Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Strength through peace: Images of resolution

The focus of every activity of every peace and justice movement is recruitment.

Even if the focus is not recruitment, it is.

All decisions about movement activities ought to pass through a sieve that asks, Will this activity increase recruitment? If the answer is no, don’t do it unless you plan to modify it or supplement it so that it can recruit.

Isn’t this reductionist?

Yes, somewhat. But if this question is not central to the planning of any activity, how will the movement ever become effective? Nonviolence succeeds when mass action compels rulers to negotiate with movement representatives or risk a far worse consequence, even an existential challenge.

There is then a natural tension that occurs when the leadership of a nonviolent movement needs to convince others that success is possible, since success involves challenging and overcoming an opponent who is often simply fearsome. You need to convince the opponent you are a force strong enough to deserve a place at the negotiating table but not so frightening that he must crush you by any means. There is a natural frisson of fear and excitement at the possibility of something so dramatic as success. At the height of this tension is the drama that can break through normal media tendency to ignore nonviolent efforts (Harris 2002). Here is where an image of strength and power through nonviolence can generate the hope and raised expectations that social scientists say will assist recruitment (Kriesberg 2007).

It is then when a tipping point of power-flow to the movement augers success. Controlling this shifting, evolving image is how the challenger movement can break through the previously impenetrable walls and trigger mass recruitment and transformative change. Leadership that is exceedingly conscious of image can ride this tension to victory, as we saw in Birmingham in the summer of 1963 and in many other cases, when the oppressor’s failure to manage the image of the movement accompanied the shift.

Mere protesters suddenly sit at the negotiating table and gains are made from a position of power, as was so evident in 1996 in northern Wisconsin, when the civil resistance of Native Americans was so resolute, so dignified, and spoke with such cultural clarity to the threat of a mining corporation’s intentions to ship millions of gallons of sulfuric acid across the Bad River reservation. Tribal members set up a prayer fire and drumming camp on the tracks and the sheriff so admired their courage and calm that he refused to arrest them. Soon the tribal leadership were invited to negotiate and earned major victories.

On a much larger scale, in Poland, the trade union Solidarity went from outlawed status to negotiating partner as communist dictatorship crumbled in the face of overwhelming people power. These are the historical moments to which nonviolent movements aspire, when the militaristic imperial dictum Peace through strength is flipped and a positive peace power transformation produces Strength through peace.

Harris, Ian. 2002. Challenges for peace educators at the beginning of the 21st century. Social Alternatives. 21: 28-31.
Kriesberg, Louis 2007. Constructive conflicts: From escalation to resolution. (3rd ed.) Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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