Nonviolence is the practice of being harmless to self and others under every condition. It comes from the belief that hurting people, animals or the environment is unnecessary to achieve an outcome and refers to a general philosophy of abstention from violence based on moral, religious or spiritual principles.
For some, the philosophy of nonviolence is rooted in the simple belief that God is harmless. Therefore, to more strongly connect with God, one must likewise be harmless. Nonviolence also has 'active' or 'activist' elements, in that believers accept the need for nonviolence as a means to achieve political and social change. Thus, for example, the Gandhian ahimsa is a philosophy and strategy for social change that rejects the use of violence, but at the same time sees nonviolent action (also called civil resistance) as an alternative to passive acceptance of oppression or armed struggle against it. In general, advocates of an activist philosophy of nonviolence use diverse methods in their campaigns for social change, including critical forms of education and persuasion, mass noncooperation civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action and social, political, cultural and economic forms of intervention.
In modern times, nonviolent methods of action have been a powerful tool for social protest and revolutionary social and political change. There are many examples of their use. Fuller surveys may be found in the entries on civil resistance, nonviolent resistance and nonviolent revolution. Here certain movements particularly influenced by a philosophy of nonviolence should be mentioned, including Mahatma Gandhi leading a decades-long nonviolent struggle against British rule in India, which eventually helped India win its independence in 1947, Martin Luther King's and James Bevel's adoption of Gandhi's nonviolent methods in the struggle to win civil rights for African Americans, and César Chávez's campaigns of nonviolence in the 1960s to protest the treatment of farm workers in California. The 1989 "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia that saw the overthrow of the Communist government is considered one of the most important of the largely nonviolent Revolutions of 1989. Most recently the nonviolent campaigns of Leymah Gbowee and the women of Liberia were able to achieve peace after a 14-year civil war. This story is captured in a 2008 documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell. In an essay, "To Abolish War," evolutionary biologist Judith Hand advocated the use of nonviolent direct action to dismantle the global war machine.
The term "nonviolence" is often linked with or even used as a synonym for peace, passivity and pacifism. Non-violence (with a hyphen) refers more specifically to the absence of violence and is always the choice to do no harm or the least harm, and passivity is the choice to do nothing. Sometimes non-violence is the same as being passive, and other times it isn't. So for example, if a house is burning down, the most harmless appropriate action is to put the fire out, not to sit by and passively let the fire burn. There is considerable confusion and contradiction written about non-violence, harmlessness and passivity. A person may advocate nonviolence in a specific context while advocating violence in other contexts. For example, someone who passionately opposes abortion as a life-saving practice may concurrently advocate violence to kill an abortionist.
Advocates of nonviolence believe cooperation and consent are the roots of political power: all regimes, including bureaucratic institutions, financial institutions, and the armed segments of society (such as the military and police); depend on compliance from citizens. On a national level, the strategy of nonviolence seeks to undermine the power of rulers by encouraging people to withdraw their consent and cooperation. The forms of nonviolence draw inspiration from both religious or ethical beliefs and political analysis. Religious or ethically based nonviolence is sometimes referred to as principled, philosophical, or ethical nonviolence, while nonviolence based on political analysis is often referred to as tactical, strategic, or pragmatic nonviolence. Commonly, both of these dimensions may be present within the thinking of particular movements or individuals.
Love of the enemy, or the realisation of the humanity of all people, is a fundamental concept of philosophical nonviolence. The goal of this type of nonviolence is not to defeat the enemy, but to develop tolerance for all by understanding and loving all beings. According to Mark Kurlansky, "all religions discuss the power of nonviolence and the evil of violence." Such principles or tenets can be found in each of the major Indian religious traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) as well as in the major Abrahamic religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). The Chandogya Upanishad, which is part of the Upanishads, one of the principal scriptures of Hinduism that dates to the 8th or 7th century BCE, bars violence against "all creatures" (sarva-bhuta) and establishes nonviolence as a code of conduct for Hindus. Examples of nonviolence found in religion and spirituality include the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus urges his followers, "love your enemies," in the Taoist concept of wu-wei, or effortless action, in the philosophy of the martial art Aikido, in the Buddhist principle of metta, or loving-kindness towards all beings, in the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence toward any being, shared by Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. Additionally, focus on both nonviolence and forgiveness of sin can be found in the story of Abel in the Qur'an; liberal movements within Islam have consequently used this story to promote Jewish ideals of nonviolence. Nonviolence is also part of modern pagan traditions. American author Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) had a major impact on the philosophy of nonviolence. Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were influenced by Thoreau.
