‘real world’” (22). However, this nod to the cynical masses does nothing to strengthen his book; indeed, at times Moran seems to be pandering to the warmongering American public, and to what ends? He often seems concerned with not coming off as ridiculous, as when he asserts, “Forcing a human being to do something against his or her will requires justification. Direct physical force against people should occur only under extreme circumstances. For example, a young child, like a nonhuman animal, needs training in accordance with its nature” (32). I don’t think that anyone would argue that not letting a child touch a hot stove that it is reaching for or forcing it to learn how to properly use a toilet are violent acts; striking a child who makes a mistake, however, would be.

Moran is interested in defining words, but does so in several twists and turns, recognizing that one cannot simply say, “This is the true definition of power,” without overlooking several different scenarios. However, on authority, he seems to succinctly narrow it down to, “authority lies not in the power to issue orders but in the power of consent” (55). In this way, a democratically elected and acting president has authority over her people, but a dictator who has seized unwilling people under his rule does not.

Perhaps most important was Moran’s explanation of what he believed to constitute nonviolent living:

A nonviolent life at individual or national levels ought not to be imagined as a series of heroic decisions that go counter to natural inclinations. What is natural for a human being is to discover the shape of a self in response to others. Within a more complex system of interactions, the same holds true for nations. The response to the other includes aggressive action. Education has to provide rituals and cooperative activities lest aggressiveness become violence directed outward or inward. A nonviolent life would require understanding of competing elements within the self and awareness of angers external to the self. Nonviolent living means gentle governance from the center to align the self’s interests in encountering an often violent world. The person whose habitual outlook is “be gentle with oneself” will not be interested in meeting violence with violence. The person may not know how he or she will respond to being struck or spit upon, but the self with all of its interests will react nonsymmetrically to violence. (64)

With this admittedly long definition, we may begin seeing ourselves, instead of public policy or great world-leaders, as the bringers of peace and change. If this idea of nonviolence was taught as stringently and thoroughly in the American public school system as, say, pre-calculus, or the history of the Greeks and Romans, or the cell structure of plants, wouldn’t America be a less violent place, both within its borders and in international policy? One would certainly think so.

Let me first say that the majority of Moran’s book was not covered in my discussion of it. For instance, he speaks at length about religion and how individuals have misunderstood Christ, and World War II, both the war itself and its aftermath. And he hops from subject to subject without spending much time exploring the language in any of them. I feel that he set out to write an epic on language, ran out of time or money or publishing space, and cut a great deal, while trying to give us an overview. The result is a sometimes-shallow work on language and violence with great beginnings of ideas. He has no plans for reform, but seems bent on convincing people to (forgive me) give peace a chance, even when he qualifies nearly every pacifistic statement with a “but of course, there are exceptions.”

He finds “inclusive language” impossible, stating that it “could only exist by eliminating all differences which would create a language of abstractions and generalities” (164). While the clunkiness and grammatical conundrums of inclusive language are, indeed, difficult — for instance, the “incorrect” use of “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun; the fact that LGBTQA+ organizations have started simply adding the plus symbol instead of trying to catch up to current rhetorics on sexuality; the fact that reading “he or she” more than three times in a paragraph feels like it is over-reaching for inclusivity — is that any reason to stop trying to make them work? How long until English agrees on a singular gender-neutral pronoun? Or how long until “partner” or “spouse” completely eradicates “husband” and “wife,” so same-sex couples do not feel the need to assure people that their “partner” is more than their “boyfriend” or “girlfriend?” The world will never be a homogenized gray blob, as Moran seems to scoff that inclusive language seekers wish. Inclusive language celebrates diversity instead of trying to get rid of it. Representation matters, and so does normalization of differences.

Moran’s message for living nonviolenty seems to be, Hippocratically, “do no harm,” but he does not tell us how to do that besides to treat those with less power and authority wel l — that is, do not rape, do not harm children, and do not harm nonhuman animals. How, then, does he feel about veganism as a means to peaceful living? And how does he feel about the violence of women and children? He seems focused on white men, which, if that is his target audience, is good, but he does not include the violence that women perform on each other via body policing, or how children often gang up on the weakest child. In all, I found this book interesting and thought provoking, but it ultimately fell short of my expectations.

–Emily Blair

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