Attendees of UR’s first Conference on Nonviolence did not wear flowers in their hair, nor did they march to any salt works or plan boycotts. But they did conduct a lengthy, and at times heated, discussion on the nature and history of nonviolence.
For six and a half hours in the Hawkins-Carlson Room in Rush Rhees Library on Saturday, both UR students and area professors discussed the current state of nonviolence in the world, historical movements and hopes for the future, while also seeking to define the notion of violence itself.
Director of the Interfaith Chapel and M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence Allison Stokes kicked off the day-long series of presentations by invoking the spirit of the Institute’s namesake.
“Knowledge is justified only when it is put to good use and employed in the public cause,” Stokes said, quoting Mahatma Gandhi.
Expressing the hope that this first-ever conference on nonviolence would become an annual tradition, Stokes introduced the Gandhi Institute Chairman of the Board Manoj Jain, Ph.D. Enthusiastic about the new effort at UR to sustain the conference by pulling together activists and academics, Jain noted the need for such an event in today’s political climate.
Jain recounted an anecdote in which he came home from work to see one of his children patting down his other child and asked them what they were doing.
“He said, ‘We’re doing a security check on each other,'” Jain said, explaining how what he viewed as a culture of insecurity spread even to the youth.
Noting that past similar conferences in Memphis – the original home of the Gandhi Institute – initially drew 250-300 people, Jain said those events drew gradually larger crowds, eventually almost doubling in size to the original. Though the event in the Hawkins-Carlson Room had only about three dozen attendees, he expressed the hope that a similar effect might occur. Jain ended by welcoming the keynote speaker, UR alumnus and Professor of Philosophy at St. Bonaventure University Barry Gan.
Gan addressed the different schools of nonviolence and applied them to current events, particularly the War in Iraq.
“The view that the ends justify the means is alive and well in the 21st century,” Gan said, stating that the Bush Administration used nation building as a rationale for the war when no weapons of mass destruction were discovered.
Gan expressed the view that the administration had started with a politically realist frame of mind, in which the chief interest of the state is to secure its own interests to a Wilsonian idealist frame of mind, focused on spreading democracy. Gan further critiqued the war, stating that it violated the United Nations’s charter as Iraq had never actually made an offensive move on the United States.
According to Gan, there are three principle types of nonviolence: “weak nonviolence,” a term coined by Gandhi, in which participators do not use violence until achieving power, at which point they turn; “pragmatic nonviolence,” or what is more commonly known as “strategic nonviolence,” in which participators practice nonviolence but not without exception; and principled nonviolence, advocated by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., which banned violence of any kind, an easier tenet to talk about, according to Gan, than to execute.
“When push comes to shove, when goals cannot be achieved nonviolently, they will result in the use of violence,” Gan said.
The rest of the day consisted of six other presentations. Following Gan came SUNY Geneseo Professor Carlo Filice and then three student presentations from junior Joel Langdon and sophomores Eugene Brud and Ellen Frohning. Rounding out the event were speeches from SUNY Brockport Professor and International Center on Nonviolent Conflict member Cynthia Boaz and St. John Fisher College Professor Robert Brimlow.
Though a number of differing viewpoints on the nature of nonviolence arose, the conversation stayed cordial; however, many participants expressed a desire to see more dialogue in a speech-heavy environment.
“Many people asked for more time for interaction between the speakers and the participants, and between the speakers themselves,” Stokes said. “People asked that much more time for interaction be planned for next year.”
Stretching the conference over two days next year has become one idea, according to Stokes.
During his address, Gan suggested the key to action does not lie in those who have already chosen a side.
“More important is the attitude of the people who sit on the fence,” he said.
Brenneman is a member of the class of 2009.