The fundamental concept of pragmatic (or tactical or strategic) nonviolence is to create a social dynamic or political movement that can effect social change without necessarily winning over those who wish to maintain the status quo.
In modern industrial democracies, nonviolence has been used extensively by political sectors without mainstream political power such as labor, peace, environment and women's movements. Lesser known is the role that nonviolence has played and continues to play in undermining the power of repressive political regimes in the developing world and the former eastern bloc. Susan Ives emphasises this point by quoting Walter Wink:
"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, Christian theologian
As a technique for social struggle, nonviolence has been described as "the politics of ordinary people", reflecting its historically mass-based use by populations throughout the world and history.
Struggles most often associated with nonviolence are the non-cooperation campaign for Indian independence led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the movement to attain civil rights for African Americans, led by Rev. Dr Martin Luther King and James Bevel, and the People Power Revolution in the Philippines.
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. Martin Luther King, a student of Gandhian nonviolent resistance, concurred with this tenet, concluding that "nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek." Proponents of nonviolence reason that the actions taken 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.
People have come to use nonviolent methods of struggle from a wide range of perspectives and traditions. A landless peasant in Brazil may nonviolently occupy a parcel of land for purely practical motivations. If they do not, the family will starve. A Buddhist monk in Thailand may "ordain" trees in a threatened forest, drawing on the teachings of Buddha to resist its destruction. A waterside worker in England may go on strike in socialist and union political traditions. All the above are using nonviolent methods but from different standpoints. Likewise, secular political movements have utilised nonviolence, either as a tactical tool or as a strategic program on purely pragmatic and strategic levels, relying on its political effectiveness rather than a claim to any religious, moral or ethical worthiness.
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. Martin Luther King said, "Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him."
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. All carry pieces of the truth, he believed, but all need the pieces of others’ truths in order to pursue the greater truth. This led him to believe in the inherent worth of dialogue with opponents, in order to understand motivations. On a practical level, the 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.
Nonviolence has obtained a level of institutional recognition and endorsement at the global level. On November 10, 1998, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the first decade of the 21st century and the third millennium, the years 2001 to 2010, as the International Decade for the Promotion of a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World.
For many, practising nonviolence goes deeper than abstaining from violent behaviour or words. It means overriding the impulse to be hateful and holding love in the heart for everyone, even those with whom one strongly disagrees. This requires an opening of the heart and mind to all of existence, and a deep love for all that is. Because we are all interconnected, to love oneself is to love everyone; to hate another is to hate oneself. Because violence is learned, it is necessary to unlearn violence by practising love and compassion at every possible opportunity. For some, the commitment to non-violence entails a belief in restorative or transformative justice, an abolition of the death penalty and other harsh punishments. This may involve the necessity of caring for those who are violent.
Nonviolence, for many, involves a respect and reverence for all sentient and non-sentient beings. This might include abolitionism, the practice of not eating animal flesh (vegetarianism or veganism), spiritual practices of non-harm to all beings and caring for the rights of all beings. Mohandas Gandhi, James Bevel, and other nonviolent proponents advocated vegetarianism as part of their nonviolent philosophy. Buddhists extend this respect for life to animals, plants, and even minerals.
Nonviolent action generally comprises three categories: Acts of Protest and Persuasion, Noncooperation, and Nonviolent Intervention.
Nonviolent acts of protest and persuasion are symbolic actions performed by a group of people to show their support or disapproval of something. The goal of this kind of action is to bring public awareness to an issue, persuade or influence a particular group of people, or to facilitate future nonviolent action. The message can be directed toward the public, opponents, or people affected by the issue. Methods of protest and persuasion include speeches, public communications, petitions, symbolic acts, art, processions (marches), and other public assemblies.
Non-cooperation involves the purposeful withholding of cooperation or the unwillingness to initiate in cooperation with an opponent. The goal of non-cooperation is to halt or hinder an industry, political system, or economic process. Methods of non-cooperation include labour strikes, economic boycotts, civil disobedience, sex strike, tax refusal, and general disobedience.
Compared with protest and non-cooperation, nonviolent intervention is a more direct method of nonviolent action. Nonviolent intervention can be used defensively—for example to maintain an institution or independent initiative—or offensively- for example, to drastically forward a nonviolent struggle into the opponent's territory. Intervention is often more immediate and effective than the other two methods, but is also harder to maintain and more taxing to the participants involved.
