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Why Nonviolence?

questions and answers concerning nonviolent action

Q: It’s oppressive to force people who don’t believe in nonviolence to participate in “nonviolence training” before taking part in direct action. Events should be open to anyone who wants to participate. Besides, why all this middle-class preoccupation with violence?

A: To be effective, any approach to social change has requirements. Because most people fear and disapprove of violence, its occurrence undermines the dynamics that win allies and make for success, and organizers have a responsibility to insist on training and a common discipline to minimize its outbreak. Opponents consistently try to “use” any violence to discredit activists and divert attention from the activists’ message. Experienced working-class organizers have long recognized this.

Q: Why do we need to inform our opponents of what we plan to do?

A: Being open about plans may seem odd in a serious struggle. Deception or secrecy may seem to offer advantages. Nevertheless, openness is important for nonviolent action.

“That’s the big argument we had in the beginning,” recalls United Farmworkers Union leader Cesar Chavez. “People were concerned that spies would come in, but I said, ‘If there’s nothing to hide, it’s easier to work…’ It may hurt us initially because the growers know ahead of time, but if it’s a good plan, there’s no way that they can guard against it.”

Secrecy results in inefficiency, authoritarianism, and mistrust simply because of the need to cover up much of what is planned from our allies. Dependence on secrecy opens a movement to disruption by planted provocateurs and informers. Secrecy thus contributes to fears of betrayal; moves toward secrecy often come when a movement is losing self-confidence and weaken it further, reducing its numbers and attracting people of a furtive, conspiratorial disposition.

Equally important are the positive effects of openness. It is consistent with our purpose of educating the public about issues, and with the kind of society we hope to build. Openness creates a positive image in the public mind by showing that we consider our actions legitimate and that we expect others to think so too (which encourages them to take this view). Openness increases the morale and self-respect of participants: our style contrasts sharply with the secrecy and high-handedness of our opponents.

Whatever the short-term picture, when all the pros and cons are weighed, long-term effectiveness clearly requires openness.

One aspect of this deserves particular attention: relations with police and other authorities. It can be argued that police are not impartial enforcers of justice but rather agents of an unjust system whose authority should therefore not be respected. “Working with” police by informing them of our plans is interpreted as making their job easier, accepting their authority, and thus lending support to the system we should be fighting. The first point is sound, but not the conclusions. Because police violence in tense conflicts often results from fear and ignorance (though often it’s ordered from above), it’s in our interests to have accurate communication. Secondly, although agents of a system may sometimes symbolize and seem to embody it, they must not be confused with the system itself or the real power structure. Police, however brutally some behave, are also pawns who should be challenged to stop acting against their own best interests. “Militant” hostility toward police is misplaced; the truly transformative slogan is “Join us!”

Q: Isn’t it foolish to try to practice nonviolence before we have replaced all ill will in our hearts with love?

A: Any choice has risks — including the evils of inaction. Gandhi frankly spoke of “experiments.” Because behavior and attitudes influence each other, substituting nonviolent struggle in place of violence or submission is progress toward a loving world too distant to reach in one leap. “When understood as a requirement for nonviolent action (rather than a helpful refinement), the demand for ‘love’ for people who have done cruel things may turn people who are justifiably bitter and unable to love their opponents toward violence as the technique most consistent with bitterness and hatred” (Sharp, p. 635).

Q: Demanding nonviolent behavior from oppressed people toward their oppressors is senseless and unfair! They need to act out their anger!

A: The logic and function of nonviolent discipline has already been discussed. As for unfairness, if the oppressed could wish it away, they would no longer be oppressed. There is no pain-free road to liberation. Given the inevitability of suffering, it is both ennobling and pragmatic to present nonviolent discipline and suffering (as did Martin Luther King, Jr.) as imperatives. “Acting out anger” in a way that costs a group allies is a luxury serious movements cannot afford.

For women concerned that nonviolent struggle may set them up to be victims, it is important to stress the assertiveness involved in nonviolent action. Feminist theoretician Barbara Deming has written that “nonviolent actions are by their nature androgynous. In them the two impulses that have long been treated as distinct, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine,’ the impulse of self-assertion and the impulse of sympathy, are clearly joined; the very genius of nonviolence, in fact, is that it demonstrates them to be indivisible, and so restores human community: One asserts one’s rights as a human being, but asserts them precisely with consideration for the other, asserts them, that is, precisely as rights belonging to any person – mine and therefore yours, yours and therefore mine.” Through nonviolent action women can mobilize power without reinforcing the power of violent domination prevailing today.

Q: What about property destruction? Can it be nonviolent?

A: The risk in property destruction is that it moves toward the logic of violence. If we are determined to destroy some piece of property, will we be willing to injure some person who stands in our way? The dangers of property destruction are substantial. It may provide a readier pretext for repression. It can be a way of slipping toward violence, reflecting a loss of confidence in one’s chosen means and an inclination to waffle between two contrary strategic choices. Such ambiguity can encourage violence by other participants and prove fatal to success.

Property destruction can, in certain circumstances, be an effective tactic but must always be evaluated according to whether it will be understood primarily as “a challenge in human terms by human beings to other human beings” (Sharp, p. 610). Effective use of property destruction is therefore only likely where haphazard and undisciplined destruction is avoided and any destruction is completely open and subject to careful and deliberate control.

Q: We tried nonviolence, but it didn’t work.

A: “We tried nonviolence” often translates into “I’m frustrated and angry, and violence is quicker anyway.” Usually it means that a group tried a few nonviolent tactics without a strategy, or expected the opponent not to use violent repression when challenged nonviolently and thus gave up when repression began.

It is important to separate our feelings of desperation from our best thinking. Unrealistic hopes for a quick “victory” impede the development of any kind of effective strategy.

Nonviolent struggle does not guarantee success any more than violent struggle does. It is crucial to apply similar criteria when evaluating the effectiveness of these struggles, as is not usually done. Failures of violent struggle are usually attributed to poor strategy, insufficient materials, and bad morale. In contrast, the failure of a nonviolent struggle is usually attributed to nonviolence, and not to the way the struggle was conducted. Similarly, the value and importance of nonviolent successes are minimized, while violent successes are exaggerated without their full costs being weighed. Given that nonviolence is in what Dellinger calls the “Edison and Marconi” stage of development, we are impressed by the frequency of “success” and are excited by the possibilities of replacing essentially ad hoc tactics with more systematic and conscious militant nonviolent strategies.

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