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In an interview about their intriguing sounding new book, Inventing Peace, the acclaimed German film-maker Wim Wenders (of "Wings of Desire" fame) and the Australian philosopher Mary Zournazi, opined that "An opinion is a violent act very often."

To his credit, Wenders does qualify his claim with the "very often" phrase. And sometimes closed-minded opinions can be considered violent. But I fear that too many people who want to seek peace, including some of the students I teach (from the middle school to the college level), avoid expressing opinions almost as if it's a principle.

I've got an extended opinion about opinions.

I appreciate what I think Wenders and Zournazi might be trying to say about how, when we listen to someone and formulate an opinion about what they're saying too quickly, especially a negative opinion, we too often stop listening for understanding and start listening merely to rebut. I think this kind of opinion-taking, which I was trained in as a debater, too often does close off constructive dialogue and impedes both a genuine connection between people and valuable opportunities for fruitful disagreements to lead to insights, the transformation of conflict, or even shared wisdom.

In other words, yes, sometimes the formulation of our opinions closes us off from listening to and learning from others. This is the wonder of the writing teacher Peter Elbow's Believing Game, in which he asks us to learn to listen for what we can affirm and value in someone else's words, especially when listening to opinions with which, or people with whom, we tend to disagree.

At the same time, in order to engage in fruitful transformative dialogue, it is important to bring our own perceptions, share our feelings, contribute our thoughts, and yes, formulate and communicate our opinions. At our best, we can strive to express our opinions, not as judgements from on high, not as fixed stars in our intellectual universe, but as hypotheses to be shared, tested, adjusted, transformed, and/or discarded.

One insight I take from Gandhi and other theorists and practitioners of nonviolence is a synthesis of the dilemma between violent action and passive inaction. When we perceive injustice, when we feel outrage (yes, this requires formulating an opinion), we need to value that outrage and use it to fuel our actions to change the systems that generate suffering. I'm guessing, in the unease with and opposition to opinions expressed in the interview above, there is an unease with anger. Feminists Barbara Deming and Audre Lorde write beautifully about the sense of discomfort we often feel in the face of our own and others anger. They write of the need, not to deny or suppress anger, not to avoid expressing opinions with our full strength, but to honor our sense of outrage and use it to fuel nonviolent social change.

Barbara Deming wrote, in her 1971 essay/speech, On Anger:

I think there is clearly a kind of anger that is healthy. It is the
concentration of one’s whole being in the determination: this must

This kind of anger is not in itself violent—even when it raises its
voice (which it sometimes does); and brings about agitation,
confrontation (which it always does). It contains both respect for
oneself and respect for the other. To oneself it says: “I must
change—for I have been playing the part of the slave.” To the other it
says: “You must change—for you have been playing the part of the
tyrant.” It contains the conviction that change is possible— for both
sides; and it is capable of transmitting this conviction to others,
touching them with the energy of it—even one’s antagonist. This is the
anger the sister who wrote me that first letter speaks of: It

Gandhi knew he often changed his mind. What if he took violent action for a cause he later believed was unjust? There is no revoking murder, certainly not for the murdered. And yet, when injustice is being inflicted, trying to suppress opinions in the name of avoiding violence is to allow the violence of the unjust status quo to continue unchallenged. Taking nonviolent action allows us to simultaneously express our opinions, take action to work for justice as comprehensively as we can currently conceive it, and create space for real dialogue with opponents.

It is worth quoting Martin Luther King, in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, at length on this topic:

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit-ins,
marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite
right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of
direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis
and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused
to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize
the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of
tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather

But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension."
I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of
constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

Yes, expressing opinions, and acting on our convictions, can create tension. Let's embrace fostering the creative tension necessary for social change by attempting to express our opinions honestly and openly. This kind of opinion-assertion lies at the heart of nonviolence, not violence.

In order to make peace, As Audre Lorde wrote, in her beautiful essay, from Sister Outsider, "The Uses of Anger," (pdf) we need to utilize our anger to "pollinate difference" in the service of liberation:

... [I]t is not the anger of Black women which is dripping down over this globe like a diseased liquid. It is not my anger that launches rockets, spends over sixty thousand dollars a second on missiles and other agents of war and death, slaughters children in our cities, stockpiles nerve gas and chemical bombs, sodomizes our daughters and our earth.

