The Power of Nonviolence

Linked with Transcent, with Kai Frithof Brand-Jacobsen – Romania & Canada & Norway, with Johan Galtung – Norway, with Violence, War, and Their Impact, with The Transnational Foundation, and with TRANSCEND’s Advanced International Training Programme.

No Fist is Big Enough to Hide the Sky: The Power of Nonviolence:

by Kai Frithjof Brand-Jacobsen, published on 15th of December 2005 on Transcent.

Some excerpts: The discussion – or more appropriately ‘debate’ – over whether movements and organizations should use violent or nonviolent means can often be dry and sterile. In it the living needs of communities involved in conflicts and struggle are often forgotten, and one of the core objectives or criteria is almost always lost: what methods/techniques will be effective for a movement, for those working for change, to achieve their goals? Or more broadly: what methods, tools, techniques, strategies and actions can be effective for those working to transform conflicts within their communities, to bring about a fundamental change, or to remove /abolish /overthrow a system, structure, or culture of violence, injustice and oppression?

Beyond this comes another question: at what point does an organization, movement, or struggle, because of the techniques and means it is using – including how it is organized and structured, the actions it carries out, how decisions are taken, how it relates to members and those involved in the movement and those outside of it – become part of or perpetuate the very system, violence or oppression it is working to overcome? At what point does our own struggle become part of what we are trying to resist, or the very things we oppose when done to us by others?

Nonviolence can be an effective method of struggle. It has been used in a wide-range of conflicts within and between communities, to transform direct, structural and cultural violence, at the local level and internationally. It has also been used in many cases and contexts which we often don’t associate with nonviolence – such as the human rights, women’s environmental, labour and land movements. All intra- or inter-community struggles in which the majority of methods used are nonviolent. When applied effectively, it can be a powerful and highly successful means of working to bring about change. In this context, and looking back throughout history, its track record is impressive, stretching through thousands of years and across every continent and country in the world. What is amazing – when one delves deeper – is the incredible number of successes brought about through nonviolent struggle, particularly in light of the significant lack of attention, study, training and preparation which it normally receives. Today, if you ask any student, professor, journalist, politician or NGO activist in the world to give you the names of ten wars or ten military leaders or heroes from any point in history and any part of the world, there are very few people above the age of 12 for whom this would not be relatively easy. In many contexts, you need only think of the monuments and statues located at various points in a city, or heroes portrayed in movies, history text books, national and popular songs, and war games. If you ask the same people to give you the names of ten nonviolent leaders, nonviolent social movements, or domestic or international conflicts that have been transformed constructively through peaceful means, most find it much more difficult.[1] …

The Conflict Triangle – Attitudes, Behaviour, Contradictions:

When looking at addressing conflicts and developing nonviolent methods and strategies, it can be helpful to identify three points of what is often called the ‘Conflict Triangle’: Attitudes, Behaviour, Contradiction (the ABC triangle).[6] Attitudes are how we (or parties to a conflict) perceive:

  • Ourselves;
  • ‘Other’s ;
  • The conflict itself.

With ‘the conflict’ involving: what are the causes of the conflict, what is the conflict about, what are their goals/issues/interests, what are the goals/issues/interests of the ‘other(s)’, and how do they perceive possible outcomes of the conflict.

How parties view themselves in a conflict, how they view those they are in a conflict with, how they view the conflict itself and possible/viable outcomes are essential to the dynamics and way in which the conflict unfolds. Attitudes can also involve how actors and parties feel. Think of a conflict which exists in your own community or organization or which you might be working. Try to map each of these aspects for the different parties involved, not just from your own perspective, but from how the parties themselves would see it as well …

… The peace formula:

  • For Attitudes: Empathy;
  • For Behaviour: Nonviolence;
  • For Contradictions: Creativity;
  • For Processes: Inclusive and Participatory;
  • For Transformation: Praxis, linking theory and action, practice and reflection, working to transform/transcend direct acts and deep structures and cultures of violence and coming up with outcomes that meet the needs of all parties involved through building peace by peaceful means and democracy by democratic means.

The challenge: in the midst of intensive and difficult conflicts, these are often the first things which we lose. How do I empathize with someone who has just killed my family? How do I use nonviolence in the face of extreme and horrible violent oppression or state- or non-state terrorism? How can we be creative and try to find outcomes which meet the needs and interests of all the parties involved when we are being exploited and oppressed or have just been driven from our homes? How do we work for peace by peaceful means and democracy by democratic means, when we have been subjugated, our basic rights and human needs denied for years or decades, when we feel and are taught to feel powerless, and that there’s nothing I/we can do for change? These are legitimate and crucial questions. Finding ways of addressing them rooted in the real needs and contexts of a movement and struggle is essential. Every one of us has a role to play in this.

And another step, Two - Direct, Structural and Cultural Violence. Direct, Structural and Cultural Nonviolence:

Another challenge faced around the world: too much of the discussion around nonviolence and the focus on nonviolence – and the broader issues of working to bring about change, overcome a particular injustice or work for a better world – is often in response to and rooted in a very a partial and limited understanding of violence. When we use the term violence we often think of direct violence, including physical, and going somewhat broader, emotional, psychological, verbal and mental/intellectual violence: such as hitting, beating, killing, raping, insulting, humiliating, torturing, dropping bombs from thousands of feet in the air, driving planes into buildings, kidnapping, and much more. Beyond direct violence, however, is the violence built into our social, economic and political structures and systems – structural violence – including structures and systems of oppression, denial of rights or access to basic needs/services to groups/communities based upon language, religion, age, gender, nationality, caste, class, etc., apartheid, systems of economic exploitation or political exclusion, patriarchy, colonialism, authoritarian regimes and dictatorships, fences cutting people off from their land, homes and communities, unjust land-distribution systems, debt, and national and global war and military systems.

Between 47 – 56 million people are killed every year through structural violence, much of it as a result of deeply unjust and violent economic systems. Someone who dies because of lack of access to clean water; someone who dies because they cannot afford the life saving medicines which exist and which could cure them of the disease which kills them; someone who dies because they are not able to get to medical attention in time, because no hospitals exist in their rural areas, or because checkpoints have been set up between their homes and the hospital; someone who dies because they have been forced off their land and the soil of their country is being used for exporting cash crops and food abroad for sale, while people starve or die of malnourishment – all of these are people killed as a result of structures of violence, which are often more insidious and more difficult to recognize than direct violence. A woman who dies because she has been beaten to death by her husband or a male relative is killed through direct violence, but when millions of women are beaten by millions of men and male relatives around the world, it is a violence built into the structures of the relationships between men and women. Legally denying people the right to use their language, developing history text-books which teach only the history, culture and perspectives of dominant groups, political and economic systems based upon authoritarian, top-down leadership and excluding voice and participation to others, are all structures of violence. The violence, often hidden from our views, which lies behind what then become eruptions and explosions of direct violence, and which often remain even after the direct violence has ended …

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