Nonviolence (or non-violence) is a set of assumptions about morality, power and conflict that leads its proponents to reject the use of violence in efforts to attain social or political goals. While often used as a synonym for pacifism, since the mid 20th century the term nonviolence has come to embody a diversity of techniques for waging social conflict without the use of violence, as well as the underlying political and philosophical rationale for the use of these techniques.
As a technique for social struggle, nonviolence is most often associated with the campaign for Indian independence led by Mohandas Gandhi, and the struggle to attain civil rights for African Americans, led by Martin Luther King. The former was deeply influenced by Leo Tolstoy's anarcho-pacifist ideas of non-resistance based on the Sermon on the Mount.
Most advocates of nonviolence draw their preference for nonviolence either from religious or ethical beliefs, or from a pragmatic political analysis. The first justification for nonviolence is sometimes referred to as principled or ethical nonviolence, while the second is known as pragmatic or strategic. However, it is not uncommon to find both of these dimensions present within the thinking of particular movements or individuals.
In the west, nonviolence has been used extensively by the labour, peace, environment and women's movements. Less well known is the role that nonviolence has played and continues to play in undermining the power of repressive political regimes in the undeveloped world and the former eastern bloc:
- In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,000,000 people experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations ... If we add all the countries touched by major nonviolent actions in our century (the Philippines, South Africa ... the independence movement in India ...) the figure reaches 3,337,400,000, a staggering 65% of humanity! All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that nonviolence doesn't work in the 'real' world.
(Walter Wink, as quoted by Susan Ives in a 2001 talk)
Nonviolence scholar Gene Sharp, in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, suggests that the conspicuous absence of nonviolence from mainstream historical study may be due to the fact that elite interests are not served by the dissemination of techniques for social struggle that rely on the collective power of a mobilised citizenry rather than access to wealth or weaponry.
How does nonviolence work?
The nonviolent approach to social struggle represents a radical departure from conventional thinking about conflict, and yet appeals to a number of common-sense notions.
Among these is the idea that the power of rulers depends on the consent of the populace. Without a bureacracy, an army or a police force to carry out his or her wishes, the ruler is powerless. Power, nonviolence teaches us, depends on the co-operation of others. Nonviolence undermines the power of rulers through the deliberate withdrawal of this co-operation.
Also of primary significance is the notion that just means are the most likely to lead to just ends. When Gandhi said that, "the means may be likened to the seed, the end to a tree," he expressed the philosophical kernel of what some refer to as prefigurative politics . Proponents of nonviolence reason that the actions we take in the present inevitably re-shape the social order in like form. They would argue, for instance, that it is fundamentally irrational to use violence to achieve a peaceful society.
Some proponents of nonviolence advocate respect or love for opponents. It is this principle which is most closely associated with spiritual or religious justifications of nonviolence, as may be seen in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus urges his followers to "love thine enemy," in the Taoist concept of wu-wei, or effortless action, in the Buddhist principle of metta, or loving-kindness towards all beings, and in the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence toward any being, shared by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Respect or love for opponents also has a pragmatic justification, in that the technique of separating the deeds from the doers allows for the possibility of the doers changing their behaviour, and perhaps their beliefs. The Christian focus on both non-violence and forgiveness of sin may have found their way into the story of Abel in the Qur'an. Liberal movements within Islam have consequently used this story to promote Islamic ideals of non-violence.
Finally, the notion of Satya, or truth, is central to the Gandhian conception of nonviolence. Gandhi saw truth as something that is multifaceted and unable to be grasped in its entirety by any one individual. We all carry pieces of the truth, he believed, but we need the pieces of others’ truths in order to pursue the greater truth. This led him to a belief in the inherent worth of dialogue with opponents, and a sincere wish to understand their drives and motivations. On a practical level, willingness to listen to another's point of view is largely dependent on reciprocity. In order to be heard by one's opponents, one must also be prepared to listen.
The methods of nonviolent action
Hunger strikes, pickets, vigils, petitions, sit-ins, tax refusal, go slows, blockades, draft refusal and demonstrations are some of the specific techniques that have been deployed by nonviolent movements. Throughout history, these are among the nonviolent methods used by ordinary people to counter injustice or oppression or bring about progressive change.
