Friday, June 25, 2010

Nonviolence is force

"Should we use force against Ahmadinijad or should we just ignore him?"

"It is sometimes necessary to use force. That's why we have a military."

These are the kinds of assertions that make us realize how much work we have to do if we believe that we should use strategic nonviolence, which is largely about force. Do we wait around for a murderer to grow a conscience or do we step in to force that murderer to stop? Force is necessary in the short run and the short run will always be here in that the next situation calling for force arises very quickly, or even concomitantly.
Our society swivels a collective gimlet eye upon such notions. How can we nonviolently force anyone to do anything?

Gene Sharp compiled a list of such methods, about which we must make some notes. One, it was done in 1973, so the list is now much longer as creative actionists from around the world have devised new methods. Two, many of the methods are not coercive and some are. Three, some of the methods are both coercive and will not produce much pushback--these are the optimal--and some are coercive and will produce a response, possibly brutal.

Sharp has written many books that can help contextualize those actions and discuss the power dynamics in them so that actionists on the ground, in the moment, wherever they are, under any circumstances, can perform their own particular calculations to find the best methods.

If we only act from our conscience and are not thinking about results, we don't need Sharp, we don't even need philosophical or religious counseling. We can just act because each of us is a sovereign human, even if no one else recognizes that sovereignty. Gandhi, in fact, said that the only dictator he listened to was the small voice from within.

But if we wish to achieve results--even if we believe logically that the chances of such achievement are small--we need to think about force.

Gandhi eschewed the word force in one sense and embraced it in another.

He claimed that none of his actions were meant to force the British to do anything.


He said that to preserve British dignity. He forced them all the time and he well knew it--and they well knew it. It was a subtext, Gandhi's diplomatic approach to kickass nonviolence. "Hello, you brutal, unfair, greedy, smug oppressors. I'm going to smile at you whilst beating your butt again, and we are going to pretend together that I am a saint who loves you and would never do such a thing. If you break ranks it will get worse. If you kill me, shudder to think what 300 million aroused and enraged Indians will do to your 100,000 troops. They will eat them for breakfast. So play as nice as you can and let this test match begin. See you on the pitch."
Did I just Americanize and westernize Gandhi? Yes. Would he disagree with me? Yes, for attribution. No, in my opinion, to himself, at least in the basics.

Nonviolence is not a cattle prod with variable voltage, but rather a far more complex approach than the most elaborate military assault, campaign, or even war. At the end, even noncoercive inducements are coercive. That is, even when I give you something with zero overt expectation of a quid pro quo, you and I and everyone expects reciprocity.

So the attempt to separate nonviolence from coercion is, for the vast majority of actions, futile and irrelevant. If I am sitting in at my senator's office trying to get him to vote against more funding for more war, I am on my best behavior. I am not acting falsely--I go inside and summon it authentically, or I may abandon my discipline just when I need it the most. This is exactly why nonviolence is most effective when it appears to be unforceful. I force the police to either treat me reasonably well or face poor publicity. On a much larger and more profound stage, Gandhi forced the British to treat people decently or face opprobrium and even hostility in India and abroad. Remember little England presumed to run the world in that era and had vast lands that weren't hers in her empire. She needed the consent of the ruled in all cases or the empire would collapse. She lost that first in the US to violent insurgency in a seven-year war that killed 40,000-50,000 from battle and disease.

Then Britain lost India to nonviolent force and the mortalities never reached the level in any one year that demographers classify as a war. Gandhi showed a better way, though his first effort took so long that most decolonizing struggles chose the American model, which was ironically supplied by Soviet AKs and Leninist doctrine.

Nonviolent force is usually a redundancy, and the more the actionists claim to exerting no force, the more they are exerting moral force in a social psychological inverse relationship. The literal translation of satyagraha is truthforce and that is illuminating, isn't it?

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