Gene Sharp, a political scientist and nonviolence activist, has written extensively about methods of nonviolence. In his book Waging Nonviolent Struggle he describes 198 methods of nonviolent action. In early Greece, Aristophanes' Lysistrata gives the fictional example of women withholding sexual favors from their husbands until war was abandoned. A modern work of fiction inspired by Gene Sharp and by Aristophanes is A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski, depicting an ocean world inhabited by women who use nonviolent means to repel armed space invaders. Other methods of intervention include occupations (sit-ins), blockades, fasting (hunger strikes), truck cavalcades, and dual sovereignty/parallel government.
Tactics must be carefully chosen, taking into account political and cultural circumstances, and form part of a larger plan or strategy.
Successful nonviolent cross-border intervention projects include the Guatemala Accompaniment Project, Peace Brigades International and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Developed in the early 1980s, and originally inspired by the Gandhian Shanti Sena, the primary tools of these organisations have been nonviolent protective accompaniment, backed up by a global support network which can respond to threats, local and regional grassroots diplomatic and peacebuilding efforts, human rights observation and witnessing, and reporting.
Another powerful tactic of nonviolent intervention invokes public scrutiny of the oppressors as a result of the resisters remaining nonviolent in the face of violent repression. If the military or police attempt to repress nonviolent resisters violently, the power to act shifts from the hands of the oppressors to those of the resisters. If the resisters are persistent, the military or police will be forced to accept the fact that they no longer have any power over the resisters. Often, the willingness of the resisters to suffer has a profound effect on the mind and emotions of the oppressor, leaving them unable to commit such a violent act again.
Certain individuals (Barbara Deming, Danilo Dolci, Devere Allen etc.) and party groups (e.g. Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, Pacifist Socialist Party or War Resisters League) have advocated nonviolent revolution as an alternative to violence as well as elitist reformism. This perspective is usually connected to militant anti-capitalism.
Many leftist and socialist movements have hoped to mount a "peaceful revolution" by organising enough strikers to completely paralyse the state and corporate apparatus, allowing workers to re-organise society along radically different lines. Some have argued that a relatively nonviolent revolution would require fraternisation with military forces.
Leon Trotsky, Frantz Fanon, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Ward Churchill 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-defense is fundamental.
George Orwell argued that the nonviolent resistance strategy of Gandhi could be effective in countries with "a free press and the right of assembly", which could make it possible "not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary"; however, he was sceptical of Gandhi's approach being effective in the opposite sort of circumstances. Reinhold Niebuhr similarly affirmed Gandhi's approach while criticising aspects of it. He argued that "[t]he advantage of non-violence as a method of expressing moral goodwill lies in the fact that it protects the agent against the resentments which violent conflict always creates in both parties to a conflict, and it proves this freedom of resentment and ill-will to the contending party in the dispute by enduring more suffering than it causes." However, Niebuhr also held "[t]he differences between violent and non-violent methods of coercion and resistance are not so absolute that it would be possible to regard violence as a morally impossible instrument of social change."
"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 option remained:
Lance Hill criticises nonviolence as a failed strategy and argues that black armed self-defence and civil violence motivated civil rights reforms more than peaceful appeals to morality and reason (see Lance Hill's "Deacons for Defense").
In his book How Nonviolence Protects the State, anarchist Peter Gelderloos criticises nonviolence as being ineffective, racist, statist, patriarchal, tactically and strategically inferior to militant activism, and deluded. Gelderloos claims that traditional histories whitewash the impact of nonviolence, ignoring the involvement of militants in such movements as the Indian independence movement and the Civil Rights movement and falsely showing Gandhi and King as being their respective movement's most successful activist. He further argues that nonviolence is generally advocated by privileged white people who expect "oppressed people, many of whom are people of color, to suffer patiently under an inconceivably greater violence, until such time as the Great White Father is swayed by the movement's demands or the pacifists achieve that legendary 'critical mass.'" On the other hand anarchism also includes a section committed to nonviolence called anarcho-pacifism. The main early influences were the thought of Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy while later the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi gained importance. It developed "mostly in Holland, Britain, and the United States, before and during the Second World War".
The efficacy of nonviolence was also challenged by some anti-capitalist protesters 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. American feminist writer D. A. Clarke, in her essay "A Woman With A Sword," suggests that for nonviolence to be effective, it must be "practiced by those who could easily resort to force if they chose." This argument reasons that nonviolent tactics will be of little or no use to groups that are traditionally considered incapable of violence, since nonviolence will be in keeping with people's expectations for them and thus go unnoticed. Such is the principle of dunamis (from the Greek: δύναμις, meaning power).
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