Friday, January 27, 2006

Nonviolence Resistence is Not Passive

Over the past few weeks I've encountered quite a number of people who seem to think that passive and nonviolence are one and the same word. When discussing strategies and tactics to oppose neo-Nazis or timber companies or whoever, someone always seems to say something like, "We've got to do something. We just can't sit around nonviolently waiting for things to get worse."

Though often not explicitly stated, the inference is that nonviolent resistence both is passive and a way to wimp out of confrontations. As both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi illustrated time and again, such thinking couldn't be further from the truth.

When someone hits you or screams obsenities in your face, the knee-jerk reaction for most people is to respond in kind or worse. It tends not to be a thinking response -- it's more a reaction than anything else. It's the easiest of responses possible.

It also tends to create a chain reaction of violence. Each person can convince themselves that the other party started or escalated the situation. In essence, each side views themselves as the victim who, by birthright, must now avenge the previous attack.

We see this in the world today in the so-called "war on terror". Many in the Islamic world feel they are victims of US foreign policy which, in their view and others, is terroristic. So, they return terror for terror. The US is attacked on 9/11 and so views itself as the victim. So, the US attacks Afghanistan and Iraq. All this does is create a never-ending cycle of attack, react, attack, react, attack...

The nonviolent approach consciously seeks to stop this cycle dead in its tracks. If somebody hits you, you don't hit back. If somebody yells vulgarities in your face, you don't yell back. Instead of reacting violently, the nonviolent person uses reason, strategy and, in some cases, overwhelming moral authority.

What surpises so many people about this strategy is that it works remarkably well. Dr. King used it to overturn legal segregation in the US. Gandhi used it to gain independence for India. Mandela used it to end apartheid in South Africa.

In all of these cases and more, nonviolent resistence was anything BUT passive and nonconfrontational. No, in each case the movements involved were very active and very confrontational.

For me, the difference between a strategy of violent reaction (large or small) and nonviolent resistence concerns the amount of thinking and planning. The former doesn't need much of either, the latter is thinking and planning intensive.

People tend to want what they want, right now. If a person is not willing to be patient, then a nonviolent strategy appears to be out of the question. Yet, the violent reaction actually increases the likelihood that the time frame for change will be elongated because, once initiated, it begins the cycle of back-and-forth violence.

A cycle that often never seems to end.


  1. Excellent post, Trey! I agree 100%.

  2. Hey Trey,

    nice post! It's not only the US that puts itself in the victim position, look at Israel ...

    The problem is intellect, I think. If you can overthink the consequences of your reaction, then you will go easier for the non-violent way (at least, that's in my case, but I don't state that I have a large intellect, I have a normal intellect :) )
    Or maybe they just use other techniques to fulfill their revenge, quite possible too.

  3. I agree with you in principle. But it's not clear to me what nonviolent (as defined in your earlier post) actions are likely to be effective, especially against an enemy with no reaction to "overwhelming moral authority."

    You are absolutely right when you say that nonviolent action works over a longer time-frame and requires more patience on the part of those participating.

    But time is not a luxury that exists in all situations. If global warming enters the irreversible feedback loop that many scientists predict, it will be too late. After one of our living primate kin has had his skull opened for the insertion of electrodes, the time for holding signs has passed. The forests won't wait forever.

    In the fights for women's sufferage and against apartheid in S. Africa, to name two, it was reasonable to expect that the moral authority of the activists would eventually weigh against those in power. And indeed, that's what happened. Those were human struggles, wherein humans on the correct side of the debate clearly outnumbered those who preferred the status quo. It was a question of achieving a critical mass of people willing to take action.

    Even now, I think there is some hope that, despite the complete ineptness of Democratic leaders, the people will say "enough is enough" and depose the GOP regime via nonviolent means. Again, however, that is a human vs. human conflict.

