Civility, Budrus, and nonviolent struggle

By Jan Adams
Jan 20, 2011

In the wake of the Tucson shootings, we're deluged in calls for "civility." I suppose we'd be a more tranquil country if the temperature of our political interactions could be lowered a little, but I'm suspicious. When I was a student at Berkeley in the 1960s, the administration responded to student activism by calling for "civility" as embodied in compliance with "time, place and manner" rules that essentially meant you could speak out as long as no one had to hear you or be disturbed by you. Naturally we broke the rules. While I am sure there are still people who think we did a terrible wrong thereby, I still think racial justice and struggling to end a wrongful war were worth a little incivility.

So I'm underwhelmed when James Fallows of the Atlantic passes on this from a reader:

These three assumptions about one's opponent, his decency, honesty, and possibility that he's right, seem to me the essence of civil argument.

I refuse to assume, for example, the "decency" of hate mongers who stir up fear of Muslims building a mosque, or the "honesty" of professional right wing celebrities who made a living posturing on Fox, or that a former vice-president who enthuses over torturing prisoners "may be right." Nor do I much respect those who ask me to do so.

Recently, economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman described succinctly the conflicting moral beliefs that dominate our current political landscape.

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state -- a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net -- morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

There’s no middle ground between these views.

That rings true to me. And, as a convinced member of the first camp, I feel no compunction about calling the members of the other camp "ignorant," "heartless" and "selfish," civility be damned. That doesn't mean I think the other side should be lined up and shot -- but I do think they belong back in kindergarten, learning that civilization requires us to play well with others. And don't tell me to be more civil.


It was in this slightly cranky frame of mind yesterday that I went to see Budrus. The project website describes it like this:

Budrus is an award-winning feature documentary film about a Palestinian community organizer, Ayed Morrar, who unites local Fatah and Hamas members along with Israeli supporters in an unarmed movement to save his village of Budrus from destruction by Israel’s Separation Barrier.

I was skeptical. I was very aware that just a couple of weeks ago, a Palestinian woman, Jawaher Abu Rahmah, had been killed during an Israeli tear gassing of protesters at Bilin. I've lived with awareness of the violence that the Wall is doing to Palestinians longer than most, since the antiwar project I work with, WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras, reported on it in April 2003 and that piece was named one of the most under-reported stories of the year by Project Censored.The injustices of the Israeli occupation of Palestine are so clear and cruel, that I leap quickly into red hot anger when I stare at them.

I'm not going to say that Budrus left me with warm fuzzy feelings. But I had to be impressed and thrilled to see a case study of an episode of Palestinian resistance that involved more peace-making than posturing between often acrimonious Palestinian factions, brought women centrally into the struggle along with men, and enlisted a few of the best Israeli activists in action for justice. There was (and is) nothing easy about any of that. Here's the trailer; it's a deeper film than this might suggest.

Budrus reminded me that nonviolent struggle doesn't mean no one will get hurt -- as the method's U.S. theorist and activist Barbara Deming explained:

The oppressors may well escalate their violence at first, since they face no violence in return. The nonviolent activists will probably take more casualties than their opponents. But nonviolence does not count its victories in terms of who receives fewer casualties. It defines victory as a change in the opponents' policies and behaviors. And in the long run, nonviolence will de-escalate the violence and there will be fewer casualties.

This is what we see in this film. Watching nonviolent struggle in action is a privilege -- and a good antidote to shallow calls for "civility." If the film is anywhere in your orbit (check the website) it's well worth it.

Cross posted at Can It Happen Here?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Jan Adams has worked with WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras since its beginning, coordinating distribution during the three years when the organization published an antiwar tabloid newspaper. She is a lifelong political activist who has worked for justice in Central America (Nicaragua and El Salvador), in South Africa, in the fields of California with the United Farmworkers Union, and for racial and economic equality with electoral and advocacy campaigns in many areas of the United States.

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