Saturday, February 06, 2010

Mixed methods

What of the perennial question of the value of violence in making nonviolence more effective. The value is negative.

When violence is used it makes the nonviolent activists much more vulnerable, since the nonviolent ones are the transparent, public ones who own their actions. Following any sneak violent attack, the government feels the need to attack someone and they usually choose the easiest targets. This is true in both domestic protest and war. This was true in India, in the US, in Guatemala, in El Salvador, in Colombia and probably many other places. This is partially addressed in the Stephan and Chenoweth (2006) study but also in many histories of social movements.

Violent resistance often strengthens the oppressor's or occupier's resolve. We saw it in India, when Gandhi was on the verge of independence in 1930 following the Salt Campaign, when some violent insurgents killed some British officers in the Chittagong Hills Tracts. The British announced their intention to remain in India despite great world pressure to leave (Fischer, 1982).

We see it now in Iraq and Afghanistan. The violent insurgents blow up US troops and we hear lots of rhetoric about not leaving and not even having a timetable to leave or we only aid 'the enemy.' Yes, a long violent insurgency can eventually get an occupier to leave, but the costs could have been so much lower using nonviolence.

Making the dominant party afraid, smashing them publicly, is simply a great way to invite a smashing response. Why choose the path of the most pain for the least gain?

For those who can, watch the "We Were Warriors" segment of the PBS film A Force More Powerful, the episode focusing on the African American students desegregating Nashville, Tennessee. Please imagine a violent attack or two on the merchants in Nashville during the 1960 struggle to desegregate the city. Do you think the mayor, Ben West, would have come out on the side of the college kids, as he did when the movement was entirely nonviolent (even though he opposed them at first)? On the other hand, bombing the black attorney's house (Z. Alexander Loobey) was probably undertaken with the same notion of really making the other side (the college kids) give up fast. As the A Force More Powerful film narration noted, violence can backfire, and clearly did. It not only strengthened the resolve of the kids, it changed the mayor's mind and he did so in the context of his citizenry changing their minds. After all, the movement was purely nonviolent in response to the violence of the hoodlums and the state. The sympathy grew quickly for those who posed no threat, only a persistent call for justice and fairness, even in the teeth of police dogs, bombs, and incarceration.

It wasn't until there was violence--riots, Black Panthers, etc.--that all the gains stopped (no more legislative victories, no Supreme Court victories, no improvement in social indices), so the argument that mixed methods work is generally weak and sometimes flat out backward.

Gandhi knew that his nonviolence would be taken more seriously if it were genuine and if it were accompanied with a structural analysis. Here he is exhibiting that in a photo taken of him intentionally visiting with the working class British women whose very jobs he was threatening by his khaddi campaign in India, when he spun his own cloth, when he led bonfires of English clothes to demonstrate the freedom from foreign dependence. The women loved him and supported his struggle, even though they knew it was hard on them. They saw the justice because his movement allowed them to see it by the loving insistence on it.

Fischer, Louis (1982). Gandhi: His life and message for the world. New York: Mentor (original 1954).

Stephan, Maria J.; Erica Chenoweth. 2008. Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. International Security, 33, 1: 7–44.

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