Thursday, March 31, 2011

Consensus: Drawing the Venn

In the world of nonviolence, we either believe in the power of the mass movement and try to recruit toward that, or we stay in our tiny pure sectarian niches, willing to be happy in our own heavenward trajectory. The paradox arises when we consider that the more pure our image is in one sense--that we absolutely refuse to physically attack anyone and we concordantly refuse to support any party physically attacking anyone--the more we can convince our opponents to dialog and negotiate because they do not fear us.

However, as in the 2008 film The Duchess, about an 18th century wife of the most powerful peer in the British political system, when the woman (Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, played by lead actress Keira Knightley) enters a room and declares that she wants to make a deal, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, played by Ralph Fiennes, looks at her quizzically and says, "I don't make deals. Why should I? I am in charge of everything." What does this remind us of as we contemplate our image and our opponents? Hmmm...could it be that even those who are purely nonviolent must induce fear in the opponent?

Of course. It is a sort of bell curve. Too little fear and the Dukes can ignore us. Too much fear and they start shooting instantly. We need the Goldilocks approach. Not too hot, not too cold: we want that fear to be Just Right. But it's not a simple quantum of fear we need to engender; the quality of fear is paramount. Indeed, it is arguable that rather than the bell curve, we need to create a simple monotonic graph but it must be of the sort of fear that does not enable him to better rally his violent forces against you.

If the fear is growing that you are armed and hunting him and his forces, those forces can be convinced to attack you. If the fear is growing that you will make his power wither away the longer the struggle persists--and you give him every reason to believe it will persist--he will feel the pressure to negotiate now. But if he feels that the threat to him is already existential (e.g. Gaddafi in Libya), you've crossed the line of death, to use one of that dictator's old lines from the mid-1980s.

And how do you build a coalition? It needs one point of consensus. In Egypt that was getting Mubarak out with democratic, people-based nonviolence. In Libya, they are struggling to formulate a vision. Since the armed revolution is serious and it's taking casualties, the assumption is that they will decide the future of Libya if they prevail. This means everyone else has little to say, another indication of the anti-democratic nature of violence. This means the popular will is confused. That is the case in most violent rebellions. In nonviolent mass struggle, a coalition is necessary for victory; there is no substitute for people power in the case of nonviolence. If you don't have it, you lose. In violence, you can seize power even if you are not the majority, as long as the majority isn't engaged against you. This is not a democratic approach.

So consensus is far more important to nonviolent success than it is to violence. It requires a vision and a commitment to actualizing that vision. "Without a vision, there is no focus to a consensus and no reason for one" (Williams, 2007, p. ix).

In the end, a way to visualize the creation of consensus around a vision is to draw a Venn diagram with all the circles representing individuals in a team or larger constituencies in a community, statewide, national or transnational effort. The area of overlap helps bound the vision. Achieving that overlap is easy in some cases, tricky in others, but without it, an effort is not based on consensus and will lurch along rather than move steadily ahead.


Williams, R. B. (2007). More than 50 ways to build team consensus (2nd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Libya: Wrong turn

US President Barack Obama, right, and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi pictured during the G8/G5 summit in L'Aquila, Italy Thursday July 9, 2009. (AP Photo/ Michael Gottschalk/Pool)
Who could possibly believe that after Tunisia and then Egypt showed that Arab civil society was capable of disciplined nonviolent regime change in less than three weeks with fewer than 100 mortalities each, that it would be a good idea to use violence in Libya?

Oh, Obama, I guess. Since the Arab Street had so successfully outflanked the war system, apparently the Libyan Arab Street needed to be derailed and brought back to the place where we can properly stereotype it as rabidly violent and undisciplined. Nice going, Obomber.

The conflict industry seems to generally panic at the use of nonviolent civil society resistance, especially when it's massive and persistent. And even some of the so-called peace people jump to call for violence in these cases, despite overwhelming evidence that violence is simply not the solution.

Some colleagues in peace education actually supported a no-fly zone. This example of analytical deficit is disappointing at best; who do we think enforces a no-fly zone? How is it enforced? Who benefits and who dies? The answers lead straight back to the problem of violence. It always sounds cleaner and clearer on paper and from the talking heads than it looks like on the ledger sheets of human profit and loss after the fact.

Others actually believe the rebels need armed support. How do you make nonviolent resistance irrelevant and nonexistent? Ramp up violence. If the US wants to show that the terrorists are actually correct, we should make sure we pour arms into a conflict in Muslim lands and, just to make sure all Muslims get it, we should send in pilots in war birds to bomb.

Naturally, more and more Libyans will take advantage of the 'help' offered by Obama and they will mostly do so in one of two ways.

Al Qa'ida types will use US military involvement to rally Muslims of all nations in opposition. This may not seem logical to Americans, but watch. It's just what will happen. We are once again the hated Crusaders, thanks to Obama.

