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Posted by wmmbb in Peace.

There is a puzzle: how can violence be met with nonviolence, and how can that possibly work (in any sense)?

Sometimes, or perhaps frequently, language gets in the way of understanding. Let me imagine that we typically think of nonviolence as “passive resistance”, whereas in fact it is courage. In the situation when somebody is coming as you with a knife, or has a gun at trigger pressure, or a sniper is aiming randomly at a crowd, and imagine too, as is often the case, the protagonist is both dehumanized, fueled by some obnoxious mentality, including the self-reinforcing feedback loop of scapegoating, the nonviolent activist is taking an enormous chance in the capacity for humanity in the other person. Of course, courage, like reason, is not an event; it is a process, not even a bounded subprocess as it might be in a machine. The nonviolent actor cannot act without been formed or developed.

The other puzzle with nonviolence is why the willing acceptance of suffering, which is the last step in a progression would work at all. I suppose you want to develop a relationship with the other party. In some cases eloquence had better come fast or death might quickly follow in its absence.

That is what I suppose anyway. So let’s hear and read from those who might know. Firstly here is Martin Luther King:

There is an interesting debate that went on between Civil Rights leaders,  supporters and those who argued the case for violence.

Mahatma Gandhi did not quite make the video age. He committed himself to print. I am quoting at length, and in this case, it might be justifiable. In his view, violence is to be preferred to cowardice:

I do justify entire non-violence, and consider it possible in relation between man and man and nation and nation; but it is not “a resignation from all real fighting against wickedness”.  On the contrary, the non-violence of my conception is a more active and a more real fighting against wickedness than retaliation whose very nature is to increase wickedness. I contemplate a mental, and therefore, a moral opposition to immoralities. I seek entirely to blunt the edge of the tyrant’s sword, not by putting up against it a sharper-edged weapon, but disappointing his expectation that I should be offering physical resistance. The resistance of the soul that I should offer instead would elude him. It would first dazzle him, and at last compel recognition from him, which recognition would not humiliate him but would uplift him.It may be urged again that this is an ideal state. And so it is. The propositions from which I have drawn my arguments are as true as Euclid’s definitions, which are none the less true, because in practice they are not able even to draw Euclid’s line on a blackboard. But even a geometrician finds it impossible to to get on without bearing in mind Euclid’s definitions. Nor may we, the German friend, his colleagues and myself, dispense with the fundamental propositions on which the doctrine of  Satyagraha is based.

I have often noticed that weak people have taken shelter under the Congress creed or under my advice, when they simply, by reason of their cowardice, been unable to defend their own honour or that of those who were entrusted to their care. I recall the incident that happened near Bettiah when non-co-operation was at its height. Some villages were looted.They had fled, leaving their wives and children and belongings to the mercy of the looters. When I rebuked them for their cowardice in thus neglecting their charge, they shamelessly pleaded non-violence. I publicly denounced their conduct and said that my non-violence fully accommodated violence by those who did not feel non-violence, and had in their keeping womenfolk and little children. Non-violence is not a cover for cowardice, but it is the supreme virtue of the brave.  Exercise of non-violence requires far greater bravery than that of swordsmanship. Cowardice is wholly inconsistent with non-violence. Translation from  swordsmanship to non-violence is possible and, at time, even an easy change. Non-violence therefore proposes an ability to strike. It is a conscious deliberate restraint put on one’s desire for vengeance. But vengeance any day is superior to passive, feminine and helpless submission. Forgiveness is higher still. Vengeance too is weakness. The desire for vengeance comes out of the fear of harm, imaginary or real. A dog barks and bites when he fears. A man who fears no one on earth would consider it too troublesome even to summon up against one who is vainly trying to harm him. The sun does not wreck vengeance on little children who trow dust at him. They only harm themselves in the act.

Non-resistance is restraint voluntarily undertaken for the good of society. It is therefore, an intensely active, purifying, inward force It is often antagonistic to the material good of the resister. It may even mean his utter material ruin. It is rooted in internal strength, never weakness. It must be consciously exercised. It therefore presupposes ability to offer physical resistance.

The acquisition of the spirit of non-resistance is a matter of long training in self denial and appreciation of the hidden forces within ourselves. It changes one’s outlook upon life. It puts different values upon things and upsets previous calculations, and when once it is intensive enough can overtake the whole universe. It is the greatest force because it is the greatest expression of the soul. All need not possess the same measure of conscious non-resistance for its full operations. It is enough for one person only to possess it, even as a general is enough to regulate and dispose of the energy of millions of soldiers who enlist under his banner, even though they know not the why and the wherefore of his dispositions.The monkeys of one Rama were enough to confound the innumerable hosts armed from head to foot of the ten-headed Ravana.

(pp54-56. Ronald Duncan, Selected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Fontana, 1971)

I think I have understood something of what nonviolence might be about, but then I read something like this passage from Gandhi and realize my understanding must be very deficient.

Nonviolence is serviceable on a interpersonal level, as Gandhi mentioned. Violence by its nature tears asunder relationships, causing unnecessary suffering not just for those involved, but sometimes, for example, for children. The problem is that people think that violence is evidence of effectiveness and of personal and political power. Violence is a measure of political power, and the assumed weapon of the powerful, who of course, are not restrained by Ganhdi’s prohibition against cowardice, so wars of intervention are waged in part against civilian populations. A fact that everybody knows, but whose consequences are carefully not fully reported  and shown by the media organizations who adhere to the highest standards of journalism. Nor for that matter are the effects of violence on soldiers engaged in the wars, direct and indirect, reported extensively. Otherwise violence is always a headline.

In summary:

I suspect that violence is disconnection, within the person and between people, and relatedness to  the natural world. In these terms, the supposition is that violence is a both a root cause of existential despair and the environmental catastrophe we face.

I have not offered evidence for  these propositions (that is something to be done next), and I do think they must be critically and thoroughly examined. Since I suspect within culturally and historically conditions “paradigms” at this time of global change, it may be more important to think philosophically, which is the procedure by which those paradigms can be brought into focus. We must use our capacity for reason to address problems while subjecting it to examination. (Our democratic practice is one of the best social technologies we have available to us.)

Nonviolence as a program of personal and political action proposes as it opposes, although the latter is dealt with here. So positive measures and means can be taken to reduce, if not eliminate violence, and at the same time where violence emerges to oppose it with nonviolence. The fundamental assumption is that human nature is not violent, although human can be caught up in violent dynamics, which Gandhi described as vengeance. Nonviolence is pragmatic and experiential in the first instance.

UPDATE: 30 September 2009

The Metta Center has been thinking about these matters, and they have decided to make “rehumanization” the central focus of constructive program. Violent thoughts – too often in my case – leads away from our common humanity.

It is difficult to portray a nonviolent group as savage or devoid of moral consciousness when the nonviolent resistors are enduring violent action with humility, patience, and acceptance of self-suffering. By maintaining their own humanity, the nonviolent group defies the dehumanizing label with the potential of being recast as human once more. Thus, the power of nonviolence is the power to rehumanize a dehumanized group or individual.


1. Anita Lin - October 2, 2009

Non-violance activities shall be based by willing to service interpersonally with conscious thought to defense humanity, love and peace. There shall no differences for gender, race, nationality, religion, political views etc.

2. wmmbb - October 2, 2009

I fully agree Anita.

Thanks for the comment.

Afterthought: There are no spectators in the practice of nonviolence action – if that is what we choose. So we all matter. We all have to be somehow ready for what may need to be done.

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