Friday, April 23, 2010

Killing nonviolence

Periodically I hear what apparently feels like an epiphanic realization to some new to the notion that nonviolence is a good conflict management model: "But Gandhi and King were both assassinated. How effective is nonviolence, really?"

Of course nonviolence isn't always effective. We know that from our lives, from the news, from common sense, and from the literature, which shows that nonviolent struggles at the social level are only successful about 53 percent of the time.

And violence is even less effective--in the literature we find that violent campaigns succeed about 26 percent of the time and terrorism succeeds about seven percent of the time.

In another peer-reviewed study, we learn that if we measure civil rights, human rights, and metrics of democracy five years after regime change, nonviolence is clearly the best methods of obtaining those characteristics.

Yes, if Gandhi would have been a good boy and stayed in his law office he would likely never have been shot. And India might still be a British colony, though more likely is that a few million people would have been killed and we'd see a Marxist revolutionary government there. But Gandhi would have lived and died of natural causes, probably.

And MLK could have preached and avoided politics. The Civil Rights era would still have happened, though it's arguable that resort to violence might have come earlier and been more widespread. The results probably would have been more loss of life on all sides, fewer gains for African Americans, but King would have lived--indeed, he'd be a known-only-locally retired pastor in his late 80s.

And naturally, no modern leader of a violent struggle has been killed--oh, except for scores of the leaders of al-Qa'ida, many guerrilla from Che Guevara to various FARC leaders to at least some of the Vietcong leaders, Savimbi and other African insurgents, etc. When these people are killed do we hear, well, obviously, that method of conflict management is impractical?

And of course there is no possible application of the counterfactual for those who avoid conflict except to vaguely wonder what if somebody had engaged who otherwise shrank from it?

One of the principles of nonviolent conflict management is that we keep conflict to the parties who agree to engage in it. Violent conflict management, by contrast, produces great numbers of casualties in the populations that are supposed to be protected, that is, unarmed civilians.

When we engage in nonviolent conflict we find far lower levels of 'collateral damage.' While brutal governments occasionally kill unarmed nonviolent resisters, that is seldom and rarely kill the families or neighbors of those resisters. For violent insurgents, this is the norm, that is, they and their families and neighbors are all much more likely to be targeted and killed.

Indeed, although this is not to the credit of nonviolent principles, the dictator will often avoid targeting a particularly charismatic nonviolent leader knowing that the violent leader is going to have an easier job of recruiting if the nonviolent one is killed. Sad to say, for instance, that when King was assassinated more than 100 cities experienced riots and other violence in the aftermath. Gandhi's death came at the hands of a fellow Hindu, so that didn't produce the same rage, but the Brits were always very solicitous of Gandhi in their prisons, as they knew a dead Mahatma in their cell would likely produce a wave of violence and possibly a total violent revolution.

During the entire period of the nonviolent revolution in India the annual mortalities never rose to the level of being counted as a war, so the freedom of more than 10 percent of the entire population of people on planet Earth was achieved without war. Since then, of course, many other nations have been liberated by nonviolence. Casualties have been very low. We wish they were zero, and nonviolence isn't perfect by any means. But violence always produces more deaths and almost always produces fewer human and civil rights than when nonviolence is used.

The assassinations of any leaders are tragic and need to be understood at many levels. Nonviolence doesn't guarantee immunity from such grievous acts, but if the leadership is to be on the front lines, nonviolence is clearly the less dangerous place to be. Indeed, the last leader of a nation-state to die on the battlefield was probably the last one to go onto that battlefield rather than stay to the rear in safety. Perhaps that was Gustavus Adolphus, killed on the field at the Battle of Lützen in 1632. That taught the monarchs or military dictators a lesson they have never forgotten and thus we have nonviolent leaders taking the field routinely and chickenhawks running wars.

Indeed, to cite the most chicken of them all, speaking with his mouth full of rich food from the comfort of some air-conditioned mansion or office, about all 'his' enemies, "Bring 'em on."

I'll wager the troops on the ground would say that they could please stop bringing it on, since the one who started the war is now burping in splendid retirement while they and the people of at least four countries continue to pay the bloody and expensive prices. How's that violence working out for you?

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