Tuesday, December 06, 2011

This is what victory looks like

“The degree of effectiveness of nonviolent struggle must, of course, be compared to the degree of effectiveness of violent struggle in achieving the avowed objectives for which it is applied, not simply in physically crushing the other group” (Sharp, 2005, p. 436).

I know a hard-charging administrator who seems to regard almost all relationships and all interactions as a question of who will come out on top. He seems to believe that the more another's stock decreases, the more his stock increases. He is successful. He is a rising star. Few people like him. His analysis of relationships is zero-sum, even though others succeed too and win friends. That is because they understand that making others into winners is part of winning ourselves. It's called collaboration. 

When the amazing activist David Dellinger was a track star at Yale he competed in a national meet and actually slowed down by a split second so he could reach out and grab his friend's hand and cross the finish line together in one meet. He cared more about the relationship than he did about beating his friend. They were both winners instead of one winner and one loser. While this is a simple illustration, we can think along those lines when we start to think strategically about nonviolence. 

As Gene Sharp writes, when we assess nonviolence--which, after all, is going to succeed sometimes and fail sometimes--we need to compare it to the alternatives, not just assume that if it ever fails it's not perfect and therefore not worth trying. There are two alternatives to nonviolence: passive acceptance of whatever conditions are imposed and violent opposition. Assuming few would support passive acceptance of injustice or oppression, the comparison needs to be made between nonviolence and violence but it needs to be based on stated goals, not on who annihilated whom.

The problem then becomes almost a necessary default to maximalist goals, which is how Chenoweth and Stephan (2011) approached their study. After all, who is going to take up arms to get migrant workers rights or affirmation of treaty rights or to save a Redwood? If you raise an insurgent army you generally have the overthrow of a regime in mind. Any other violence is a halfway measure even more likely to fail miserably than a full-on armed uprising, which at least stands a chance of victory a quarter of the time.

Yes, a quarter. And so when they studied it, Chenoweth and Stephan found that, given maximalist goals of regime change, nonviolence works about twice as often (53 percent) as does violence (26 percent). That is a fairly dispositive finding, radically statistically significant. 

In short, victory belongs more often to those who use nonviolence, even when they are after a new government or head of government. That is what victory looks like. Nonviolence.

 Chenoweth, Erica, & Stephan, Maria J. (2011). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Dellinger, David (1993). From Yale to jail: The life story of a moral dissenter. New York: Pantheon.

Sharp, Gene (2005). Waging nonviolent struggle: 20th century practice and 21st century potential. Boston: Extending Horizon Books.

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