Friday, May 14, 2010

Teaching nonviolence: When it gets an F

There are recordings in the British War Museum of those who served in the trenches and those who tried to advocate for the rights of conscientious objectors. One of the women interviewed recalled that young pacifists, inspired by Jesus, by notions of the women's peace movements that had attempted to forestall that war, and possibly by Mohandas Gandhi's then-new satyagraha in South Africa, would come into the peace office and say versions of, "If I have love in my heart and no weapons in my hand, I know I can walk onto a battlefield and no one would hurt me."

This level of naivite and blissful immaturity has often been associated with nonviolence, but those who practice it and chronicle it not only know about its efficacy but about its dangers. Nonviolence, after all, is not about pusillanimity and conflict avoidance, but rather about volunteering to sacrifice in the strategic hope that the social psychological gains will pay off. If I am innocent of hurtful intent and I demonstrate willingness to suffer, I will win the sympathy of others, and possibly motivate them to support us in some way. This is the wager.
(pictured is the 'tank man,' the most inspiring moment of the otherwise catastrophic struggle, when tanks were stopped by a lone protester)
Sometimes it works--more than half the time. But wandering out onto the field of contest without understanding the risks of failure is a setup for pain and bitterness. There is perhaps no more enduring agony of this phenomenon than the tantalizing success and then crushing defeat of nonviolence in Tiananmen Square in China in June 1989.

Assumption College nonviolence scholar Michael True taught in Nanjing University in China 1984-1985 and again during the 1989 democracy push. His teaching and writing about the 1989 events is a helpful addition to the literature about the nonviolent successes of Gandhi and King. True considers the aspects of strategic analysis offered by Gene Sharp and Bruce Jenkins and he also incorporates first-hand knowledge of the Chinese culture at that time, as well as the implications of nascent globalization on that period.

True frames the Chinese episode differently than do some of the Chinese who were youth during that campaign. He sees the success and near-miraculous advances made by those youth from the dual perspectives of the long view of Chinese history and the short view of the history of strategic nonviolence. While direct involvement tends to sharpen and deepen emotional responses, the view of the analyst can temper those understandable swings from fear to euphoria to defeated despondency felt by the organizers who survived while so many of their comrades were killed or imprisoned.

One out of every five humans lives in China. There is no country more at the epicenter of the battles between ecofascism and ecofeminism, wealth via hyperconsumption and poverty, tyranny and democracy, sustainable growth and industrialized cancer, centralized planning and free market predation, freedom and subservience, and globalization or insularity. The 1989 movement was at the leading edge of the forces for nonviolence, freedom, democracy and sustainable development, making unprecedented gains and self-organizing millions of Chinese to do what had never been done in Chinese history, to seek nonviolent people power self determination.

China had no traditions to support either democracy or nonviolence. Students, workers, and even some peasants, came together to try to learn both and the pressure on them was enormous as they learned the lessons quickly under the media's unprecedented glare. Li Peng and Deng Xiaopeng, the 'Gang of Old' who had a long history of crushing rivals dating back to the 1949 independence war to smashing the Hundred Flowers campaign in 1957 and steadily on to all threats (mostly internal, from the vast stretches of suffering aspirational Chinese, region to region, year to year, movement to movement). Romancing the Maoists--we still see it in ultraleftists in the West--is ultimately a fascination with bloody centralized dictatorship with a 'people's' mask.

True points out that when student democracy demonstrations of 1986-1987 were repressed forcefully, there were no international repercussions, which may have emboldened Deng Xiaopeng in June 1989, certainly a caveat to the human family interested in promoting and protecting nonviolent actionists. Without pushback, dictators feel they can get away with murder and can transmogrify that into mass murder, which is what they did. This has been demonstrated elsewhere. When in 1993 Johan Galtung called on the international community to show serious support for nonviolent Kosovars, the world mostly yawned, and we saw the results of the arrogan Milosevic forces. Underestimating the needs of indigenous nonviolent movements for transnational support is an underexamined danger.

True arrived in China on the same day Mikhail Gorbachev did, May 16, 1989, and the tension was palpable. This rapproachment (first Soviet leader to visit in more than 3 decades) was exciting and frightening. Chaos in China is frequently cataclysmic, since social conflict has so few overt outlets and tends to gather and build up pressure before bursting. The Chinese leaders know they let some pressure out at their own risk and keep it clamped at their own risk, which might explain how their messages were not only mixed but contributed to the disaster. Gorbachev was seen as a beacon of freedom by students and workers and as a harbinger of collapse and power loss by the Communist Party in China.

In his 2001 Peace and Justice Studies Association conference workshop, True also discussed the unfortunate semiotics of the Goddess of Democracy statuein the square, which looked far too much like the Statue of Liberty, and allowed the ruling elite to brand the demonstrators as dupes of the West. Further, there were (possibly planted) Molotov cocktails and last-minute interference and sound system usurpation by some who were almost certainly agents provacateurs. Last, and stressed by many scholars of nonviolence, the ironically named Peoples Liberation Army is reported to have offered amnesty and a brief window to all in the square to leave. An unknown number--some say hundreds, some thousands--elected to stay and were in fact massacred by early morning, June 4, 1989.

Failures of nonviolence of this magnitude are lesson-rich. Innoculating against agents provocateurs, building government and NGO networks of external support, choosing images and metaphors carefully, understanding the true depth of fright of those with big weapons and many other factors are important to the calulations. Knowing when to punch out means knowing how to preserve the forces you have, though failing to stay when the moment promises great victory is the countervailing hope that can lead to tragedy. Having the best intelligence is key, of course, and if we are serious about promoting nonviolence, we need to teach more about failures and less about the same victories we all know.


True, Michael (2002). The 1989 democratic uprising in China: A nonviolent perspective. In Mallick, Krishna, and Doris Hunter (Eds.). An anthology of nonviolence: Historical and contemporary voices. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 253-266.

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