New Heroes for a New Age


This article originally appeared in Issue# 63

Stories of Nonviolence Inspire the Best in Us

I'm riding on a subway in New York City when I see a ballet-like hand weave between the packed-in crowd and slip into a pocket. What you did isn't right," I find myself declaring to the young man connected to the hand. "What?" he shouts, drawing back emptyhanded. "I'll cut you. I'll dice you."

The entire subway car falls silent. You could hear a pin drop. I'm looking him dead in the eye. He's looking at me. The subway door opens. He turns and walks off mumbling and cursing. The entire subway car bursts into a cheer.

– Linda Carel, a rapper describing a 1988 incident

In every audience I speak to around the country I find ordinary people with remarkable firsthand stories of nonviolent heroism. A seven-year-old girl stops a quarrel by stepping between her two fighting brothers. A veteran policeman uses Eastern meditation techniques to peacefully disarm a crazed, knife-wielding murderer. A mother refuses to play "victim" to a carjacker and disarms him by connecting with the pained little boy inside him.

A man once told me, in hushed tones, of talking his way out of a fight. "You know, I've never told this to anyone."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Well, I don't know. I was kind of embarrassed – that I didn't kick the shit out of the guy – like John Wayne – like all the heroes you see in the movies."

Many of us model and evaluate our behavior on the basis of our cultural heroes. Thus, as a nation, our choice of heroes has a fundamental effect on the kind of society we develop. Every society needs its heroes – someone to help inspire dreams and shape goals.

A boy or girl who grows up watching a cartoon G.I. Joe subdue and pin down a bikini-clad "evil" temptress may develop a different self-concept than one who spends his or her time enthralled by the biographies of historical and contemporary heroes and heroines like Thomas Jefferson, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King Jr., Simon Bolivar, Stephen Biko, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa or Eleanor Roosevelt.

Given our mass culture's current glorification of criminal and violent heroes, is it any wonder that Americans are killing, maiming, raping and robbing each other at a furious rate – a rate which exceeds that of every other nation that keeps records? According to a March, 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee report, the United States is "the most violent and self-destructive nation on earth."

Could there be a connection between our choice of heroes and the epidemic of violence sweeping our society?

Mythological interpreter Joseph Campbell observed that since the beginning of civilization, the behavior of every society has been largely molded by its storytellers and myth makers.

In the days of old, stories of the heroic warriors were used to inspire young men to become soldiers and young women to want to marry them. The warrior would either win – building an empire of power, seizing a bounty of riches and securing safety for his society – or lose, bringing shame, subjugation and poverty to his people. The old myth that we have only two choices – fight or flight – is deeply ingrained in many cultures.

A Better Idea
Yet, there is another way – an awesome power, radically different from the old world view of fight or flight, conquer or be conquered, that has proven itself in dramatic confrontations on the personal, national and global scale. However, we are often so locked into the old mindset that we fail to see what is before our very eyes.

For example, when the people of Moscow stood up to the Red Army during the 1989 coup, the world braced for what it believed to be inevitable. The tanks would roll, the KGB would assassinate the leaders and the people would be massacred. The U.S. Marines, the CIA, even our 26,000 nuclear weapons stood by, impotent and obsolete. No force seemed powerful enough to stop the onslaught.

Instead, the unexpected occurred. The people of Moscow introduced their babies to the tank drivers, put flowers in their gun barrels and appealed to them as human beings. Conscience and a sense of shared identity proved mightier than the sword and, in a dramatic, nonviolent confrontation, Moscow was liberated and an empire crumbled.

We watched it all on TV – but did we see it? Did commentators marvel at this awesome display of nonviolent power? Did producers rush out to be the first with the "movie of the week," replaying the emotion of this dramatic nonviolent confrontation? Not at all. Instead of seizing on this truly "new" happening, newscasters failed to even notice the world-shaking force that had just been displayed. Rather, they chose to focus on questions like: "Why did the coup leaders lose their nerve? What was their weakness?"

Challenging the Myth
The mass media stories in our culture are imbued with the warrior ethos of millennia – the "myth of redemptive violence," as theologian Walter Wink called it in the last issue of Media&Values. This mindset focuses on the tale of good conquering evil, not with goodness but with superior violence. We are so conditioned to accept this view of the power of violence that we don't quite have a framework to see the emerging power of nonviolence.

For decades we have witnessed dramatic nonviolent revolutions that swept the old guard out of power, first in India, then the American South and more recently in the Philippines, Poland, and elsewhere around the world. In the Middle East, this year's decision between the Israelis and Palestinians to mutually recognize is another example. But these nonviolent dramas are usually seen as an aberration – something that happened because of special circumstances – not any reason to change our perceptions and re-examine the basic myths of our old-style cultural heroes.

