Pacifism: Rescue the Word

Since we’re getting serious about pacifism, we should also get serious about the words we use to talk about it.

Language has been nearly fatal to pacifism: the word itself is often considered foul and offensive. This is because many people mistakenly believe pacifism to be an extreme and fanatical position. Specifically, they believe that anyone who calls himself a pacifist must allow himself to be punched without punching back, and must also support a foreign policy that allows the same.

This is an incredibly foolish and childish definition of “pacifism”, one that has nothing to do with the essential goal of discovering paths to peace for our frightened and war-sick world. And yet I know that this misconception is widespread, because I’ve had this trivial and naive definition of the word “pacifism” thrown in my face over and over in the past few months as I’ve gone around talking to people about my plan to build an organization called Pacifism21.

This misunderstanding of the meaning of “pacifism” presents a severe challenge, and I know that it’s been making it difficult for me to raise funds for my new organization. A marketing consultant friend recently put it this way, as I described the difficulty I’m having in selling this idea: “you’ve got an ugly baby on your hands”.

The word “pacifism” may very well be an ugly baby, but, well … we’d better learn to love this ugly baby. There are two big reasons. First, the baby belongs to us. Second, the baby is (frankly) the best thing we’ve got.

Popular misconceptions aside, we the people really can’t delay our efforts to oppose the senseless destruction of future wars and the sad waste of current geopolitical dysfunctionality. We clearly need a movement, and this movement needs a name. As far as I can tell, “pacifism” is the only word in town. Its the only term I can find to denote a position of political opposition to our world’s self-destructive culture of militarism on steroids. This is a vitally important position to stand upon, and that’s why we need to rescue this word.

It would be great to find a non-English word to use as an alternative name for this political movement, and I’ve searched hard for a good choice. I’ve asked around to my multilingual friends, have checked Google Translate and many language-specific translators. I’ve discovered to my dismay that pacifism is “pacifismus” in Czech, “pacifisme” in Danish, “pasifismi” in Finnish, “pacifisme” in French, “pazifismus” in German, “pasyfysm” in Greek, “pacyfizm” in Polish, “patsifizm” in Russian, “patsyfizm” in Ukranian. No help here.

This deadening sameness indicates a hopeless apathy and intellectual stagnation all over Europe: if the word “pacifism” were not so dead these days, there would certainly be a richer vocabulary for it. Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope in Northern Europe, where Iceland offers the fresh-sounding “friðarsinnar”. More hopefully, I am attempting to penetrate the less familiar alphabets and contexts of Arabic (“alssalamia”), Chinese (“Hépíng zhǔyì”), Hindi (“Śāntivāda”) and Vietnamese (“chủ nghĩa bình định”) in search of an equivalent word or phrase that might possibly help.

I also searched through various African languages on Google Translate, but was extremely sorry to see that “pacifism” shows up merely as “pacifism” in Igbo, Sesetho, Swahili, Yoruba and Zulu, as if these languages have not even bothered to unbox the European word at all. I assume this is Google Translate’s fault, as I’m sure there are various words for “pacifism” all over Africa. I’d sure like to know what they are.

I’m still researching these global alternatives, and definitely holding out hope for some of these Middle Eastern/Asian terms (“Alssalamia” has a nice ring to it, and so does “Santivada”, and there are plenty of Asian languages I haven’t yet had time to check).

However, the main finding of my research is clear: no alternative to the widely hated word “pacifism” is currently in circulation around the world. That sucks for pacifism. And it sucks for the world.

It’s because language has the global peace movement in such a terrible chokehold that we’re going to devote at least one major section of the website (once we launch the site, and the beta is coming very soon) to the creation of an authoritative and crowd-sourced taxonomy for pacifism. We’ll work with everyone we can (including, hopefully, you) to produce extended dictionary definitions for various words and terms that come into play when discussing issues of militarism and peace, such as “ahimsa”, “isolationism” and “guerrophilia”.

Most importantly, we’re going to provide a crystal clear definition of the word “pacifism” itself that will hopefully clear up the misunderstanding that has left this important (and, really, necessary) word in such bad shape. You’ve heard of rescue pets? We’re going to rescue a word.

In my next blog post later this week, I will lay out a first draft of a basic taxonomy for pacifism. I hope this draft will generate discussion and collaboration. I’m looking forward to kicking that off in the next few days. (These blog posts will continue to appear on Litkicks but will also appear on once the site is launched.)

This taxonomy must begin with a definition of “pacifism” itself. A look at Wikipedia offers a pretty good start:

Pacifism is opposition to war and violence. The word pacifism was coined by the French peace campaigner Émile Arnaud and adopted by other peace activists at the tenth Universal Peace Congress in Glasgow in 1901. A related term is ahimsa (to do no harm), which is a core philosophy in Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. While modern connotations are recent, having been explicated since the 19th century, ancient references abound.

