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Book Reviews

La personalità nonviolenta [The non-violent personality]
Giuliano Pontara. Torino: Edizioni Gruppo Abele. 1996. ISBN: 887670265-2.104p.

Reviewed by Marijke Keet

Although the personalità nonviolenta is not a new release, it could have been as the topics addressed in the book are still, actually even more, relevant today. To whom? The majority of Italians are against the war on Iraq and when I was travelling throughout the country I could see many rainbow-coloured peace flags and Microsoft's Minesweeper game is called "flowers" in the Italian Windows versions. That this is far from enough will become clear reading Pontara's vision. To achieve a culture of peace a few symbols are not enough, but education will need to be transformed to develop students to equip them with morals of a non-violent personality, which the author sets out what it comprises and how this might be accomplished.

Written in the mid-nineties, the first section of the book discusses the then political situation of "postmodernist war" before and after the Wendung, where many more civilians suffer and die than in the 'old-fashioned' war between soldiers on a separate far-away battlefront, with a vortexing of intensified hatred and dehumanisation from where it is increasingly difficult to escape this downward spiral. Add the distortion of facts, unindependent media, and 'truth projection' (propaganda) and cultivating a culture of peace has become a really daunting task. Pontara touches upon separatism, nationalism, fundamentalism, exploitation and totalitarian capitalism (among other problems) one can find in present-day leftist media as well. One aspect, however, is in the current political situation a very delicate issue: "cow-boy ethics and the return of the Nazi mentality" (apart from Granma, the national newspaper in Cuba, that repeatedly talks about "Fuhrer Bush" and American-based media comparing Saddam to Hitler). According to Pontara, the Nazi mentality is not about Arian supremacy, but the "glorification of 'force' [and violence in general] and contempt for 'the weak'", the might-is-right adagio, and that "cow-boy ethics has been elevated to prime principle of conducting international politics". To this ideology belong concepts such as elitism, authoritarianism, and machismo: the 'strong ones' should not just be victorious over 'the weak', but "the 'weak' must lose, obey, die". You can analyse and decide yourself if the shoe fits for a country's culture and politics.

From chapter 2 onwards the content is less depressing, even encouraging at times. Some characteristics of a mature culture of peace are highlighted: the kind of peace, education, changes to be made, our responsibility (not to be egoists, but to internalise solidarity, cooperation, and respect for nature), and the relation to democracies. Or better, omnicracy: "uguale potere di tutti su tutto quanto incide su interessi fondamentali di tutti (Capitini, 1969)" - equal capacity [non-violent power] to all for everything when it influences the fundamental interests of all.

Part two lists ten characteristics of a non-violent personality and are discussed in detail throughout the remainder of the section of the book:
  1. Dismissal of violence
  2. The capacity to identify violence
  3. The capacity to empathize
  4. Rejection of authority
  5. To have faith/confidence in others
  6. The capacity for dialogue
  7. Mildness
  8. Courage
  9. To make sacrifices
  10. Have patience
As in other peace literature, it includes a discussion on the dilemma of rejecting violence outright (pacifism) or to allow some violence (be it to hurt or to kill) to save a comparatively large 'general good'.
Part two finalises with two hypotheses: first, when more people in a democratic society have the listed 10 characteristics, the more it is a democracy in substance and not just in form. The second is, that when the group of people who have these non-violent characteristics is larger, the possibility increases to solve conflicts in a constructive manner by being capable to stop violence. It is not clear to me how one could test these hypotheses, because it requires constructing (comparative) scales for each characteristic, which will be biases by the views of the person(s) who develop such scales. It also may mean making decisions if each point should weigh equally or if one can (or should) distinguish such that some characteristics are more influential to achieve a non-violent culture than others, let alone building in counter-weight factors between the characteristics. Intuitively, and quite subjectively, I tend to agree with the second hypothesis, but the first would negate this because there are very few democracies in substance to cater for a statistically sound investigation.

Section 3 deals in its entirety with education; at school, at home and other influences (such as the TV), both the problems in the present systems and what ought to happen. For example, educating students to develop a critical moral conscience, analyse and to be able to think for yourself (as opposed to rote-learning in a degree-factory). Not favouring a dualistic approach, but facilitating creative constructive solutions, work against "the numbing of conscience, the weakness of the senses, consumerism, and conformism of the mass-media". Further, instead of the de-intellectualisation, critical though is required with the current developments in science and the ethics thereof need attention, according to Pontara. In the words of Tagore: "the main object of teaching is not to explain meanings but to knock at the door of Mind". Some suggestions for class activities are suggested, although education does not end there: it is a continuous process in life.

Overall, the book is small in size, yet large in its contents and still as relevant today as it was when written. Being able to read books like personalità nonviolenta makes it worthwhile learning another language; the global community could benefit from reading (a translation of) personalità nonviolenta and maybe pick up at least some of its suggestions so that the next generation can live in a less-violent and more fulfilling society.

Note: all quotations are translations by reviewer.

Created on: 18 July 2004
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