What would you do if…?
A dialogue with Joan Baez. Originally at Class of Nonviolence.
What Would You Do If?
By Joan Baez
Fred: OK. So you’re a pacifist. What would you do if someone were, say, attacking your grandmother?
Joan: Attacking my poor old grandmother?
Fred: Yeah, you’re in a room with your grandmother and there’s a guy about to attack her and you’re standing there. What would you do?
Joan: I’d yell, “Three cheers for Grandma!” and leave the room.”
Fred: No, seriously. Say he had a gun and he was about to shoot her. Would you shoot him first?
Joan: Do I have a gun?
Joan: No. I’m a pacifist, I don’t have a gun.
Fred: Well, I say you do.
Joan: All right. Am I a good shot?
Joan: I’d shoot the gun out of his hand.
Fred: No, then you’re not a good shot.
Joan: I’d be afraid to shoot. Might kill Grandma.
Fred: Come on, OK, look. We’ll take another example. Say, you’re driving a truck. You’re on a narrow road with a sheer cliff on your side. There’s a little girl sitting in the middle of the road. You’re going too fast to stop. What would you do?
Joan: I don’t know. What would you do?
Fred: I’m asking you. You’re the pacifist.
Joan: Yes, I know. All right, am I in control of the truck?
Joan: How about if I honk my horn so she can get out of the way?
Fred: She’s too young to walk. And the horn doesn’t work.
Joan: I swerve around to the left of her since she’s not going anywhere.
Fred: No, there’s been a landslide.
Joan: Oh. Well then, I would try to drive the truck over the cliff and save the little girl.
Fred: Well, say there’s someone else in the truck with you. Then what?
Joan: What’s my decision have to do with my being a pacifist?
Fred: There’s two of you in the truck and only one little girl.
Joan: Someone once said if you have a choice between a real evil and a hypothetical evil, always take the real one.
Joan:: I said, why are you so anxious to kill off all the pacifists?
Fred: I’m not. I just want to know what you’d do if…
Joan: If I was in a truck with a friend driving very fast on a one-lane road approaching a dangerous impasse where a ten-month old girl is sitting in the middle of the road with a landslide on one side of her and a sheer drop-off on the other.
Fred: That’s right.
Joan: I would probably slam on the brakes, thus sending my friend through the windscreen, skid into the landslide, run over the little girl, sail off the cliff and plunge to my own death. No doubt Grandma’s house would be at the bottom of the ravine and the truck would crash through her roof and blow up in her living room where she was finally being attacked for the first, and last, time.
Fred: You haven’t answered my question. You’re just trying to get out of it…
Joan: – I’m really trying to say a couple of things. One is that no one knows what they’ll do in a moment of crisis and hypothetical questions get hypothetical answers. I’m also hinting that you’ve made it impossible for me to come out of the situation without having killed one or more people. Then you say, ‘Pacifism is a nice idea, but it won’t work’. But that’s not what bothers me.
Fred: What bothers you?
Joan: Well, you might not like it because it’s not hypothetical. It’s real. And it makes the assault on Grandma look like a garden party.
Fred: What’s that?
Joan: I’m thinking about how we put people through a training process so they’ll find out the really good, efficient ways of killing. Nothing incidental like trucks and landslides. Just the opposite, really. You know, how to growl and yell, kill and crawl and jump out of airplanes. Real organized stuff. Hell, you have to be able to run a bayonet through Grandma’s middle.
Fred: That’s something entirely different.
Joan: Sure. And don’t you see it’s much harder to look at, because its real, and it’s going on right now? Look. A general sticks a pin into a map. A week later a bunch of young boys are sweating it out in a jungle somewhere, shooting each other’s arms and legs off, crying, praying and losing control of their bowels. Doesn’t it seem stupid to you?
Fred: Well, you’re talking about war.
Joan: Yes, I know. Doesn’t it seem stupid to you?
Fred: What do you do instead, then? Turn the other cheek, I suppose.
Joan: No. Love thine enemy but confront his evil. Love thine enemy. Thou shalt not kill.
Fred: Yeah, and look what happened to him.
Joan: He grew up.
Fred: They hung him on a damn cross is what happened to him. I don’t want to get hung on a damn cross.
Joan: You won’t.
