Lately, I’ve been thinking about Ursula LeGuin’s The Eye of the Heron, which I read years ago. While I don’t have a copy handy — I plucked it from a library shelf at the time — it’s one of the many novels I used for my doctoral dissertation. It’s considered one of LeGuin’s “minor novels” — a polite way of saying that a lot of folks don’t particularly enjoy it.
That being said, the novel has always haunted me — and it particularly comes to mind now. It tells the story of a planet home to two human populations: a macho and violent prison colony and the Shantih, a community of agricultural pacifists were are persecuted by the descendants of the prisoners, who view them merely as agricultural labor — feminized, weak, passive. The people of Shantih decide to move further away from the prison settlement so as to continue their peaceful way of life without intrusion — eliciting a rather predictable and violent reaction from the surrounding oppressor culture.
There are two main protagonists: Luz, the daughter of one of the prison bosses who escapes her misogynist and violent culture to join the people of peace, and Lev, a Shantih-towner who promotes the fight against oppression. Lev is the prototypical “angry young man,” on fire with idealism and willing to abandon some of the constraints of pacifism to do battle against the bosses. The violent can only understand violence and only respect those who deal it in turn. Freedom goes only to those who fight for it.
Does this scenario — and this rhetoric — seem a tad bit familiar?
As readers, we all want the charismatic hero to win and the fascists crushed. This isn’t what happens — which is one of the reasons most people hate the book, I wager, and why I find it so interesting. Perhaps realistically, Lev fails. The pacifists who fight with fists and sticks are annihilated by those who have made violence the core of their identity.
Luz, however, sees the futility of Lev’s revisionist philosophy and leads her people far into the wilderness — a retreat, to be sure, but also a space where life can continue. Threaded through the narrative are the unique, alien creatures of the planet Victoria, all of which die in human captivity. This is, of course, a metaphor for pacifism itself: Enclosed by walls or weapons, it perishes.
The Eye of the Heron echoes another book that haunts me: Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, which tells of the fall of Masada. Battling the Romans, a group of Jewish rebels ultimately chose to commit mass suicide rather than submit; only two women and five children were found alive afterward, the ancient account goes.
In the novel, one of the protagonist’s sisters joins the community of Essenes outside the walls of the fortress. This quote strikes me deeply:
“You don’t fight for peace sister,’ Nahara told me, ‘You embrace it.”
Nahara and the Essenes are ultimately slain by the Romans, offering no resistance — living their peace until the end. Her sister’s people do battle, and end up killing themselves. In the face of violence, you can choose to be true to your principles and die — or violate them and die just the same.
I know this is taking a rather dark direction, but hear me out.
Martin Luther King Jr. expected that he would die young, according to those who knew him. Probably a good number of his followers had those thoughts, too — and more than a few of them did: Beaten, burned, shot, attacked by dogs, sprayed with fire hoses.
Non-violence as a strategy, involves great risk — and likely death. Ultimately, it’s what makes it such a profound strategy: It’s easy to kill for a cause, but less easy to offer the pure sacrifice of one’s own life. I say “pure sacrifice” in this context to differentiate from, say, suicide bombing, in which a warrior tries to take as many of the enemies’ lives with him when he falls. Maybe I should phrase this differently: It’s easy to kill for a cause, but less easy to knowingly suffer for it — and non-violence does, in many contexts, necessitate the embrace of personal suffering for the greater good.
Granted, non-violence has always been controversial. It only works on people with a conscience, the argument usually goes, and these enemies, in this time, don’t have a conscience. (It doesn’t matter what the particular time or enemies are; the argument is usually the same.) Non-violence only benefits the oppressors, who by their very definition respect only force.
In terms of science fiction, Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing shows the extreme culmination of a philosophy of non-violence. In her consensus-based utopia, the pacifist denizens resist a military force in an unusual manner. When a member of the community dies, other members stand up and tearfully recount who the slain individual was, how that individual was deeply loved and cherished — and how the killers themselves would be welcomed in love and honor if they chose differently.
Of course, this is fantasy — and not very subtle fantasy at that. But it demonstrates a principle: To quote Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The master has perfected the art of violence; to create a less violent world, you need to change the rules of the game, to move differently.
This is one of the reasons I can’t support the whole “punch a Nazi” street-fighting version of activism that’s in vogue these days. Just as in The Eye of the Heron, the folks with the propensity for violence are the ones with the better weapons — and a violent altercation is going to proceed with this reality in mind. Deliberately engaging in violence that goes beyond strict self-defense also cedes the moral high ground — which, in truth, is the only defensible ground, ideologically speaking.
Being willing to suffer for truth is an idea with ancient pedigree. It’s not fun and it just might kill you, but it’s really the only thing that leads to lasting, beneficial change. The rest? Just swamp creatures tearing each other apart as they sink into the muck.
You don’t fight for peace, sister. You embrace it.