To be effective, tactics must be carefully chosen, taking into account political and cultural circumstances, and form part of a larger plan or strategy.
Walter Wink points to Jesus Christ as an early nonviolence strategist. Many of his teachings on nonviolence are revealed to be quite sophisticated when the cultural circumstances are understood. For example, among the people he was speaking to, if by collecting debts a person drove someone indebted to him to be naked, great shame fell on the debt collector -- not the naked man. So Jesus' suggestion - that if someone ask you for your coat you give him your clothes as well - was a way bring shame upon the debt-collector and symbollically reverse the power relation.
This kind of creativity is typical of nonviolent movements. Aristophanes' Lysistrata gives the fictional example of women withholding sexual favours from their husbands until war was abandoned.
A useful source of inspiration, for those seeking the best nonviolent tactics to deploy, is Gene Sharp’s list of 198 methods of nonviolent action, which includes symbolic, political, economic and physical actions.
There are also many other great nonviolence leaders and theorists who have thought deeply about the spiritual and practical aspects of nonviolence: Lech Walesa, Petra Kelly, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dorothy Day, Albert Einstein, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and César Chávez to name just a few.
Leon Trotsky, Frantz Fanon, and Malcolm X were fervent critics of nonviolence, arguing variously that nonviolence and pacifism are an attempt to impose the morals of the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat, that violence is a necessary accompaniment to revolutionary change or that the right to self-defence is fundamental.
In the midst of violent repression of radical African Americans in the United States during the 1960s, Black Panther George Jackson said of the nonviolent tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
- "The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one's adversary. When this adversary has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, his reaction can only be negative."
Malcolm X also clashed with civil rights leaders over the issue of nonviolence, arguing that violence should not be ruled out where no other option remained:
- "Concerning nonviolence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks."
The US academic Ward Churchill, in his book Pacifism as Pathology, argues that revolutionaries must not exclude any tactics which help them to achieve their goal. The efficacy of nonviolence was also challenged by anti-capitalist protestors advocating a "diversity of tactics" during street demonstrations across Europe and the US following the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, Washington in 1999.
One of the possible reasons that such criticisms are levelled against nonviolence is that it tends to be a slow, gradual means of achieving political change, and thus the connection between action and effect is less apparent than for violence. Another possible reason is that there are many different nonviolent strategies, and selecting strategies which work in a particular situation can be difficult, hence nonviolence does not always succeed - even though the same is true for violent means of social change.
Advocates of nonviolence have argued that many critics of nonviolence focus their critique on the moral justifications for nonviolence while neglecting to examine the practical political advantages of nonviolence as a technique for social struggle. Some critics falsely tend to ignore the historical success of nonviolence against dictators and repressive governments, they say.
The specific criticism that nonviolence is a form of passivity can be countered by noting that successful nonviolent campaigns have often centred around actively depriving a ruling regime of financial income (as in Gandhi's breaking of the salt tax ), or the cooperation necessary to run industrial infrastructure. In this context nonviolence can be viewed as a form of attack on the command structure of a government or regime, rather than upon its personnel.
A much-debated topic is the issue of violence against objects, as opposed to against people. Some consider that damage to property falls within the scope of nonviolent action, while others reject such actions.
The embeddedness of violence in most of the world's populous societies causes many to consider it an inherent part of human nature, but others (Riane Eisler, Walter Wink, Daniel Quinn) have suggested that violence - or at least the arsenal of violent strategies we take for granted - is a phenomenon of the last five to ten thousand years, and was not present in pre-domestication and early post-domestication human societies.
For many practitioners, practicing nonviolence goes deeper than withholding from violent behavior or words. It means caring in one's heart for everyone, even those one strongly disagrees with. One implication of this is the necessity of caring for those who are not practicing nonviolence. Of course no one can simply will themselves to have such care, and this is one of the great personal challenges posed by nonviolence - once one believes in nonviolence in theory, how to live it?
Last updated: 10-08-2005 12:54:21