Thursday, August 02, 2012

Dithering dialog or nonviolent martyrs? Neither

Nonviolence is often seen as the art of surrender, of letting go of the original goal in the interest of harmony. It is characterized by some as cowardice masquerading as nobility. And in the cases in which nonviolence is cited as a philosophical value while the actual fight to achieve the collective good is weakened and even abandoned, the critics are correct.

On the other end of the spectrum--but equally missing the point of strategic nonviolence--are those who are so eager to demonstrate that they are not cowards and that they will never abandon the principles of nonviolence, nor will they ever cede the battle for the stated goal, that they obdurately sacrifice themselves, sometimes resulting in physical harm, sometimes in persecution and prosecution, and sometimes in both. Bless their hearts. Their witness is their victory. Sadly, they are not usually able to amplify that witness into general civil society awareness. This is not to suggest that nonviolent martyrdom does not, in fact, move some struggles forward, but only to question how best to do that.

Both victory and struggle can have a clear, nonviolent meaning 
(Galtung, 2004, p. 13).
In the first case, we often hear Palestinians scorn the words peace and nonviolence as indicative of a stance that favors the status quo. Indeed, many Palestinians (and their self-appointed allies) speak derisively of dialog on that basis; why would anyone think that dialog with those Israelis is anything but a tactic to distract us from our struggle for freedom? Favoring nonviolence, peace and dialog is tantamount to unpatriotic, craven cowardice. While there are indeed instances of such manipulative misuse of dialog by Israelis in that long contest, Palestinians are increasingly looking at nonviolence in a far more nuanced, sophisticated, strategic fashion. Throwing out the nonviolent baby with the dirty, distracting bathwater has not served them well and many are seeing that.
In the second case, many dear friends have continued to slog on with sacrificial religiously oriented nonviolent action that will earn them almost no practical gains in the struggle but which will result in heavy personal losses, usually long prison sentences. God love them. These noble people are the functional equivalent of nonviolent jihadis--ready, willing, and able to allow Cesar to throw them to the lions. Some of us are fiercely loyal to these lambs even when we wish they were more strategic in their approach, knowing that they generally disdain strategy as a willingness to compromise value and principle. A few of them are beginning to see that there is no mandated mutual exclusivity between principled nonviolence and strategic planning; victory is possible and faith can help it along. 

The core connection is to principled negotiation, which eschews compromise of principle and advocates methods of helping the opponent avoid unnecessary loss. Yes, the opponent will lose 100 percent of that which no one should have--power over others, power to end lives, power to personally enrich oneself and impoverish others--but a principled process creates a new sort of victory for all parties, unique to each struggle but along the common principles that preserve dignity for all and, if possible, a golden bridge over which the opponent can retreat. 

Dialog should always be sought, even while it is sometimes temporarily suspended. Talking is cheap, talking is often ineffective, but talking is the only way to hammer out an agreement. Talking does not equate to lack of action. Nonviolent pressure while dialog is underway is sometimes the best way to keep it moving forward, to daily prompt discussion where the dominant party would rather just carry on with business as usual. Gandhi used that strategy and, at times, got more concessions than if he had declared a suspension of a campaign. Other times, of course, significant gains should prompt a cessation of mass action as a reward for those gains, provided they are real and sustained. If a negotiator is willing to call off civil society for small gains, that negotiator has a poor future in that role, but large gains are different. When the grassroots feel like their efforts and sacrifice have resulted in a big gain, let them rest and recuperate and never stop dialog toward more gain.

Is nonviolence simple? No, not if we hope for success. But the consequences of using nonviolence are simply far less costly and, ultimately, less complex than the consequences of the two alternatives, apathy or violence.

Galtung, J. (2004). Transcend and transform: An introduction to conflict work. Boulder, CO: Paradigm. 


Carol Moore said...

This is a very poorly written article.

First, it links to the Brown Daily Herald article inferring that article calls for violence. It's main point is that dialogue is useless if the people you are talking with refuse to even admit they are doing anything wrong. While I don't agree with that, it's a far cry from saying they are dismissing nonviolence. In fact that talk about nonviolent Palestinian actions that are being done (most of which receive little mainstream coverage). So using that as an example of an otherwise vague thesis is really problematic.

The section starting "In the second case" doesn't specify WHICH nonviolent activists are being talking about and thus is so vague as to be useless.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Actually, Carol, you made that inference. I am not presuming that the author of the Brown Daily Herald is calling for violence, only that the piece has a criticism of dialog.

In the second case, Carol, I am wrestling with my own history as a two-time Plowshares resister who has served some real prison time and I'm trying to think about all my friends in that movement. I hope this helps. My vague thesis is simply that dialog can be quite helpful, even when we radically disagree, and that martyrdom is such a high price that I want my friends to struggle to make their witnesses more strategic. It is not easy. I'm sorry you find this useless; perhaps it is only a draft of what I am trying to clarify.