It is not the anger of Black women which corrodes into blind, dehumanizing power, bent upon the annihilation of us all unless we meet it with what we have, our power to examine and to redefine the terms upon which we will live and work; our power to envision and to reconstruct, anger by painful anger, stone upon heavy stone, a future of pollinating difference and the earth to support our choices.

Originally posted to Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism on Thu May 15, 2014 at 11:06 PM PDT.

Also republished by Anti-Capitalist Chat, White Privilege Working Group, Walking on Eggshells, Firearms Law and Policy, Anti-Capitalist Meetup, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (20+ / 0-)

    Every relationship of domination, exploitation, or oppression is by definition violent. Dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things - the former dehumanized by an excess of power, the latter by a lack of it. And things cannot love.-Paulo Freire

    by samdiener on Thu May 15, 2014 at 11:06:24 PM PDT

  •  It's a tough quote . . . (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    samdiener, allie4fairness, jessical

    I take his comment to mean something more along the lines of "violence is proceeded by judgment" or "with judgment comes the possibility of violence".

    The judge has a different relation to his or her environment than an observer who simply bears witness.

    This seems like a pretty common sense position for a visual artist and documentarian.

    Practically speaking, you can't really live this way.  Most of us can't just be a witness to history, often we have to be participants and we make a choice to engage actively and take sides and that means having an opinion about these kind of issues, even it if is contingent and subject to revision.

    At a more fundamental level is existence even possible without this kind of "violence"?

    Like I said, it's a tough quote.  It might help if he was drawn out a bit more by the interview so that he could explain the concept more fully.  

    I suspect Wender's may be expressing the idea of opinions through a kind of Buddhist lens, at least as I understand it.  

    e.g. At least two realities -- 1. me and not me -- and 2. a reality that is one without distinction and separation.

    In real terms, "I" cannot exist independently of the world around me -- the separation only exists in my head, it is an illusion.  

    It's the same with judgment.  The minute that we recognize "I" as separate from the rest of the world, it is a kind of violent act of separation from another reality (e.g. the reality where everything is just a different shade of the same face and where identification with the world around us is total -- even our enemies are "us").  

    These are difficult concepts to articulate, but I think that's where he's going.

    He might say that we can't live without violence (or opinions), so the challenge is to use this kind of "violence" or judgment with restraint, purposefully, and appropriately, not recklessly.

  •  I peacefully agree with him (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jessical, LinSea

    Think not of "Wings of Desire," but "The End of Violence." That movie, which was stimulated by "Star Wars" missile defense, accurately portrayed today's drone world. In the conceptual framework of states and of systems of power, an opinion is an iteration, an action, a violence. It is, unless a re-iteration, a destabilizing force.

    Now, it is not a violent act, but a violence. It is a breaking of stasis. This does not, one hopes, justify violent action as equal to thought nor demonize opinion by equating it with terrorism, but, for the sort of states we are heading toward, the latter proposition is already the case.

    "man, proud man,/ Drest in a little brief authority,. . . Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven/ As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,/ Would all themselves laugh mortal." -- Shakespeare, Measure for Measure II ii, 117-23

    by The Geogre on Fri May 16, 2014 at 10:31:42 AM PDT

  •  It seems to me that attempts to erase the (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jessical, samdiener, LinSea

    distinction between opinion and action, that is between the thought and the actuality, are essentially totalitarian in character. This regardless of whatever greater good is supposedly being served.

    I don't know if that's Wender's intention but equating even the most "violent" verbal expression with violent acts certainly tends in that direction. Verbal abuse may be psychologically destructive but it simply isn't the same thing as physical destruction.

    Of course, where a direct connection can be demonstrated between the expression of a "violent opinion" and the commission of a violent act, the question of culpability does arise. Which is why "incitement" is codified as a criminal act. Likewise where an "expression" is clearly a direct and immediate threat of violence, it is codified as a "Terroristic threat".

    The key in these cases is the relation of of such expression to an identifiable act or an expressed intention to commit such an act.  


    Nothing human is alien to me.

    by WB Reeves on Fri May 16, 2014 at 11:25:37 AM PDT

  •  thought provoking quote (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    samdiener, LinSea, loretta

    ...and thoughtful diary.

