Never violence…

June 11, 2011 § 2 Comments

Astrid Lindgren when she was confirmed 1923.

Never Violence!

Delivered upon children’s author Astrid Lindgren‘s acceptance of the German Booksellers Peace Prize in Frankfurt, Germany, October 22, 1978.

[And as Steve added:

“…the prize committee first rejected the speech for being too…what? Confrontational? Radical?”

She told them that they could keep their prize if she wasn’t allowed to hold it, and then they changed their minds, but not easily or readily.

Here follows the speech that was rejected.]

Dear friends!

What I must do first is thank you, and this I do with all my heart. The German Booksellers’ Peace Prize has such a luster around it and is such a great honor to receive that one almost totters when it is put into one’s hands. And now I stand here, where so many wise men and women have stood during the years, putting their thoughts and hopes forth about the future of humanity and about the eternal peace that we all are longing for. What can I say that hasn’t been said already in a better way than I can?

To talk about peace is to talk about something that doesn’t exist. Real peace does not exist on our earth and has never existed other than as a goal that we evidently cannot reach. So long as humanity has lived on this orb it has dedicated itself to violence and war, and the fragile peace as it now exists is constantly threatened. At this moment the whole world is living in fear of a new war, a war that will destroy us all. At the prospect of this threat more people than ever are working for peace and disarmament—that is true. This could be a hope. But it is difficult to be hopeful. The politicians gather in large crowds at top-level meetings and talk so warmly for disarmament, but the only disarmament they desire is that of someone other than themselves. “Your land shall disarm, not mine!” No one wants to start with oneself—no one dares to start—because all are so afraid and have so little confidence in other’s will to work toward peace. And while one disarmament conference replaces another, the most insane rearmament in humanity’s history takes place. It is not strange that we are all afraid. Either we live in the East, North or South; either we live in a great and powerful country or a small, neutral one. But we know that a big new war would hit the whole of humanity, and whether it is in a neutral or not neutral heap of ruins that I lie dead can make no big difference.

Mustn’t we, after all those thousands of years of constant wars, ask ourselves if it is because of some kind of construction fault in the whole species of man that we always take up violence? And ask if we are doomed to come to our end for our aggression’s sake? We all want peace. Isn’t there a possibility then that we can change before it is too late? That we can learn to dissociate ourselves from violence? Simply try to become a new strain of human beings? But how should that come about? And where should we, in that case, start?

I think we have to start from the foundation. With the children. You have given an author of children’s books a peace prize; you must not expect any big political views or suggestions for international solutions to the problems. I want to talk about the children, my worries for them and my expectations for them. Those who are children now shall take over the handling of the world, if there is anything left of it. They shall decide between war and peace and what sort of society they shall have; if they prefer one in which violence continues to escalate or one in which human beings live in peace and community with each other.

Is there on the whole any hope that they shall be able to create a more peaceful world than what we have succeeded with? Why have we failed so badly in spite of all good will? I recall what a shock it was for me when, still very young, I suddenly realized that those who governed countries and the world’s destiny were no Gods with a superior outfit or clear, divine sight. They were human beings with the same weaknesses as I. But they had power, and they could in each moment come to the most ill-fated decisions by the impulses that ruled them. If things were against us, it could be war because of one single human being’s desire for power or revenge or vanity or triumph or—what seemed to be the most common—blind faith in violence as the most efficient aid in all situations. And in the same way, one single good human being filled with consideration could ward off catastrophes, just through being good and filled with consideration and through repudiating violence.

The conclusion from this could be: it is individual human beings who determine the destiny of the world. And why aren’t all good and filled with consideration then? Why are there so many who only want violence and power? Is there an innate evil will in some? I couldn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it even this day. The intelligences—the gift of reason—are innate, but in a newborn baby no seed lies within from which it will automatically grow good or evil. What determines whether a child will become a warm, open, trusting human being with the ability to commune with others or a cold, destructive loner is decided by the ones that welcome the child into the world and either teach it what love is or leave it to be shown.

Goethe has said “Überall lernt man nur von dem, den man liebt”, and then it must be true. A child that is lovingly met and who loves its parents learns a loving attitude to its surrounding world, and keeps this basic attitude throughout life. Which is good, even if he or she comes to belong to those deciding the world’s destiny. And should, contrary to expectation, he or she happen to become one of those deciding the world’s destiny, that’s good luck for us all—if their basic attitude is love and not violence. Future statesmen and politicians are formed in their character before they are even five years old—that’s horrible but it is true.

