On Violence and the Nonviolent Artist

Nelson Mandela, like all successful practitioners of nonviolence, was a realist. Like most successful practitioners of nonviolence he used art and sports to find common ground, to establish a floor under the feet of his adversaries to let them know that he was standing on it, too, and that it existed in a room that was intimate, allowing the type of unique comfort that a small, shared space affords. Common values built the room he and his opponents were standing in, and some of the stories of those common values were told by artists. We can point to books like The Help and movies like Cry Freedom and see obvious examples of stories that illustrate the importance of human rights and racial reconciliation. But what of the stories that don't commemorate important historical achievements, that aren't written with the purpose of educating the public on important issues of the day? What about stories that are less a Star Trek inspired jaunt into happy team building exercises in diversity (with cool gadgets and awesome aliens), and more gritty, that concern themselves more with the story itself than with directing the audience toward any particular point about inclusion and justice?

Can a thriller or murder mystery really find itself in the legacy of Mandela or King without drifting into flat banalities and obvious point making?

It's something I've been thinking about today, the day after Mandela's passing. I believe that there is something about violence that acts as its own deterrent when its true nature is exposed. Violence is something that real human beings do to other real human beings for very understandable reasons. If a story about violence strays too far from that path of the understandable it starts to glorify it; however, if it presents the violence as understandable and human it explains the nature of it in a way that a feel-better movie like The Help could never do.

Let's take the Iliad as an example. This is a war story with thousands of lines describing a brutal battle fought with spears and swords instead of drones and smart bombs. There are no bright points on a map or militaristic catch phrases like "target acquired." There are, instead, personal, gruesome depictions of violent wounding and death, like this one: "...the lance of Tlepolemus/Pierced the left thigh of Sarpedon, and the point tore madly/Through, grazing the bone." Unlike its comic-book inspired superheros and supervillians, the Iliad is populated with protagonists who behave as real, flawed people do. Even heroic Hector, the clear military leader of the Trojans, ignores a dying man pleading with him to remove him from the battlefield so he can die in peace: "Since it isn't likely I'll ever return to delight/My dear wife and baby boy in my own native land." Hector's response is to ignore him and rush toward the enemy instead. This one simple act, described in a few sentences, says more about how violence affects the human condition than any amount of knock-offs dressed in fancy costumes.

The Iliad makes no grand statement on the nature of violence. What it does is it shows us our fascination with it. It is as entertaining as it is brutal. It leaves it up to us, the readers, to understand why that is. Ultimately, this is what any good work of art does: it reveals a part of the human condition honestly, without gimmicks or ploys. It is that honesty which is necessary to have any important conversation, especially one involving violence and nonviolence. It is that truth that finds itself in the legacies of leaders like Nelson Mandela, and in the legacies of all of us.