Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Godfather of nonviolence

It is a culturally iconic moment; in the 1972 The Godfather trilogy, Don Corleone--Marlon Brando--tells Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." As the films unfold, the reasons "he" can't refuse involve guns to the head and a bloody horse head in bed. The films were never meant to reflect any sort of nonviolent approach to resolving conflict, of course, but are so culturally embedded that, by now, more than 40 years later, the quote is closer to a more useful reference for those who practice successful nonviolence. What began as unprincipled negotiation can morph toward a more benign Getting to Yes.

Gene Sharp is the Godfather of nonviolence. He was the first serious academic scholar to focus a lifetime of research and analysis on strategic nonviolence. To do so, he felt he needed to wash his hands of the perception that he just wanted everyone to be nice. His degrees, including a doctorate in political theory from Oxford, were achieved when studying nonviolence in the political context was perceived as fatuous, tantamount to studying the effects of a bouquet of flowers on the actions of a serial killer. Sharp needed to create his own space in the academy, space that has been enlarged by those who followed, but a very tiny and tight space indeed for him. He seemed to do so by chucking philosophy, religion, ethics and morals overboard, and focusing exclusively on the isolated question, 'was the stated objective achieved or not?' followed by descriptions and even a large typology of observable, provable factors--published the year after The Godfather movies, in 1973, in Sharp's own trilogy, The Politics of Nonviolent Action.

Peace scholars, many of whom start with a personal philosophy or peace church orientation toward the morality and ethical high ground of nonviolence, often critique this narrow utilitarian focus of Sharp.

Nonviolence "re-humanizes the opponent's soldiers and functionaries and re-includes them in the common humanity. This is especially true of the kind of nonviolence that is more than just making trouble by noncooperation and sabotage, as was the case in the Ruhr in the 1920s, which was the kind of nonviolent struggle that Gene Sharp advocates" (Shifferd, 2011, p. 164).

Fair point, but Sharp wrote very precisely about strategic nonviolence tending to "subvert the loyalty of the attacker's troops and functionaries," as did Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, currently the most widely cited and respected researchers on strategic nonviolence from that political science world.

In actuality, the intersectionality of morality and coercive strategic nonviolence is a fertile ground for study. Certainly those who have done the best real world work along those lines, from Gandhi to Reverend James Lawson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, have shown that the question is not an either/or in many cases but a both/and. When the Filipinas and Filipinos intervened by the hundreds of thousands in the 1986 crisis in their homeland, they updated Don Corleone by making the security forces on both sides in their country an offer they couldn't refuse--they offered their nonviolent interposition to stop the armed forces from killing each other. This, in turn, helped the Reaganistas make an offer to Ferdinand Marcos that he couldn't refuse--a nice retirement out of the Philippines. No guns to any heads and no horse heads in bed were necessary.

We'll give the last word to a nonviolent activist from New Zealand, a woman who had just gone through several days of nonviolence training that three of us did for aspiring members of Christian Peacemaker Teams. If you listen to Kiwis (what we lovingly call those great folks from New Zealand), they pronounce the American short e like a long e quite often. At the conclusion of the training she said, with a beaming smile in her Kiwi pronunciation, "I love this. Nonviolence brings out the beast in you!"

And so, with strategic nonviolence, we learn to inflict "the good kind of pain," coercion with care for the hearts and minds we hope to win by bringing out the beast in us and in them.


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

Fisher, Roger, & Ury, William (2011). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. (3rd ed.). New York: Penguin Books. 

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

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