Joan: I said you don’t get to choose how you’re going to die. Or when. You can only decide how you are going to live. Now.
Fred: Well, I’m not going to go letting everybody step all over me, that’s for sure.
Joan: Jesus said, “Resist not evil.” The pacifist says just the opposite. He says to resist evil with all your heart and with all your mind and body until it has been overcome.
Fred: I don’t get it.
Joan: Organized nonviolent resistance. Gandhi. He organized the Indians for nonviolent resistance and waged nonviolent war against the British until he’d freed India from the British Empire. Not bad for a first try, don’t you think?
Fred: yeah, fine, but he was dealing with the British, a civilized people. We’re not.
Joan: Not a civilized people?
Fred: Not dealing with a civilized people. You just try some of that stuff on the Russians.
Joan: You mean the Chinese, don’t you?
Fred: Yeah, the Chinese, try it on the Chinese.
Joan: Oh, dear. War was going on long before anybody dreamed up communism. It’s just the latest justification for self-righteousness. The problem isn’t communism. The problem is consensus. There’s a consensus out there that it’s OK to kill when your government decides who to kill. If you kill inside the country, you get in trouble. If you kill outside the country, right time, right season, latest enemy, you get a medal. There are about 130 nation-states, and each of them thinks it’s a swell idea to bump off all the rest because he is more important. The pacifist thinks there is only one tribe. Three billion members. They come first. We think killing any member of the family is a dumb idea. We think there are more decent and intelligent ways of settling differences. And man had better start investigating these other possibilities because if he doesn’t, then by mistake or by design, he will probably kill off the whole damn race.
Fred: It’s human nature to kill. Something you can’t change.
Joan: Is it? If it’s natural to kill, why do men have to go into training to learn how? There’s violence in human nature, but there’s also decency, love, kindness. Man organizes, buys, sells, pushes violence. The nonviolent wants to organize the opposite side. That’s all nonviolence is – organized love.
Fred: You’re crazy.
Joan: No doubt. Would you care to tell me the rest of the world is sane? Tell me that violence has been a great success for the past five thousand years, that the world is in fine shape, that wars have brought peace, understanding, democracy, and freedom to humankind and that killing each other has created an atmosphere of trust and hope. That it’s grand for one billion people to live off of the other two billion, or that even if it hadn’t been smooth going all along, we are now at last beginning to see our way though to a better world for all, as soon as we get a few minor wars out of the way.
Fred: I’m doing OK.
Joan: Consider it a lucky accident.
Fred: I believe I should defend America and all that she stands for. Don’t you believe in self-defense?
Joan: No, that’s how the mafia got started. A little band of people who got together to protect peasants. I’ll take Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance.
Fred:: I still don’t get the point of nonviolence.
Joan:: The point of nonviolence is to build a floor, a strong new floor, beneath which we can no longer sink. A platform which stands a few feet above napalm, torture, exploitation, poison gas, nuclear bombs, the works. Give man a decent place to stand. He’s been wallowing around in human blood and vomit and burnt flesh, screaming how it’s going to bring peace to the world. He sticks his head out of the hole for a minute and sees a bunch of people gathering together and trying to build a structure above ground in the fresh air. ‘Nice idea, but not very practical’, he shouts and slides back into the hole. It was the same kind of thing when man found out the world was round. He fought for years to have it remain flat, with every proof on hand that it was not flat at all. It had no edge to drop off or sea monsters to swallow up his little ship in their gaping jaws.
Fred: How are you going to build this practical structure?
Joan: From the ground up. By studying, experimenting with every possible alternative to violence on every level. By learning how to say no to the nation-state, ‘NO’ to war taxes, ‘NO’ to military conscription, ‘NO’ to killing in general, ‘YES’ to co-operation, by starting new institutions which are based on the assumption that murder in any form is ruled out, by making and keeping in touch with nonviolent contacts all over the world, by engaging ourselves at every possible chance in dialogue with people, groups, to try to change the consensus that it’s OK to kill.
Fred: : It sounds real nice, but I just don’t think it can work.
Joan: : You are probably right. We probably don’t have enough time. So far, we’ve been a glorious flop. The only thing that’s been a worse flop than the organization of nonviolence has been the organization of violence.