    America has a free speech fetish, which has served us well and badly.  I expect most responses to this (my own included) will be shaped by that.  

    The trouble with the quote, for me, is that it misses important distinctions.  As Americans, our first distinction is probably like one of my dad's fave quotes: your rights end at the tip of my nose.  There's no way to distinguish opinions which strive for a better, more cooperative world, and those which are just asshattery on a stick.  Or at least, no ways which don't compromise themselves with implicit bias.  So suck it up, words can't hurt you, and everyone has a right to an opinion.  The trouble of course is that almost all acts of violence begin with wish and belief, and the deepest forms of daily exclusion and cruelty are rooted in our opinions.  As are some of our greatest acts of selfless grace.  So the quote is troubling (and thought provoking) at a deeper level -- he perhaps he means something different than the opinions which are the anger of the oppressed or the opinions which racists on Facebook flaunt to put others in their place.

    There's definitely a vision of human beings which, after Rich, regards "every act of consciousness as an unnatural act".  And you could take opinion as an extension of that, that judging the world implicitly cuts it up and divides it into this and that, one thing and another.  And so with this thoughtful knife we begin to render a world where some are good and some are bad, where the immediacy of being is reduced to someone else's idea, our own idea, of what it is to be.  This seems to me impossible to disagree with, but also so attenuated (so much an opinion itself, applied to thinking animals) as to be almost worthless outside of self examination.  As a tool for oneself though, it seems to me beyond price.  An I-thou relation has no intermediate judgement in it, whatever hoops and trials required to create the moment.  It just is.  

    The thought I ended up with after reading the interview was more general.  Right now, in popular discourse, almost all loud opinions are calls to violence against others, or toward cruelty and tribalism, or toward some ideology once rooted in I and thou but reduced by repetition and blind belief into the cant of membership and exclusion.    The opinions one sees in the news are very very seldom rooted in the beliefs of the oppressed.

    ...j'ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.

    by jessical on Fri May 16, 2014 at 12:21:45 PM PDT

  •  I Am Disturbed (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LinSea, orestes1963

    that Wim Wenders and Mary Zournazi attempt a serious discussion without paying serious attention to the dangerous, no, violent disregard for the requirement that their topic be stated seriously enough to warrant careful consideration.

    It is facile, even ludicrous to offer up a premise like this, "An opinion is a violent act very often," that requires such a dishwater qualification at the end such that one undermines it.  It is facile and ludicrous to try to make an equivalency about holding an opinion that may be "violent" to "violence ensues."

    Now, I grant that unrelieved expression of violent opinions has historically provoked violent acts by both those who originate such opinions and in those who listen to those opinions, find them to their liking, and consequently use that relationship as self-justification for acting out violently.

    But it is the farthest thing from accurate to say opinions equate with actions, which can only give rise to dreadful discussion.  The kind of discussion that could make even a pacific personality such as myself want to punch a facile and ludicrous person in the nose.

    Make no mistake: my opinion of Mr. Wenders and Ms. Zournazi is distinctly separate from the motion of my fist.  I can't bloody their noses with my opinion.  The harm comes solely from my fist.

    Would they have us believe that there may be no self-censoring mechanism which separates and provides a barrier to thought vs. deed?  I recognize that the intervention or bridge (depending on your point of view) between opinion and act is decision -- and that makes all the difference in the world between an intellectual exercise and a corporeal one.

    However, all of what I just said is self-indulgent debate since I didn't hear their discussion.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Fri May 16, 2014 at 01:40:04 PM PDT

  •  To be fair, Wenders said a lot more about opinion (7+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    samdiener, jessical, eyo, Cedwyn, ORDem, LinSea, loretta

    than just that it is "violence very often."  He went on to say

    An opinion is superimposed and very often neglects or denies the space or the right to a space that person has. You have an opinion of someone because he is a foreigner or belongs to that group or that group and immediately that person’s void of their own space. It obliterates them.”
    And all that was in the context of a discussion about film as a way of allowing the viewer to take the perspective of "the other," his citation of certain directors and performers as instructive in how to do that without judgment, and his comment that even public discourse today is often framed in warlike terms.  Personally, I think he really means to say "judgment" instead of "opinion." English is not his first language.

