What comes to mind when you hear the word “pacifism”? Maybe anti-war demonstrators from the 1960s carrying signs that say “Resist the draft” and “No more war.” Maybe you think of Quakers or peace signs.
It’s also completely reasonable that, in a post-9/11 world, you have no idea what it means.
Pacifism is the opposition to war or violence as a means of solving conflict. In today’s political rhetoric, the term pacifism has become pretty antiquated regarding violence in the United States and our foreign affairs. We’re currently 18 years into the longest war in U.S. history. And even though most Americans support withdrawal from Afghanistan, our conflicts on foreign ground don’t seem to be ending any time soon.
Yet there are many Americans who identify as pacifists or peace-builders and dedicate their lives to advocating for a non-violent world. Like Gabe Murphy, communications manager for the nation’s largest grassroots peace and disarmament organization, Peace Action.
“We work to create a nuclear weapons-free world, to promote government spending priorities that support human needs, to encourage real security through international cooperation and human rights and to support nonmilitary solutions to international conflicts,” Murphy said. “By working closely with pro-peace members of Congress, we play a key role in devising strategies to move forward pro-peace legislation.”
That’s pacifism on a macro level. But how do these non-violent beliefs manifest themselves in Murphy’s day-to-day life? How does a pacifist participate in pop culture when violence is ubiquitous? Can a true pacifist play “Fortnite”? What about watching super-violent “Game of Thrones”?
Murphy says he doesn’t shut all of that out.
“I’m no stranger to violent media,” he said. “I’m a ‘Game of Thrones’ fan. I’ve played ‘Grand Theft Auto.’ And to this day, I moonlight as a conqueror in Sid Meier’s game, ‘Civilization,’ the irony of which isn’t lost on me.
“The important thing is being able to separate the explicit and implicit values promoted in violent media from reality, and to refrain from incorporating those values into our world view.”
Joanne Sheehan is a 70-year-old mother and grandmother who has been a pacifist since the Vietnam War. She’s currently a coordinator for the War Resisters League New England and started the Stop War Toys campaign, which pushed to do away with war-themed children’s toys like guns and G.I. Joes, in 1985.
Still, she enjoys some action movies that depict warfare. She believes it’s crucial to monitor your emotions when you’re consuming entertainment with violent content.
“If one immerses themselves in violent media, they can become insensitive to the violence which becomes exciting and therefore addictive,” she said. “On the other hand, I know of many pacifists and nonviolent revolutionaries who enjoy watching ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Black Panther,’ including myself.”
You might assume that pacifists have a complicated relationship with our country’s military. Murphy says most pacifists have no hostility towards the military. Their version of supporting the troops is wanting to get them home safely.
“There’s a common misconception that people in the peace movement don’t support the troops, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said.
“Whether on Veterans Day or Memorial Day, we should all take time to honor the incredible sacrifices of our nation’s armed forces. And throughout the year, we should also honor them by pushing our government to bring them home from endless war, and keep free and clear from new wars of choice.”
The U.S. hasn’t fought a war on its own soil since a battle in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska during World War II. That can make conflict feel far away and peace activism feel futile.
But Murphy believes people can address violence within the United States, with gun reform and protections for refugees, while also educating themselves about the global impacts of war.
“We need to remember that we’re all part of a global community, and that the decisions our government makes abroad affects us here at home,” Murphy said. “Call your members of Congress and tell them what you think, because that can make a real difference.”