And if we now look back at how children have been treated and raised so far as we can follow it through the times, hasn’t it too often been a question of breaking their will with violence of some kind, either physical or psychological? How many children haven’t gotten their first lesson in violence “von denen, die man liebt”, their own parents—and then passed this teaching on from generation to generation? “Spare the rod and spoil the child” you can read in the Old Testament. This, ever since written, many fathers and mothers have believed. They have diligently swung the birch and called it “love”. But all those “ruined boys” of whom there are so many at this moment in the world—the dictators, the tyrants, the oppressors, the tormentors of human beings—how was their childhood? That you ought to do some research into. I believe that behind most of them there is a tyrannic father or other raiser with a birch or a rod in the hand.

Mustn’t you then become despaired when there are voices screaming for retrogression to old authoritarian systems? That is what is going on in many places in the world. Those who blame “too much freedom” and “too little strictness” in upbringing for youthful “misbehaviors” now want “harder grips” and “tightened reins”. This is to use Beelzebub to drive out the Devil and will only lead to more violence and bigger and more dangerous gulfs between the generations in the long term. Those much longed for “harder grips” would possibly “achieve” a superficial effect that its advocates could interpret as an improvement. Until, that is, they are gradually forced to notice that violence breeds violence—as it has always done.

Many parents are worried by those new signals and have begun to wonder if perhaps they have done wrong. Is an anti-authoritarian upbringing something objectionable? It is only if it becomes misunderstood.

An anti-authoritarian upbringing doesn’t mean that children shall be left to care for themselves or to do precisely what they want. It doesn’t mean they shall grow up without norms, by the way, or that they will reject them. Both children and adults need norms for conduct, and children learn more from their parents’ example than from anything else. Of course a child shall have respect for its parents, but indeed—parents shall also have respect for their children and not abuse their natural advantage over them. A mutual, loving respect—that one wishes for both parents and for all children.

And for all those who are now screaming so eagerly for harder grips and tighter reins, I would want to tell you what an old lady once told me. She was a young mother when the common belief was “Spare the rod and spoil the child”. She hadn’t been fully convinced of it, but at one time her little boy had done something, so she decided he “needed” a spanking—the first of his life. She said to him that he had to go out and find a birch for her. The little boy left and was out for a long time. At last he came back, crying, and said:”I didn’t find any birch but here you have a stone you can throw on me.” Then she too began to cry, because suddenly she saw everything with the child’s eyes. The child had thought “If my mother in fact wants to hurt me, then she can as well use a stone.” She put her arms around him and they cried together for a while. And then she put the stone on a shelf in the kitchen, and there it laid as an eternal reminder of the promise she gave herself at that moment: “Never violence!”

Well, if we now raise our children without violence or tight reins of any kind, do we then get a new human species living in eternal peace? Only a child book author can hope something so silly. I know it is a utopia. And of course there is so much else in our poor, sick world that has to be changed so that there can be peace. But we have, in the here and now—even without war—so incomprehensibly much cruelty and violence on earth. The children are indeed aware of it. They see and hear and read about it daily, and must think violence is a natural state. Mustn’t we, at least in our homes and through our own examples show that there are other ways of living? Maybe it would be a good idea if we were to put a stone on the kitchen shelf as a reminder for children and ourselves: Never violence! It would yet maybe at last be a small contribution to the peace of the world.

translated from Swedish to English by me and Steve Thomas.

Addition: and now people are calling for tighter reins again here. Something that seems to be opportune among many, but I see it as a backlash. Not only young people are exposed to this with tighter reins, but also adults. Can this backfire? And what happens then? How about if we tried to speak with each other instead?

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§ 2 Responses to Never violence…

  • Steve Thomas says:

    The “Of course there is so much else that has to be changed” part really isn’t true. I think she knew it but thought she “should” say something along those lines. Seems to me to be appeasement. I guess it could be well argued that the rights of women need to be recognized and strengthened before the rights of children stand any chance at all, but beyond that, what is there?

  • k says:

    Yes, I think you are right! We should start with treating kids well. But it’s amazing that Lindgren was so aware as she in fact was. You know she was born 1907. But yes, she too could have been even stronger emphasising how important it is that we treat children well from the first beginning. And we should speak more openly about this than we do. With each other, in media and so on. It would help us all to behave better toward young people – and adult people too. But Lindgren was really on the right track about child abuse and peace.

    Sigrun has written a blogposting today about abuse among laestadians: http://stomm-blog.blogspot.com/2011/06/avisa-nordlys-om-overgrep-blant.html In this case about sexual abuse, and they see sexuality.

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