Part of the problem is linguistic. The word "nonviolence" is inadequate for the alternative force we are discussing. It sounds soft, implying the passive acceptance of abuse and injustice. In fact it is just the opposite. The courage required for a nonviolent confrontation with force is incalculable.

When Medgar Evers was shot down in Mississippi on his "march against fear" through the South in 1963 during the height of the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders picked up the banner. They faced rocks and knives and guns. They resisted frustrated supporters' calls for retaliatory violence.

Despite their refusal to fight back, their actions were anything but passive. Leaders of the movement knew that a physical confrontation was exactly what the white power structure of Jackson, Mississippi wanted. Violence would have taken the battle into an arena where police and city leaders had the upper hand. The reality is that armed conflict is a weaker, less effective, more cowardly, more fear-based response than the drastic action – the last resort – of facing violence with unarmed courage.

Simple acts of courage can be inspiring and contagious. I think they are cinematic. I think they'd give audiences a rush – and some new kinds of heroes and heroines.

Creating New Role Models
Spurred by public criticism, the leaders of the film and television industry are currently searching for ways to reduce the display of media violence. During the industry's summer 1993 conference on television violence, I listened as network executives struggled with the question: How can media creators attract and excite audiences, retain the impact of dramatic narrative and at the same time eliminate or tone down scenes whose impact depends on excessive and gratuitous violence?

In an industry built on imagination, the participants seemed remarkably lacking in vision. They debated whether the murders should be shown on screen, to demonstrate the consequences of violence, or should happen off screen, to save us from the gruesome details.

They missed the point.

"Turning off" the violence in media is not enough. We must also "turn on" stories that will provide role models for children and adults

What is needed is not the same old story with the violence sanitized. Kids do know there is violence out there in the world – even right at home and in their schools and neighborhoods. What they need are the tools of good conflict management and resolution. They need new role models to show the way to a greater power than violence. They need new kinds of "beyond macho" heroes of both sexes and all races.

"Turning off" the violence in media is not enough. We must also "turn on" stories that will provide role models for children and adults.

J. William Gibson, in his forthcoming book Warrior Dreams, suggests that only by creating new kinds of heroes, new myths, can we begin to turn around our culture of violence. Only then can we begin to reduce the level of real violence in our nation and in our world. He points out that any attempt to create a new mythology must provide adventure and a new ritual for male passage from boyhood to manhood – and a new definition of manhood that sees child rearing as a manly virtue.

Three Positive Concepts

How does the Hollywood community learn to create such nonviolent heroes? Essentially, a nonviolent approach boils down to three common elements that appear in virtually all of the stories of effective nonviolent action:

    • Courage. Don't be afraid. Attackers smell fear; they are full of it themselves. They expect screaming, begging, pleading. Their guns or knives have the power to get them what they want only if their opponents fear them. If their opponents are not afraid, attackers' weapons lose much of their power.
    • Humanity. See the human being behind the violent deed. Speak to his or her condition. Treat the person with love, respect and understanding, taking time to listen to what's exploding inside rather than reacting to it.
    • Initiative. Originate a reframed situation. Don't play into their game, draw them into yours. Draw your opponent into the nonviolent interaction you have set up. Create the framework for a solution in which both sides win.

These three steps-Courage, Humanity, Initiative-create the acronym "CHI." In oriental philosophy, Chi is the kind of soul energy, heart power that can turn around a dangerous situation – rather than fight an opposing energy, you embrace it and turn it so it is going your way.

Have you, the reader, had an experience of countering violence with CHI? I believe it is time we started telling our stories to the storytellers. I believe we can all help the entertainment industry develop new kinds of heroes and heroines who resonate creative action and transformational power. Writers, producers and directors now have an opportunity to use their powerful skills to reshape our way of looking at the world. When they do, they can help kids – and presidents – learn to play a better game than war.

Working to Create New Media Heroes

Future WAVE (Working for Alternatives to Violence in Entertainment) is a nonprofit organization working within the entertainment industry to research, develop and promote positive alternatives to violence and incorporate those alternatives into popular movies and TV programs. Projects include the movie Astrocops: Peacekeepers of the Future, currently in development, and Legend of the Bullyproof Shields, a "Rap 'n Roll opera" based in part on Native American mythology. To donate to this effort or to contribute stories of nonviolence in action, contact Future WAVE, Inc. at:   P.O. Box 3678, Corrales, NM  87048/

Author Bio: 

Arthur Kanegis is a lecturer, writer and the founder of Future WAVE: Working for Alternatives to Violence in Entertainment. At the time this article was written, he was also president of 2020 Productions, Inc. He now heads One Productions, LLC. and is producing a movie about the first world citizen Garry Davis.