    Also, one must keep in mind that Wenders and Zournazi are German and Austrian, respectively.  Nazism left an indelible mark on those two countries.  Unlike in America, where we still believe freedom of expression is the most sacred right of all, Germans and Austrians think some ideas, like Nazism, are so abhorrent that even expression of those ideas must be forbidden lest the expression lead to the violent horrors that the Nazis inflicted on the world in the 20th century. To a person who starts with that perspective it's only a short step to seeing many opinions in the world today are expressed in violent terms.  (Admittedly, I'm only speculating that Wenders and Zournazi share that perspective, but it's a good bet.)

    You can tell Monopoly is an old game because there's a luxury tax and rich people can go to jail.

    by Simian on Fri May 16, 2014 at 03:35:59 PM PDT

    •  Important Possibility to Consider (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      jessical, eyo, LinSea

      You raise an important possibility, that it is a problem of translation. It's also possible the interview was conducted in German and then translated into English by the publication.

      It's possible that a better word, or at least a word that would make more sense to my sensibilities in these sentences (both the one I quoted and the ones you did), would be "discriminatory prejudices."

      Articulating discriminatory prejudices could certainly be said to "obliterate" the reality of each individual's unique existence.

      And I don't think any of us doubt that some opinions, when articulated, can generate horrendous, even genocidal violence. I'm thinking, for example, of the "opinions" about "Tutsi cockroaches" broadcast over Rwandan radio that spurred on the genocide.

      Another example of the horrendous destruction that can be generated through propounding opinions is the opinion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the US invasion, or at least was close. I must admit I was gullible enough to believe that last one. (I thought Hussein wouldn't have worked so hard to thwart the weapons inspectors if he didn't have anything to hide. Which was true, but I hadn't considered that what he wanted to hide was the absence of such weapons - that he was hoping that the US would be sufficiently scared of the possibility that he was hiding these weapons that the US wouldn't attack).

      So, we might really agree on this here.

      My hesitation is that the questioner asked about "opinion" and "judgement" (distinguishing between them), and that the published version used "opinion" itself, not just violently prejudicial and discriminatory opinions. This touched a chord with me because that all opinions, though, even anti-oppressive and anti-violent ones, are somehow still problematic because they are oppositional, and the New Age-ish attitude that there's something distasteful about opposition, confrontation, and conflict. As I said, I'm encountering this quasi-liberal attitude amongst some students, along the lines of: oh, I don't really have any convictions, I'm just open minded. I need to say I teach many students with quite admirable convictions as well.

      Every relationship of domination, exploitation, or oppression is by definition violent. Dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things - the former dehumanized by an excess of power, the latter by a lack of it. And things cannot love.-Paulo Freire

      by samdiener on Fri May 16, 2014 at 08:53:11 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Excellent discussion. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Thanks for taking the time for writing such a thoughtful reply.  (And sorry I didn't get back to it in time to uprate your comment!)

        You can tell Monopoly is an old game because there's a luxury tax and rich people can go to jail.

        by Simian on Mon May 19, 2014 at 11:19:28 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Perhaps I'm just slow today (0+ / 0-)

    but I am having difficulty with the Wenders/Zournazi claim as well as the diarist's.  Wenders' thinking (if one could go so far) seems patently facile.  Holding an opinion, I would argue, does not negate the other nor close off space.  Holding an opinion that you refuse to challenge (or allow to be challenged), however, may do.  And Wenders appears to fall prey to this tendency as he fails to fully engage the implications of his statement.  He seems to see this issue through a particularly Germanic prism and blindly accepts that prism as 20/20 vision.  Here is the true filure of opinion- the inability to step outside one's own space to challenge one's own assumptions.  What he exemplifies in the end is the harm that arises from the fear of fully articulating and exploring opinions.  

    The problem is not that opinions are violent, but that in the present climate no space is created to permit the free exchange of ideas (opinions).  In short, there is no real public discourse, at least not in American society.  Wenders' anxiety about opinions would foreclose the exchange of ideas, which is more troubling than the disease he identifies.  In the end, he comes off as intellectually shallow IMO.