    In the case of the earth- and animal-liberation movements, the likelihood of creating that critical mass in any kind of relevant time frame is small. The society in which we live separates us from the reality that we create. People are never going to put the environment before their own luxury and comfort. They just aren't. It's a fool's hope to expect otherwise.

    So there will be no mass uprising, no sit-down strikes or demonstrations sufficient to stop the destruction of the planet - at least, not in time to actually do anything about it. An unwillingness to confront the primary agents of destruction with nothing more than voices and moral authority is tantamount to surrender.

    (And to clarify, I am writing this more in response to your earlier post about the definitions of violence within the context of activism; I'm not advocating violence.)

  4. Non violence is great in situations where it works, disastrous in circumstances where it doesn't. One has to calculate the likely consequences of non-violent versus violent reaction to whatever it is that aggrieves one.

    The "cycle of violence" theory is a way to avoid thinking. Apart from its appeal to an "infinite series," it encourages its user to avoid an empirical consideration of any given conflict.

    The use of the word "terroristic" to describe the feelings of "many in the Islamic world" about U.S. foreign policy is not the result of inquiry into the actual feelings of those people, but rather an extension of the moral relativism that characterizes the thinking of the commentator. It so happens that in that part of the world certain tactics have been seen as legitimate for ages, without reference to whatever possible dislike its inhabitants might have for whatever instance or aspect of American foreign policy.

    In the Near East men sometimes seek to humiliate other men by sodomizing them. That doesn't come from foreign policy grievances and nor does their proclivity for stealth attacks and the slaughter of non-combatants. They may really feel aggrieved (whatever the justice of those feelings) but they have their own style of expressing it.

    Trey notes in passing that the U.S. "views itself as a victim." True enough. Then he says that all its response does is create a never-ending cycle of attack, react, attack," etc. Even if this were true in this instance (it's not) it's ridiculous in principle. If it made any sense, then Japan would still be attacking the U.S. after the U.S. attacked upon feeling victimized by the attack on Pearl Harbor. The South would still be seething with violence because of the War of Yankee Agreesion. Hell, the Saxons would still be fighting the Normans in the British Isles.

    Bert offers the edifying observation that Israel plays the victim too. But both the U.S. and Israel have been the victims of atrocious acts against their citizens. Is it supposed to show great subtlety of thinking to try to dissolve this away through some kind of irony?

    By all means, if problems can genuinely be solved by non-violent means, lets avoid a sickening descent into violence. But if non-violence is likely to encourage one's enemies rather than move them toward peaceful coexistence, then it needs to be rejected.

  5. Brad,
    I agree this is both a difficult and time-sensitive issue, especially in terms of global warming. From my perspective, the problem with a violent approach is that it doesn't work at all. Look at the recent indictments you've written about on your blog, greenInk. The establishment is coming down hard on a few people accused of a few isolated incidents.

    Have these incidents changed the behavior of the gov't or the various companies involved? Nope. All it has accomplished is to create a backlash and it's helped the Bushies & the mainstream media paint such activists, who take this violent approach, as menaces to society.

    I think the nonviolent educational approach CAN work IF it is done on the local level. We need for one of the major enviro groups to take on this task as the #1 priority for the short-term future. Create the framework of a program and then send speakers and/or trainers all over the country to help local groups work in their OWN communities.

  6. well, the current problem is: who started it? Who threw the first stone. Did we create a situation in Israel by creating an artificial promised land or did the Palestinians by opposing against this unwilling invasion?
    I don't say that I justify both parties, but it's very difficult for outsiders to judge these kind of situations.
    To find the root of a problem and try to eradicate this, is our main goal. Not by demolishing buildings or dropping bombs, but by positive negiotiation. But unfortunally, I think we are now in a spiral of violence of which no escape is possible.

