Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Awareness and Training Enhance Choice for Nonviolent Action

My assumption and heart-felt belief is that most people in most situations would prefer to choose nonviolence over violence to resolve conflict - regardless of faith, race, or socio-economic status. The limiting factor is awareness of the range of nonviolent tactics available for engaging conflict in many situations, including some of the most violent situations humanity has known, and the way in which these tactics create dynamics that successfully lead to greater peace, justice and freedom.

While many philosophical, ideological and theological arguments rage over why war or violence may well be justified, what is often missing is a clear understanding of the range of nonviolent options at our disposal, and hence, the opportunity to continually pursue nonviolent means. There are many studies on the application of what is sometimes referred to as "pragmatic" nonviolence because of it's attention to the application of tactics and strategies, rather than focusing on changing people's motivation for action. Personally, while I am motivated by an inner desire and spiritual journey to engage conflict nonviolently, I am convinced that it is possible to persuade others of the effectiveness of nonviolence by increasing awareness and building skills in nonviolent conflict as a starting point, rather than from complex, though meaningful, arguments of the rightness of nonviolence.

Gandhi is probably the most well-known name connected to nonviolence, but very little is known about him beyond that. Following him we might be able to list off a small number of other names such as Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and perhaps a few others. Again we probably know little beyond their names and that they were good people or championed justice. We probably don't have an understanding of the specifics of their contexts, why they chose nonviolent action, and the specific tactics they used and the reasons for choosing those tactics over others. Nonviolence becomes quickly boiled down to "being nice to everyone" and "turning the other cheek" as we remember that many of these names ended up being reviled, beaten or assassinated at some point. Obviously they refused to fight back, we assume (wrongly).

There is a growing body of knowledge in the area of nonviolence. At it's most basic, nonviolent civilian resistance understands that: “when the people deprive the oppressor of their consent it reduces his/her legitimacy; when enough people refuse to cooperate, they increase the cost of holding control; [and] when the system's legitimacy drops and its costs rise, its enforcers doubt its endurance.” [1]

Nonviolence scholar Gene Sharp arranged nonviolent tactics into three broad categories: protest and persuasion, non-cooperation and nonviolent interventions. These include such tactics as:
(persuasion) speeches, petitions, mock awards, use of symbols like flags and ribbons, humour, satire, and music; (non-cooperation) boycotts, strikes, suspension of various normal activities like sports, stay-at-home, slow-downs, withholding rent, and providing sanctuary to political fugitives; (nonviolent intervention) fasting, sit-ins, nonviolent raids, nonviolent land-seizure, provoking imprisonment and harsh or violent treatment, and parallel institutions. For a more exhaustive treatment see http://www.aeinstitute.org.

Other scholars are helping us understand the dynamics of nonviolent conflict, that is, why nonviolence is effective against violence at all. It is counter-intuitive that someone armed with a commitment to simply not use violence, no matter what, could defeat someone armed with a gun - yet they repeatedly do. One such dynamic is called "backfire", or "the paradox of repression". This dynamic refers to the seemingly innate desire of humans to resist control, repression and violence. As violent regimes (of all persuasions) increase their usage of violent domination the populous reaches a tipping point of pent-up frustration and temporarily repress their very real fears of imprisonment, torture or death to take to the streets and engage in civil disobedience and other, often spontaneous, nonviolent tactics. The more training they have in nonviolent resistance the more persistent and likely to succeed they will be. It is the ultimate irony. Regimes using violent and domineering tactics hasten their demise. Knowing this, nonviolent civil resisters can make effective use of this dynamic.

New research helps us understand not only the tactics and dynamics, but also the "hard facts" about the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. Until recently nonviolence was studied exclusively through case-study analysis, which has wrought important information. Empirical research is now backing up what was being assumed: that nonviolent conflict is more efficient and effective than violent conflict [2]. In another study on the manner in which insurrections end researchers found that it was not through effective military operations, but through careful diplomatic efforts to include the aggrieved parties in political processes and addressing their core complaints [3]. Yet another study gives four significant findings about nonviolent civilian resistance:

“First, “people power” movements matter, because nonviolent civic forces are a major source of pressure for decisive change in most transitions. ... Second, there is comparatively little positive effect for freedom in “top-down” transitions that were launched and led by elites. ... Third, the presence of strong and cohesive nonviolent civic coalitions is the most important of the factors examined in contributing to freedom. … Fourth, the data suggests that the prospects for freedom are significantly enhanced when the opposition does not itself use violence.” [4].

These findings point to several benefits of nonviolent conflict, or civilian resistance as it is also referred to, that it promotes and requires broad-based, bottom-up, civilian input leading towards more just and democratic decision-making processes and greater freedom for societies, and that nonviolence is a major force for change towards freedom. This is a clear demonstration of the dynamic of "means and ends equivalency". That is, in nonviolence the path one chooses is just as important as the end goal in mind.

There are many obstacles to nonviolent civilian resistance. The first is lack of awareness and understanding of the tactics, strategies, dynamics and research. Secondly, many conflict situations actively work against the promotion of nonviolent resistance. Thirdly, people are not clean slates and have prior experiences that can predispose them to choose violence such as deep-seated hatred of their opponents, a sense of futility, and sense of great urgency requiring immediate and decisive action, or worse, inaction. Fourthly, most aid and development agencies have little understanding of nonviolent resistance themselves and often promote strategies that undermine this approach, or are afraid of the repercussions to funding or government approval if they promote civilian resistance. These are significant, but not insurmountable, problems.

Once populations are exposed to the practical applications of nonviolence there is an opening for deepening their understanding of why what just happened worked so well. In many cases months and years of deep violence has ended in a few days of open nonviolent action. Gandhi believed deeply that if just one person, completely devoted to nonviolent action, held out success was assured. This may seem hard to believe, but the evidence clearly shows that nonviolence is a force more powerful than we often assume.

[1] Jack DuVall (2010) The Dynamics of Civil Resistance, recorded presentation. http://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/
[2] Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth (2008). Why Civil Resistance Works. The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict
[3] Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki (2008). How Terrorist Groups End. Lessons for Countering al Qa'ida.
[4] Freedom House (2005). How Freedom is Won. From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy.

Key Sources:
The Albert Einstein Institute. http://aeinstitute.org
The International Center for Nonviolent Conflict. http://nonviolent-conflict.org
Michael Nagler's UC Berkley courses on Introduction to Nonviolence and Nonviolence for Today available on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4F8kJchX4I.
A Force More Powerful. A four-part documentary series on nonviolent resistance movements in the twentieth century. www.aforcemorepowerful.org.

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