There’s been talk about self-defense in American political/social discourse all my life. It has been a limited talk, however, dominated by limited ideas.

Usually when we talk about self-defense, we are referring to defense of one’s person, family, or property against theft or assault. There is a second and broader strand of “self-defense” talk, concerning the defense of a country, usually either the United States or Israel. Finally people speak of defending rights.

What all these usually imply or assume is that there are evil people who would harm us in a variety of ways, and that the natural recourse of good and decent people is to defend themselves violently. Almost all references to “self-defense” that I can think of regard a violent response to a violent affront. Usually there is some connection to the Second Amendment or to the military. Handguns come up frequently. The speakers usually identify as conservative.

Yet there is a far broader definition of self-defense that is equally valid, and far broader means of self-defense that just the violent resort. (I will not say “last resort,” for when the violent resort is available, it is almost never used last.)

Consider the first statement above: self-defense is usually about protecting one’s person. Why do we always refer to protecting one’s person from another person or people? Cannot large, impersonal forces attack our persons do damage, just as lasting and lethal? If our air is polluted, simply inhaling can be an assault, and require self-defense. Consider also that our persons go far beyond our bodies. Harassment and abuse attack our minds and spirits. The women facing catcalls on the streets or unwanted attention at work, and the LGBTQ* people facing bullying or discrimination are under a form of attack too. Then there is poverty, which is not so much an assault as an all-out offensive along every conceivable front. Poverty assails health through inferior nutrition, medical care, environment, and simple stress and exhaustion. Poverty assails minds by consuming or denying chances for education, either by limiting access to good schools or to self-education (if I wish to learn something, I have the leisure and luxury of spending hours reading a book). Poverty assails rights, specifically “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” through all of the above and through diminished political power in a system where money has become equated with speech. Finally poverty assails the dignity and pride of the poor through the daily degradation, the daily reminders that others have comfort and security while they the impoverished live their lives at another’s whim; above all rises the vicious and wrenching slander that poverty is earned, poverty is deserved, poverty is just.

These attacks are quite real, and require just as much self-defense as invasion; more so, perhaps, considering the relative frequency of discrimination and poverty versus robbery or war.

The limited discussion of self-defense also neglects, understates, or simply conceals the other options available for protection. Almost every war I know of could have been prevented through diplomacy. There are lots of stories of robberies averted through simple compassion. More broadly, there are numerous means of self-defense that don’t involve semiautomatic weapons fire. A community gathering together to confront drug dealers, through observation and a refusal to be intimidated, is self-defense. A community gathering together to protect itself from pollution and environmental degradation (which, as Van Jones has pointed out, almost always requries the simultaneous degradation of people) is self-defense–and oftentimes the form the self-defense takes is called “government regulation” or to apply the more true and less obfuscatory name, “law.” Women gathering together to protect themselves against sexual harassment, wage discrimination, and rape is self-defense; it’s called “feminism.” It’s also far more effective self-defense than pulling out a Glock, since so many harassers and rapists are not those “evil people” but friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors. Poor people gathering together to protect themselves against the violent assaults of poverty, in all its thefts of health, power, and pride, is self-defense too. It has gone by many names–Leveling, Chartism, collectivism, socialism, anarchy, unionism, populism–and garnered many insults, too: mob rule is just one that’s relatively polite. The true name, however, is simple: revolution.

By now you many have noticed something: the plurals. Under the more usual definition of self-defense, we usually refer to an individual, one person against the world. Even in wartime, the pressure is to unite, quiet dissent, and bring all people into step under one flag, one leader, one idea. But in the alternate forms of self-defense I’ve just laid out, disparate people come together to protect themselves and each other. There’s self-interest in it, but it’s enlightened, for these groups learned a valuable lesson long ago: when you protect others you protect yourselves. Self-interest isn’t the only motivation before long, because when you work alongside someone bonds quickly form, bonds of friendship and compassion. Self-interest soon becomes selfless interest, and true generosity blooms.

So, my friends: let us defend ourselves! Many of us do already, of course; please, keep it up–and call it by its right name. Reclaim “self-defense” and apply it to its wider and more accurate definitions. Defend our bodies, our minds, our spirits. Use tools, not weapons–the tools of boycott and protest, the tools of organization and discourse, the tools of law. Use the methods of Buddhism and Daoism, deflecting, avoiding, resisting like water. These, the tools allowed us under the First Amendment rather than the Second, are in fact better, for violence breeds violence, but the methods of nonviolence–“the generous grasp”–cut the escalation short, give us lasting peace, and restore those who attack us to their place as neighbors, not “evil people.”

Defend yourselves, and remember always that we defend ourselves best when we defend each other.


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