  7. I don't see why it has to be all that difficult. to understand. I see that kind of talk as another abdication of thinking, just like throwing up one's hands and saying it's a cycle of violence and we can't make any ethical distinctions between the two parties. "Positive negotiation" is a great idea. Couldn't we agree that a good starting point would be an expression of good faith on both parties to the effect that each affirmed the right of the other to exist? How about adding that both sides pledge to refrain from deliberately attacking non-combatants. Of course that might be "unfair" since it's a restriction that only inhibits one party. But agreeing to at least minimize harm to non-combatants is a good starting place, no?

  8. Trey, I agree with you that the overwhelming power of the state makes effective opposition a daunting task indeed. No question. My argument is that it does no good to do battle within the narrow confines of what the oppressor defines as acceptable.

    Environmentalists have been lobbying on Capitol Hill, passing out flyers, "educating the public," organizing marches and other events for decades now. What has been the result?

    When Tecumseh led the Shawnee against the whites, it wasn't his first choice. He watched for years as his people negotiated with the invaders, only to be repeatedly betrayed or ignored. Finally he reached a point where he told his brethren they had reached a crossroads: accept defeat or fight back.

    What should he have done?

    The fact that the state is committed to defending private property against all else does not make it right. The fact that the chances of victory are small does not invalidate the cause of those who act.

    I would argue, again, with your characterization of the actions alleged in the recent indictments as being violent. Capturing and slaughtering wild horses is a violent act. Destroying the building where that takes place is not. Clearcutting a forest is a violent act. Burning the equipment intended to carry out that violence is not.

    To suggest otherwise is to invalidate any type of direct self-defense. If a mob is attacking my home and my family, are my only options to negotiate or leave?

    To address your last point, I think thre have been some successes at the local level, but the widespread destruction in places people don't see continues unabated.

  9. Brad,
    And what happened to Tecumseh & his people? They were slaughtered and white encroachment continued unabated.

    I think you and I will just need to respectfully disagree on a few points. We're on the same side and we want the same outcome.

  10. Agreed. We're on the same side.

    As for Tecumseh, you are correct, of course. My (possibly romanticized) interpretation of the history is that, had the tribes joined and supported him when he tried to unite them under one banner, they at least would have had a chance. The reality is, he was probably a generation too late no matter what.

  11. If only the current US administration had any moral authority to use. But even if they just relied on their financial impulses - think what they could have achieved instead by using the war billions as moral bribes.

  12. brad, if the gop controls the machinery of the vote, how will the democrats (or anyone else) depose them?

    if the ballot box is no longer a credible lever for change, what course will be open to people of morals?

  13. Mr. needl,

    "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure."

    &#8212 Thomas Jefferson

    My personal belief and fervent hope is that the ability to govern this broad and fractious republic will prove impossible to any party, and that we shall abandon the ill-thought attempt and turn instead to our neighbors and agree to live as men and women rather than as subjects and patriots and consumers.

  14. My two cents, and I really want to avoid giving the impression that I'm judging those who disagree with me, but my gut tells me that the only obstacle to making non-violent conflict resolution work in even the most violent of conflicts has to do with cynicism, lack of determination, and a lack of courage.

  15. howard, bless you. but i don't share your munificence. it is impossible to negotiate in good faith when one party to the negotiation is pointing a loaded gun at the other.

    one's determination is of little use when it's dripping down the side of a wall.

  16. Spaceneedl,
    I think King, Mandela & Gandhi showed that you can indeed negotiate in good faith when the other side has all the military muscle. In all 3 cases, the power of the state was rendered impotent by nonviolent resistence.

  17. Ugh, space, disturbing imagery. Having a bad day?

    You know, you and I have talked about this before, and I continue to disagree.

    I remember when the Kosovo ethnic cleansing was happening and the NATO resonse was to drop bombs because they didn't want to commit ground troops. As a result hundreds of innocent victims died from the chillingly phrased "collateral damage", and the Serbs were able to carry out a significant massacre before the bombing campaign finally shut them down.

    What needed to happen was putting bodies between the Serbs and the Kosovars, enough bodies saying "STOP", but the courage and commitment to do this was not available.