In Christianity, Jesus Christ’s injunction to “love your enemies” and asking for forgiveness for his crucifiers “for they know not what they do” have been interpreted as calling for pacifism. In modern times, interest was revived by Leo Tolstoy in his late works, particularly in “The Kingdom of God Is Within You”. Mohandas Gandhi propounded the practice of steadfast nonviolent opposition which he called “satyagraha”, instrumental in its role in the Indian Independence Movement. Its effectiveness served as inspiration to Martin Luther King Jr., James Lawson, James Bevel, Thich Nhat Hanh and many others in the 1950s and 1960s American Civil Rights Movement. Pacifism was widely associated with the much publicized image of Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 with the “Tank Man”, where one protester stood in nonviolent opposition to a column of tanks.

This is a good starting point, but I propose that the first sentence be changed from this:

Pacifism is opposition to war and violence.

To this:

Pacifism is opposition to war, violence or militarism.

“Militarism” describes a doctrine of government policy and government spending that can be opposed for reasons that have nothing to do with opposition to war or violence. For instance, Dwight David Eisenhower is a hero to pacifists for standing up against the profit-hungry military-industrial complex. However, the commander of D-Day in World War Two was clearly very comfortable within the art of war. Therefore, the term “militarism” should be included in the basic definition as one of the major things pacifism stands against.

More importantly, pacifism should be defined as an “OR” rather than an “AND”. A pacifist may very well oppose war AND violence, but a pacifist who only opposes one or the other can also be very useful to the movement, and should not be turned away. It’s important to emphasize that pacifism represents not a single belief system but rather a set of interlocking attitudes, practices and belief systems, and that that there may be no single belief or principle that all pacifists agree upon.

For instance: some pacifists may disavow all violence, but of course a violent person may also choose to be a pacifist. Even Gandhi wrote (in his often self-critical autobiography) about arguments he had with his wife that led to physical confrontation. Gandhi is surely not the only avowed pacifist who has failed to live a completely non-violent life.

Do all pacifists even oppose war? Perhaps surprisingly, this is also not the case. The great British pacifist and suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst enthusiastically supported Britain during the First World War. US President Jimmy Carter has worked tirelessly for pacifist causes all his life, and yet he began his career as a proud officer of the US Navy, and was for four years the active commander in chief of the most powerful military force in the world.

It’s much easier to understand the true meaning of pacifism once we accept that it is a loose and imprecise term, a broad conjunction of different meanings. Opposition to war or violence or militarism may be motivated by any number of factors, including concern for human rights, concern for commerce and trade, concern for budgetary moderation, concern for the environment, personal dislike of violence, religious belief. While the opposition to war or violence or militarism can become the basis of a broad moral belief system, such as those developed by Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, or a tenet of religion, as it is for the Society of Friends and Baha’i, it is absolutely crucial to recognize the fact that pacifism does not always coincide with any philosophical, moral or spiritual belief. It can be a purely practical position, adopted for purely functional purposes.

It’s also important to recognize that a person may be a pacifist to a moderate degree. As I’ve gone about my rounds asking various people whether or not they consider themselves pacifists, I’ve been surprised to learn how many people mistakenly believe that they cannot refer to themselves in this way unless they have made an absolute all-or-nothing life commitment to it. I’ve been told that it’s not possible to be “sort of a pacifist”. I’ve asked: why not? I have never heard a satisfying response to my question.

Every political attitude or position must admit a gray area, and pacifism surely does too. Furthermore, a person might adopt pacifist methods without being a self-declared pacifist at all, and likewise a person who self-identifies as a pacifist might fail to adopt pacifist methods in practice. It’s bizarre that so many people consider “pacifism” to be an absolutist position, when of course we live in a world without absolutes that yet cries out for peace.

This is why it is essential to take pacifism back from those who use language to disqualify or ridicule it. We hope you’ll join us in our campaign to “rescue the word”. If you’d like to become involved, please post a comment here or on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else letting us know what you think about our proposed definition of the word. Your feedback may really help.

Beyond this, please consider getting involved by visiting our Indiegogo page and donating to help us get this website and organization off the ground. You can also register your interest by entering your email address at Either way, you’ll be welcomed as part of our team, and we’ll be able to keep in touch with you as our activities ramp up.

Help us rescue the word today! We may be able to help rescue the world as well.

One Response

  1. There is another German word
    There is another German word for this, for what that’s worth (I tend not to love the sound of German and usually find it very heavy and unsubtle) — Friedensliebe. Meanwhile, Esperanto, of interest for obvious reasons, sticks pretty close to English with “pacifismo.”

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