When Haim Omer conceptualised Non Violent Resistance as a form of systemic therapy, he began what many other pioneers of therapeutic approaches have done: highlighting an inherent part of the human condition, that had not previously been emphasised in therapeutic thinking and practice. The more we highlight this aspect of the human condition, and construct it in our conversations, the more we will come to know ourselves as nonviolent human beings (who, of course, are also inherently violent). So, by talking more about nonviolence, we can become more nonviolent. That is the purpose of this blog.
Since Gandhi, nonviolence has not meant turning the other cheek alone, or not rising to violent provocation with counter-violence. Gandhi spoke about action: action people carry out to end violence against themselves or third parties, and the ways in which they do it – methods, which communicate to the person, group or state showing harmful behaviour, that the resistors respect them, recognise them in their humanity and care about them. What kind of people are these nonviolent actors – ordinary, heroic, or both?
Heroic narratives abound. Some can be dangerous. In Britain and the US, it has become common to use the word “hero” in one breath with “war veteran”, service men and women who have undertaken a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. Lately, even “soldier” and “hero” have started to become synonymous. There are many purposes for, many functions of this use of language, some of which sit uncomfortably with me. Making it more palatable for young people with less socio-economic advantage than others to join the armed forces is one such function – to quasi automatically achieve heroic status by virtue of wearing the uniform can be very attractive to one, whose status and career prospects do not match up to the glitzy images of capitalist success suggested by the media. There are also different historical contexts – in Germany e.g. it would be inconceivable to speak of service men and women as heroes; that use of language would leave much more than just a bitter taste, given the way the word has been used in the past in that country.
Yet many forms of therapy, especially those with a postmodern slant, favour a heroic narrative – such as Solution-focused Therapy and Solution-oriented Therapy, Narrative Therapy, and NVR. These therapeutic narratives turn the ordinary into the heroic. This seems to fit with a gradual shift in our tastes for heroism: I remember my fascination as a boy reading about Amundsen and Scott; Amundsen the hard, determined and successful conqueror of the South Pole, Scott the tragic hero who sacrificed his own and his men’s lives to the Antarctic wastes in pursuit to the same goal, but who never lost his honour or his composure. Yet I had never heard about Ernest Shackleton, who brought his entire crew back to safety. Shakelton was not recognised as a hero then, in the late 1950ies and early 1960ies when I devoured my adventure books. Now, he has become a hero, and today, there are probably more documentaries about Shackleton than there are about Scott and Amundsen put together. What is the distinguishing highlight of Shackleton’s story? What fascinates us about the narrative of this escape from adversity? I believe it is care. Shackleton triumphed in the face of peril by showing care to keep all his men alive (many of whom unfortunately went on to get slaughtered in the war to end all wars). In Shackleton’s story, care for the other becomes a constituent element of heroism. Shackleton’s heroism shows that a new understanding of heroism has emerged, one that is consistent with what women have specialised in doing through the ages, but has always been relegated to the ordinary – care. This increasing feminisation of heroism in some discourses has made it possible to see a hero, or indeed a heroine, as someone who shows great care for others in the face of adversity. The goal – reaching the Pole – becomes secondary in Shackleton’s motivation, to the wellbeing of the others; wellbeing is sought by caring perseverance, and a willingness to put the means before the goal.
Of the many kinds of heroes, there are some I can’t stand. Achilles is a berserker. He kills in rage, he is almost invincible. Vulnerability had to be built in, in the form of his heel – otherwise, the story would be unbearably boring. Achilles is the kind of hero a parent who feels helpless might delegate their authority to: only someone with such immense inherent power can sort out my child – I am too weak. Achilles is the hero, who makes the action of the ordinary woman and the ordinary man feel insignificant, he is not the hero the ordinary man or woman could be.
I love the fairy tale hero, who goes on a journey. We already know he’ll get the beautiful princess and half her father’s kingdom in the end, but that’s not what the story is about. It’s all about the quest. He is tormented by uncertainty, confusion. The world is turned upside down; rules that normally prevail no longer govern life in the strange provinces he visits. The journey is full of peril and hardship. He is often lonesome – but then there are those who reach out to him, lend a helping hand. Their clues are at first not understood, adding to his confusion, and they cannot solve his task for him, but they can be faithful helpers along the way. His own power grows in the encounter with them, though he often feels he is not up to the challenge. At times, in deep despair, he is tempted to forsake his fortune, yet he pushes on. Perhaps there is no choice, and he cannot live unless he completes the task. So he perseveres. And in the process, the prince undergoes a transformation – he is still the same person at the end, yet has learned about himself and life in fundamental ways; having often wavered, his determination has grown. He has found his voice, his strength, has come into his own. Though these heroes of old were almost always male, the lovely thing about this kind of heroic narrative is that it can be gender neutral – the princes’ process can be experienced by anyone, male or female.