    As for the diarist, I do not understand the following claim:

    Yes, expressing opinions, and acting on our convictions, can create tension. Let's embrace fostering the creative tension necessary for social change by attempting to express our opinions honestly and openly. This kind of opinion-assertion lies at the heart of nonviolence, not violence.
    The diarist appears to express her/his own anxiety about the potential power of opinion, as expressed through the use of tension to reflect what really is the threat of violence that undergirds civil disobedience.  (I understand s/he takes this from King, but I would take King with a grain of salt here.  I do not believe he was unaware of the threat inherent in civil disobedience.)    Taking to the streets or disrupting the normal order are violent acts, unless one limits the term to include only acts of physical violence.  (I reject such a definition as unsupportable and too narrow.)  
    •  Birmingham & Dynamics of Nonviolent Action (0+ / 0-)


      I think we agree quite closely regarding our opinions of Wim Wenders remarks as they were reported.

      I note the year listed in your name. Perhaps you're particularly interested in the events of that year?

      A couple of years ago, I wrote a diary about a not well enough known event during the Birmingham campaign, the day Birmingham's firefighters refused to turn the firehoses on Birmingham's civil rights demonstrators.

      I hope you'll read it for the descriptions of the incredible nonviolent courage of the demonstrators.

      Civil disobedience is not effective because of any "threat of violence that undergirds civil disobedience," as you claim, but much the reverse. The tension that is created is not the tension of the threat of violence, but the tension created by the clash of nonviolent confrontation. It is exactly because of the dramatic contrast between the unjustified violence of the authorities coupled with the dramatic nonviolent courage of the activists that the nonviolent resister creates the potential for the violence of the oppressor to backfire against them as popular opinion swings towards the demonstrators  (sometimes worldwide opinion, as in the Birmingham case), the opponent's coalition splinters, and/or the army/police begin to refuse orders (as above, or to provide one more example, in the People Power Philippines insurrection that unseated the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, nonviolently. By the way, that account is from an amazing compilation: The Global Nonviolent Action Datatabase, that is well worth perusing). For more on the Backfire effect, the brilliant Australian peace researcher Brian Martin has written extensively on the phenomenon).

      I certainly don't agree that "Taking to the streets or disrupting the normal order are violent acts," certainly not inherently (see above). I certainly don't limit the term to "include only acts of physical violence." (Please see the quotation from Freire in my sig line). For example, I also include structural violence, an example of which is the violence of a racist health care system that results in a disproportionate number of babies of color dying in the US, even if you factor out class as a variable.

      I also wanted to ask you about the first part of your sig name. It took me aback to see you call yourself Orestes. I would guess that could be a powerful mythological burden. Did you adopt that name out of a commitment to mercy in reference to Oreste's trial and Athena's rejection of retributive justice? If you don't mind describing it, what does it mean to you?

      Every relationship of domination, exploitation, or oppression is by definition violent. Dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things - the former dehumanized by an excess of power, the latter by a lack of it. And things cannot love.-Paulo Freire

      by samdiener on Sat May 17, 2014 at 08:49:23 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Sorry for the delay (0+ / 0-)

        I am familiar with the history you report and wholly endorse your sig line.  I think our disagreement is a matter of perspective.  I am of the view that nothing changes without the threat of violence.  Power does not yield willingly.  As for the civil rights movement, MLK did not exist in a vacuum.  There were a number of other groups/forces that also affected the landscape.  Additionally, the people who participated in protests also became more radicalized.  The adage, I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore, was very much in the air.  So, IMO, the civil rights movement was not non-violent.  MLK may have endorsed that strain, but he was not the sine qua non of the movement.  The fact that he is perceived as the figurehead of the movement, IMO, is a direct reflection of the anxiety of those afraid of anger as a force for change.  I think we forget this fact at our own peril.  I cannot think of a single example in which social justice was achieved without the threat of violence.  (Gandhi is often cited here, but the threat was implicit in the sheer number of his supporters and their ability to overpower their oppressors.)

        As for the name, I am a huge fan of Greek drama.  One of my life's highlights was being able to sit in the space where drama was created.  I use the Orestes from the Electra plays, who was compelled to avenge the death of his father.  The blood lust of the house of Atreus and the need to correct those wrongs is a powerful myth.  

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