    I think about the courage of civil rights activists in the U.S. in the 50's and 60's, getting the crap beaten out of them, or killed, because they stood up to racism, and I try to imagine that courage multiplied by thousands, and I truly believe that there's no violent conflict that couldn't be stopped by a large group of courageous, committed peacekeepers.

    But, no, as long as it is written off as unrealistic, stoner-hippie, head in the clouds bullshit, then, you are right, it will never work.

  18. i feel you, fellas. i really do. and i'm not disrespecting your point of view.

    i'm just not prepared to sacrifice myself, my family and god knows how many others before the people with the guns finally get a warm and fuzzy smile on their faces and say, "golly, they're so friendly and all...maybe we should stop killing them for awhile. we can always start killing them again later."

    i'm speaking metaphorically here, because the violence isn't necessarily physical. i'm thinking specifically about the diebold/voting integrity thing...that's violence against the concept of "america." in that particular instance, how many more non-credible elections will it take before people realize that it's a charade?

    and, rhetorically speaking, what should the next step be in that situation?

    i think brad and thomas jefferson may be on to something.

    rhetorically speaking, mind you...

  19. This really is a fascinating discussion, and important as well.

    Howard, I agree with you that it takes more courage to sit in the middle of the street, arms locked with a dozen of your closest friends, knowing you are likely to get hit upside the head with a nightstick than it does to throw an incendiary device into a crowd of swi... er, cops.

    A couple of things worth noting: the success of nonviolent (as defined by The RT in his earlier post) resistance is dependent upon a significant critical mass of dedicated supporters. Lukewarm affinity won't pass, and a bare majority isn't likely to do it, either. It is, in many ways, the ultimate expression of democracy and subject to many of the drawbacks contained therein.

    Also, I think in all three examples cited by The RT - Gandhi, King, Mandela - it can be argued that — while the tactics espoused publicly (and honestly) by the leaders were nonviolent — the movements themselves were not pure in that regard. Certainly there were violent groups involved in the struggle for civil rights. There was certainly violence in the anti-apartheid movement and in the Indian struggle to free itself from British colonial rule.

    More importantly, the threat of violence definitely contributed to the capitulation by the rulers. While the nonviolent resistance movements grew in numbers, the fear that further recalcitrance might lead to more active rebellion on the part of the masses should not be discounted as an agent of change.

    After all, if the rulers can know through some sort of divine omniscience that a rock will never be hurled in their direction, what motivation (short of complete moral conversion) do they have for change?

  20. Brad, valid points, but you highlight the shortcomings of purely looking back at history when evaluating whether or not something like non-violent conflict resolution (let's call it NVCR for short, I'm getting tired of typing it out) can be effective. By doing so, without considering what the future might hold for using NVCR in even the most violent situations, discussion can so easily slip into classic polarization: either it works or it doesn't.

    Imagine if you will what would be possible if the U.S. decided to radically change it's foreign policy, imagine that the U.S. figured out that we could be safer than ever before by becoming the leading peacemakers on the planet rather than the mightiest military and economic force on the planet, imagine if the U.S. used the massive military budget, reserving enough for immediate defense needs, but with the plan to scale even that back as new comprehensive peace initiatives are put into place, and used the billions upon billions of dollars to establish a Department of Peace, to establish an elite peacemaking task force, led by the U.S., but international in its makeup, trained in NVCR, a task force that would be sent into areas like Israel/Palestine, to get the two sides engaged in a Truth & Reconciliation-type process.

    Impossible? How the hell will we ever know if it's never tried? Why won't it be tried? Because the U.S. is so entrenched in super power megalomania, so addicted to bullying the world in order to get what it wants, even at the cost of people in other countries suffering, starving, being killed by bombs falling from the sky...

    Ghandi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world," and so I repeat, as long as we cynically declare ideas like I've just laid out as unrealistic, they will remain unrealistic, we will not be the change we wish to see. Sigh.

  21. Howard,
    That was VERY eloquent. I couldn't agree more!


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