Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Teaching Sharp strategic nonviolence

Gene Sharp is a US political scientist whose original study of nonviolence was from a profoundly personal philosophical pacifist point of view. He spent a year in US prison for refusing the draft to the Korean war in the early 1950s but was determined to understand how armed and unarmed struggle actually worked in order to see how unarmed struggle could be effective.

Some say his key insight is that the structure of power always rests upon the consent of the governed. His influences include 16th century French philosopher √Čtienne de La Bo√©tie, who posited that all servitude is voluntary, and Mohandas K. Gandhi, who said that India was not taken by the British but was given to them by Indians and then who put those ideas about getting it back into play. Sharp's work has been to produce actual research and theory that explain this notion and provide design patterns for removing tyrants from power.

Since Sharp's original work on this was published in 1973, no serious teacher of nonviolence has omitted his works nor analysis. For many, his often impatient rejection of any discussion of philosophy or religion was unnecessary and even offensive, but what Sharp was doing was staking out new boundaries for the discussion of ruling power and how it is created and destroyed. He viewed all other considerations as distracting and contaminating, a threat to truly understanding his method. This, in turn, set up some resistance to his ideas by those who were more attracted to the philosophy or religious teachings of pacifism.

I believe we are finally seeing that false debate subside, but in its place is the much more sinister new one introduced by an odd bed full of those who seem chagrined that nonviolence can take the place of good old fashioned Marxist-Leninist violence and terrorism plus those who really are despotic and logically fear Sharp's proven theories. These opponents are no longer a friendly batch of pacifists who want to teach love and kumbaya without pesky strategies and political theory; these are intellectual thugs who resort to calumny and traducement and smear tactics that mirror the polemical dishonesty of Fox News, but from the left. If the stakes weren't so serious, the humor would be profound, watching ultra leftists squirm into bed with Ahmadinijad or Mugabe, as if we are supposed to reject the people power in favor of bloody dictators because Gene Sharp has also offered advice to those who didn't like Hugo Chavez's thuggish tactics.

Those who teach nonviolence have a sacred duty to explain this to students. Why? Because teaching nonviolence in some ways is like teaching violent combat. If all you offer is enough to get started, the potential practitioners know just enough to be dangerous to themselves. They cannot defend their adherence to nonviolence if a relatively sophisticated ultra leftist charges them with committing a service to the US empire. It's an easy defense, frankly, but it's one that should be discussed by nonviolent teachers and trainers to prepare students to withstand the inevitable attack.

Yes, Gene Sharp has been called the Machiavelli of nonviolence, but that ignores the unique attribute of strategic nonviolence, which is that the methods mirror the goals, as Gandhi also taught. When Sharp teaches people power, his work is directly responsible for reducing casualties on all sides, and that, for most of humanity, is a worthy goal in itself--and ultimately, we hope, the point of our entire enterprise of nonviolent practice.

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