Gadafi will use this to solidify his own power. He will be the champion of his people, standing up to the Washington bully. He is once again the brave leader, thanks to Obama.

We are now conducting massive violence that is making the armed rebellion more protracted, giving it hope, calling its bluff, and thereby ensuring it will end with more dead and wounded than if the armed revolt had simply been crushed or deterred promptly.

Is our Bomber-in-Chief mad? Stupid? Evil? No, just beholden and uncreative. He owes his power and position to forces that represent not democracy but an oligarchy that profits from the war system. This is the lobbying power that selects its puppets from amongst the most charismatic yet malleable, and, sadly, the independent aura cast by Barack Obama in 2008 is revealed again and again to be the chimera of the new millennium. Yes, he's smart. And basically sane and probably genuinely if superficially nice. But getting elected to the presidency of the US probably also requires more moral flexibility than anyone with a strong conscience can muster.

Perhaps we will see the best outcome of the current spiked levels of polarized incivility in Washington DC and our government will shut down. When Obama was slow to respond to the nonviolent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, it gave nonviolence a chance to succeed in an environment much more untainted by external meddling. Egyptian revolutionaries were free to embrace and thereby coopt and defang their own military. I know it's a pipe dream, but I fantasize about a long government shutdown that leads us out of so many violent conflicts. We are, after all, by far the largest arms dealer in the world. Close it down and violence might take some time off. We can dream.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ending war & stuff

Most of what needed to be invented to end war has been invented. Now what we need to do is to spread the knowledge of these developments and inspire even more people to join the ongoing work of changing the behavior of individuals and governments (Shifferd, 2011, p. 11).

"That was horrible. If you wanna end war 'n' stuff, you gotta sing better."
--Arlo Guthrie, comment to the audience during the live version of Alice's Restaurant

So, a minor project--end war. Impossible, you say. Necessary, I say. And it takes practice, as we see Through the Looking Glass:

Alice laughed, "There's no use trying," she said, "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Kurt Vonnegut noted once that after Slaughterhouse Five came out he was standing in the punchline, so to speak, at a party, and another in line asked if the novel was an antiwar book. Yes, said Vonnegut. Why don't you write an anti-glacier book? asked the man, obviously pronouncing that being antiwar was as practical as being anti-glacier.

So, we ask, how do we transform believing impossible things to achieving impossible things? Try this six-point program and get back to me in 20 years:
1. Establish peace, nonviolence, and conflict resolution education in all schools from K-graduate school.
2. Fund ever-increasing numbers of training programs for citizens who wish to be part of a multinational nonviolent de-escalation force that operates in conflict zones.
3. Shift funding from military intelligence to civil society conflict intelligence and turn that knowledge into ongoing Societal Conflict Early Warning Reports.
4. Ban all weapons of mass destruction and use powerful economic sanctions to enforce the ban, enabled by UN inspection teams that have access to all nations.
5. Deny the shifting of costs from corporations and consumers to taxpayers and otherwise pass laws that mandate internalizing all costs, so that the US military, for example, can no longer be the security service for Exxon and other huge profitmaking ventures.
6. Develop a coalition of political, religious, labor, business, academic and environmental organizations that put increasing nonviolent muscle behind these sorts of initiatives in the US and in all other countries.

See? Six very possible and very difficult and very long-term things before the war system has us for breakfast. If we start seriously today, this could take up to 20 years, but since the war system has been developing for the past several thousand years, that seems fairly quick, now doesn't it? Fund it by pilfering from the war budgets in small amounts (to them), just a few $billion at a time...soon they will find it hard to justify most of their budgets and--voila!--we are on the road to economic recovery and environmental sustainability.

Shifferd, Kent D. (2011). From war to peace: A guide to the next hundred years. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Consensus: When it counts

Consensus is not a nonviolent phenomenon all the time. Achieving consensus to bomb Libya from amongst the political players who tend to use violence was not a nonviolent exercise or outcome, obviously. But if we hope to achieve significant political victories, we will learn that consensus is the basis of coalition and unity and is sine qua non to a challenger movement.

My father and I took a trip from Minneapolis to Vancouver Island in 1993 and it was a hot year for nonviolence on the route. In the mountains in British Columbia, we met the Sri Chimnoy runners and the next day I ran with them on the island. Then we went to Clayquot Sound on the Tofino side, the west of Vancouver Island. The lumber companies were about to log off the magnificent Old Growth there and folks were arriving from all over Canada to offer nonviolent resistance. The resulting actions of blockade, tree sits and trespass produced the largest mass trial in Canadian history with some 932 defendants (Walter, 2007, p. 249).