If we merge the story of the quest with the Shackleton-type one that focusses on care of the other and of the self, we arrive at a heroic narrative which fits well with NVR, and with other forms of nonviolent action. Persistent care for the other, including the other whose behaviour is harming me and my kind, is part of the stories of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi – and Nelson Mandela, whose passing many of us have experienced as the loss of someone very close. Interestingly, Mandela espoused violence in the ANC’s resistance against the South African apartheid regime, yet this was balanced by proportionality of the means, an emphasis on preserving lives wherever possible, and his reaching out to his opponents – recognising them in their humanity, communicating that he saw them as children, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters – and by his gestures and acts at reconciliation. Part of Mandela’s achievement lay in what I call ethical pragmatism – he constantly examined his own action in the light of its potential effect in resisting the apartheid system, and at the same time its potential effect on reconciliation with those who upheld that very system. Systemically speaking, we can understand such ethical pragmatism as constant mindfulness of the potential impact of our action on relationship. This is mindfully making peace. Care for the other, combined with a political struggle as a transformative experience, marks the stories of these great leaders.
Therapeutic discourse has long ago abandoned the notion of the victim. To describe our clients, who have experienced abuse and violence as victims, leads to diminished representations of them as human beings. Yet replacing the label “victim” with that of “survivor” doesn’t seem to have worked that well, either. By referring to people as either victims or survivors, we classify them, create the unsafe certainty of making them knowable to us, we objectify them. My clients for one generally hate being called survivors. The imagery of a survivor that comes to my mind is of someone wet and cold, who has just been fished out of the sea, who is still alive after shipwreck. While “victim” implies passivity, being done to and lack of agency, “survivor” implies coping in the face of adversity. Coping skills are important, but coping alone does not signify agency when one is exposed to an adverse environment. For survivors, adversity equals fate. Our clients who are experiencing abuse need a different kind of story, one in which they become protagonists with agency.
A heroic narrative – of the Shackleton and quest kind – can help overcome the dis-empowering objectification of people who have experienced violence in their families. The uncertainty of the quest mirrors the uncertainty of the parent or other family member. It also mirrors the uncertainty of the supporters and of the therapist, who reach out to the family, but who cannot perform the task for them. The language of the heroic narrative is fundamentally different from that of the victim narrative. When in victim narratives family members speak of obedience – I (the parent) have to do what he says; somebody will have to sort him (the child) out, so he shapes up – the language of the heroic narrative is that of resistance against the odds: I know I can’t make you do it, but this is what I can do… . The focus shifts from control of the other, to self-regulation in the face of provocation or fear; speaking about building alliances with others replaces blame of self and other; things are described as changing rather than ‘as they are’, so process language takes the place of static language, and finally, in the heroic narrative, there is talk of what people have done and can do together – leading to the experience of personal and communal agency.
None of the heroic role models above are perfect human beings, they have many blemishes. Yet, their care for the other as an outstanding attribute lends this type of heroic narrative to the ordinary. The ordinary parent, whose child displays violence or self-destructive behaviour, the ordinary woman, whose partner perpetrates domestic violence, the older brother or sister of a young person whose anxiety has come to control the entire family – all of these people can bring together their resolute resistance against the harm the other is causing, with their care for that very person, with their care for the others affected by his or her behaviour, and with their care for themselves. Like the great role models of nonviolence, these family members are imperfect, blemished, and like the fairy tale princes, they will experience anguish along the way. They will waver, they will be confused, will make many mistakes. Their imperfections do not warrant pointing a finger at them, as the many pathologizing discourses in mental health, social care and society at large would lead us to do. Working with NVR, one can marvel at the ordinary heroism of clients, as they learn to persevere, pick up the pieces again and again, humbly acknowledge their own shortcomings, and strive to care. One function of a heroic narrative that accentuates the desirable attributes of the ordinary family member who is non-violently resisting harmful behaviour, is to move the discourse from parent blaming – in essence victim blaming – to appreciation, acknowledgement and valuing of their effort to bring about peace in the family. Our therapeutic conversations can celebrate their ordinary heroism. Welcome to the Nonviolent Blog.
Article By Dr Peter Jakob