My hero Mahatma Gandhi often talked about the importance of seeing one’s political opponents as human beings. He said that no matter what you should never demand your opponent be humiliated, but rather always leave room for them to save face. He also said you should always be willing to talk to your opponents, and should always remember to never hate people, only to hate people’s behavior.
I think that he was a smart guy. And recently I had an experience that brought this home to me all over again.
This is a video I took at an action Quit Coal performed at a Mantle Mining general meeting. A couple of Quit Coallers locked on downstairs and I decided to go ask the board directly how they justify destroying farmlands in order begin exporting brown coal from Victoria and pumping our atmosphere full of the greenhouse gasses already at levels dangerous to the future of our civilization.
Now, I have to say a couple of things about this. The first is that I actually didn’t plan to push the confrontation quite so far. A Mantle employee by the name of Winton started mocking me at one point because as I was filming my hand was shaking. I often shake in highly tense confrontational situations. It’s a fight or flight kind of response, the sympathetic (I think) nervous system kicking into action in a big way. So I was already quite heightened, and Winton mocking me pushed me into a slight ‘fight’ response as I pushed my way into their boardroom, which was actually totally unplanned.
The second thing I want to say about it is that I really didn’t know what to think about it for a long time afterwards, and still don’t in a lot of ways. It was quite new for me to come face to face with the people whose actions are spurring my activism and protest, and this novelty combined with the unplanned nature of what I was doing led to quite a raw, candid encounter.
I expressed anger, certainly, but also confusion, and desperation, and hurt. When you are finally in a room with someone you’re campaigning against they are no longer a bogeyman, and they are no longer the caricature of the money-hungry capitalist with the smoke billowing cigar that you might make them out as in a political cartoon. They are just people. They are just frail, flawed people like everyone else.
I think often more radical activists (and I suppose I fit that category, many would disagree) want everyone to take a hard line, want everyone to regard our opponents as completely psychotic, unfeeling monsters. The idea strikes us as contemptuous, for example, that some activists or campaigners are negotiating compromises with logging companies, whalers, or indeed, ‘coal barons’ as we often terms men such as these in this video. But when you meet people in person, I think it becomes quite understandable that many would adopt what seems from the outside to be an overly compromising and conciliatory approach.
We’re not built to enjoy conflict. Not many of us, anyway. It probably triggers off mechanisms deep in our evolutionary psychological make up that tell us that we’re better off avoiding the people and places we experienced conflict in. In this case, it also triggered off in me a strong impulse to try to achieve reconciliation. After the afternoon of the action I had a strong urge to contact Ian Kraemer and to try to somehow apologize for the confrontational nature of my actions, while still making clear that I was going to strongly oppose his plans. I felt something like: look, i’ve been face to face with your humanity and I want to acknowledge it, and i’d also like you to acknowledge mine. I still hate what you’re doing, but I don’t hate you. Hating you would diminish me somehow, and I don’t have it in me to give up whatever that would mean giving up.
In the end I didn’t contact him. I shared the video through Quit Coal’s facebook and wrote something about feeling conflicted about it and left it at that. Some people found the video powerful, some found it funny, others found it depressing at how little response my words got from the Mantle board. I still fully don’t know exactly how to feel about it, but I’m sure the experience given me an even greater understanding, admiration and affinity for Gandhi’s methods and his non-violence.
As I said, I think he was a pretty smart guy.