Some scholars see the heart of social movements as interest-based, that is, who gets what resources and how do we get our fair share? Others interpret such large social movements as expressions of identity-based grievance. Walters (2007) offers a good literature review of these two approaches and their respective roots and champions. In the field of conflict resolution, we would welcome the consideration and acknowledgment of both strong factors. Either perspective shows the possibilities for unity on the one hand, division on the other, and from the standpoint of strategic nonviolence, we want to maximize the unity by producing a consensus with clear boundaries. So, if we wish to preserve the ancient forests because we are interested in the forests as a scenic resource for our vacation time, we are interest-based. If we are tree-hugging, wind-kissing prairie fairies, we are an identity group and will engage as identity conflict with the lumberwagon bar oil, cleat stomping skidder driving loggers, the identity group who wants to desecrate our woodland temple.

In our field of conflict resolution, however, we hope to use adult education to help achieve a consensus that can transform such a complex conflict into something everyone can live with. The worst possible idea is to formulate a complete plan and present it as a fait accompli, as though you are the Mediator Cavalry, riding in to save the day. The first order is to listen, then acknowledge, then elicit, then synthesize, and then seek real consensus.

Listening takes many forms and is best done so that it doesn't further fan the flames. One-on-one listening is time-consuming and still the best. Absorbing the vents and rants professionally without taking sides is far easier in an atmosphere that won't erupt into ad hominem attack. It takes serious preparation to do this in a public session, setting a tone of controversy with civility.

Eliciting ideas is also done in a variety of ways and the important point is to get many of them. This part of the process of seeking consensus cannot be short and generalized. It needs to continue until the well runs dry, at which point the facilitator or mediator may offer a suggested synthesis created entirely from what was proposed by the stakeholders. That is the moment of truth. Can consensus emerge? Can the identities be honored while dividing the resources? If so, the perfect integration of identity-based and interest-based conflict transformation has occurred. Diane Nash and Nashville Mayor Ben West achieved it by the use of many of these methods when they shook hands on the courthouse steps in 1960, ending segregation there. It may be a tough process and may take more insight than we think we have, but the alternatives are all worse.



Sunday, March 20, 2011

Military attacks Earth: The peaceful atom

What does nonviolence have to say about the explosions caused by earthquakes and tsunami waves at the power plants in Japan? Everything. Nonviolence would have prevented the whole shooting match.

The entire civilian nuclear electricity industry everywhere on Earth got its start as a way to justify and follow the primary and original product of atomic fission research: The Bomb. Nuclear research might have plodded along for another long while before anyone would have stupidly suggested, "Hey, we've got a way to vaporize water, so let's slow it down and we can produce steam, which will turn a turbine and then make electricity. OK, it's a little like using a toxic chainsaw to cut a pat of butter, but I'm just spitballing here, maybe it would make a funny story for The Onion."

Ha. Ha. The peaceful atom is a bomb.

If the world had been serious about nonviolence after Gandhi showed how it could be used in 1908 in South Africa, perhaps nonviolence could have been used to stop World War I and certainly to stop Germany and possibly Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. Without a Pearl Harbor-triggered war in the Pacific, there might never have been a Manhattan Project, no nuclear weapons, and thus no atomic electric power industry and no problems for the Japanese, for the Ukrainians or for any of the many victims of both nuclear weapons and nuclear power ever since.

There have been numerous studies and recommendations for designing and applying powerful economic sanctions, embargoes, travel bans and other nonviolent instruments of great force. And make no mistake, sometimes force is needed and it's time for bareknuckled nonviolence. If Japan had been unable to get steel and other key goods from the US and the international community as soon as the news of their cruel attacks on China reached the world, their ability to mount a stunning attack on the US Pacific fleet would have been dramatically reduced and slowed, and likely would not have happened.

We as a nation dealt with other nations on an anarchical might-makes-right basis then and now. Effective nonviolence seems to be the province of the people, of civil society. And now it will be up to us to stop and reverse the new trend to build more nukes here and abroad. No one will do that if we the people do not. Much has been made by government and their credulous media functionaries of the safety procedures, the strict licensing requirements, and the failsafe redundancies built into commercial nuclear power plants.

Really? If so, the answers to these questions should be reassuring:
How many times has the Nuclear Regulatory Commission denied any license?
Who insures nuclear power plants?
Where is the transuranic nuclear waste buried?
Who insures the citizenry from the possible effects from a nuclear waste accident?

The NRC and its predecessor agencies have denied no nuclear applications. No one insures past a set amount against nuclear power accidents, nor against accidents from nuclear waste, because the power industry refused to build any nuclear power plants until Congress relieved them of liability with the Price Anderson Act. The transuranic nuclear waste--the nuclear waste that is composed of totally unnatural radioactive elements that are found neither in Nature nor the universe until 1945--has no permanent disposal site. Indeed, when we went through two attempts by the Department of Energy (owner of the nuclear weapons and nuclear waste) to site it in Wisconsin, I was quite involved from the beginning. Our Technical Advisory Council eventually declared there was "no safe geologic repository" possible for such material.

We owe the entire nuclear debacle to a mad need to commit an act of state terror on the Japanese people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is all another bad outgrowth of civilian harm from the military. Nonviolence could have prevented it all and can still help mitigate it in the future.