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We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer

Posted by Skeptigator on August 4, 2008

As I watched from the sidelines as the whole PZ/Cracker thing played out*, I couldn’t help but be struck by how similar the whole event was to an auto accident. You know how you sit at a red light next to a recent fender bender trying to recreate the accident to figure out whose fault it was? I’ve been doing it with the PZ/Cracker farce. Is the idea of “transubstantiation” ridiculous? Yes, on soooo many levels. Was PZ justified in criticizing not only the idea but also the way over-the-top actions of the particular Catholic church? Yea, sure. Was the call to have people send in a wafer to be desecrated over-the-top and unnecessary? Over-the-top? yes. Unnecessary, hmmm… now that’s an interesting question.

“When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Is it necessary sometimes to do unnecessarily outrageous things to point out injustice or simply the ridiculous. If it wasn’t necessary it’s safe to say that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert’s whole shtick wouldn’t be on the air. But one has to ask what defines the “appropriate unnecessary” action.

Let’s take some actions from the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s as an example. Why not simply write about racist treatment instead of boycotting buses? Clearly boycotting bus systems is far more effective than simple speeches and angry editorials (that would likely go unpublished). Why boycotting? Why not disabling buses, slashing tires, molotov cocktails or physically barring bus drivers from getting on the bus? Would those not achieve the same purpose? (Do me a favor and bare with the comparison. I don’t want to draw too many parallels with the Civil Rights Movement and the “oppression of atheists”. Certainly they are of the same kind but certainly not nearly the same degree, if you catch my drift.)

The question-at-hand/purpose of the boycotts was that some “more than necessary” action was required to truly raise awareness to an injustice. A speech or letter to the editor would have been all that was necessary. But that was not what was required since it would not contribute to an actual solution any time soon, at least. So the question remains, “When faced with an injustice and the “all that’s necessary” action won’t be enough, what should the form of the “unnecessary” action be?”.

In the 1960’s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s answer to this question was Non-Violence.

Nonviolence is a philosophy and strategy for social change that rejects the use of physical violence. As such, nonviolence is an alternative to passive acceptance of oppression and armed struggle against it. Practitioners of nonviolence may use diverse methods in their campaigns for social change, including critical forms of education and persuasion, civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action, and targeted communication via mass media.

And with that definition in hand we can see the practical results of this policy. Fire-bombing a bus, no doubt effective as an “awarness-raiser”, would not probably qualify as a non-violent. Therefore when looking at the activities of the 1960’s you will see, lunch counter sit-ins, boycotts and peaceful protests. All consistent with a non-violent philosophy.

Of course, looking back is 20/20, we can say that this is a very effective form of protest. At the time there were serious doubts as to it’s effectiveness. Without that doubt the Black Panthers would never have had the appeal they did.

“We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why is the philosophy, if it can be called such, of non-violence effective? The key to it’s effectiveness lies in some of the very criticism that the strategy received, this from Black Panther George Jackson,

“The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one’s adversary.”

Isn’t it interesting to ask the question, whose philosophy/strategy/tactics survived today? Sorry George but you painted the entire U.S. population with the statements and actions of it’s most vocal members. And most importantly you grossly underestimated American (and human) compassion.

It took years but the American conscience couldn’t bare the sight of firehoses being aimed at peaceful protesters, armed guardsmen being necessary so that children could get an education, they couldn’t take the virulent, hateful rhetoric of so many politicians, they couldn’t take the images of bloodied men and women with bitemarks from police dogs, seemingly daily footage of riot gear-wearing police and guardsmen attacking men and women in the streets. Those protesters wore down the just-as-human xenophobia, ignorance and hate by showing the capacity of a fellow human being’s ability to suffer. America as a whole had to admit, “These are just ordinary folks trying to do and have ordinary things.”

The genius, if you can call it that, of the non-violent method is that it provides a third-way. What happens with violence (and violent reactions) is that it too often leads to further escalation and more insidiously creates a clear division, a line in the sand, if you will. Us vs. Them. Therefore, the question of justification can not be a valid one in this context. Is Israel justified in defending itself against mortar shell attacks from Palestine? Were the Negroes of the Civil Rights era justified in resisting oppression by violent means? Are half the bar fights around the world justified? Justification is a component but something else needs to temper that justification otherwise we won’t get anywhere as a society.

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ok, I know, how are the two related? I’ll answer with a question. Is PZ Myers justified in his response to the admitted ridiculousness of this particular episode and “transubstantiation” in general? Ok, fine, how about these questions, “Is it effective?” or even better “Does it serve the intended purpose?” And the big question, “Is this “awareness raising” akin to a lunch counter sit-in or slashing the tires of a bus?”

Until I hit upon this analogy I have been torn, asking myself if I don’t like the whole affair simply because “it’s divisive” but then kicking myself because sometimes divisiveness can’t be avoided. Or I would say, “I sure wish that would have played out differently” but then I look at the actions of both parties realizing that there was little possibility of it happening in any different way. Literally, I said to myself, “I wish there was a third way” and that’s when the word-association triggered in my mind.

Neither the actions of the Church can be changed nor the actions of the student who absconded with wafer Jesus. However, by making the request and stating his intentions to desecrate the cracker, he was using the verbal equivalent of “violent” action or reaction. His “violent” reaction left little to no room for a third-way. It simply upped the level of rhetoric (escalation of violence) and drew a very clear line in the sand and said you are either “for” transubstantiation or you are “against” the established traditions and have to reject all forms of religion and become an atheist. The distinctions obviously were not stated in such a way but the idea remains.

“The only bad thing about burning your bridges behind you is that the world is round” – Unknown

You couldn’t gain support from the believing public who accept that the churches reaction was way over-the-top because in order to do so they would have to stand by a man who would be actively opposing everything you stood for (including some very minor things that you didn’t). The whole episode failed to build even a wafer-thin bridge** between two opposing viewpoints. Each side simply dug in a little deeper.

I bring up the whole affair not to encourage PZ Cracker trolls to visit this site but to point out that this little skirmish is indicative of poor tactics in general on the part of atheists, agnostics, secularists or whatever flavor you brand yourself. We need to build those bridges with the religious on those issues where we hold common ground. We need to where down the public consciousness to the idea that these atheists aren’t trying to tear anything down but simply trying to be treated like anyone else.

We need to continue to have stories where a member of the Armed Service, Jeremy Hall, who simply tried to opt out of a prayer and was threatened for his troubles, after all, he is just trying to serve his country in the best way he can. We need more public high school students, like Matthew LaClair,  who want to just go to class without being told they are going to hell.

So the question remains, do you throw the molotov cocktail through the bus window and feel justified? Or do you boycott the bus knowing you will be effective?


* To those who don’t follow such things, essentially a Catholic student took a Catholic communion wafer to his seat where he attempted to show a non-Catholic friend. He was subsequently assaulted (or nearly so) by Catholic laity and then he ran out of the sanctuary. This prompted the Catholic church to post guards at the next service.

PZ Myers, fairly well-known science blogger, wrote about the story and called to have someone send him a communion cracker so that he could desecrate it “properly”.

The ensuing drama, death threats and all-around juvenile behavior centered around not the churches over-reaction but actually on PZ Myers call to have someone “steal” a cracker.

** Oh no he didn’t!

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