Sunday, August 31, 2014

Strategic nonviolent escalation

When a nonviolent campaign goes from protest to resistance, that is escalation and is a key step in achieving success. Why do so many associate nonviolence with the weak, timid approach?

In the literature of social movement theory and practice there is a serious lack of the research into nonviolent civil resistance. For instance, we have Hancock (2014) asserting that, "One of the more forgotten aspects of the Northern Irish Troubles was that they were not the direct result of IRA actions, but were, instead, the result of a non-violent civil rights campaign orchestrated in order to bring about equal rights for all of the province’s citizens"(p. 501).
Nonviolence caused this? No.
How does a nonviolent campaign produce a low-intensity war? It does no such thing. It may produce a crackdown by the state and it may produce a violent response from the "radical flank" (in this case the IRA), but claiming that a protracted violent conflict is caused by a nonviolent campaign is like blaming Gandhi for the mass violence of partition. Oh, sure, he was against it, but still...all his fault. Similarly, a "season of nonviolence" in Northern Ireland did not cause the ensuing "Troubles" (who came up with that silly euphemism for terrorism, bicommunal violence, and brutal crackdown by the state? Troubles? Sounds like the obfuscation of a public relations firm). 

Language is important. I am grateful (sometimes painfully so) for corrections when I make erroneous or half-witted statements. Women have helped me fix my assumptions and blindspots and have helped me become a better feminist. People of color have straightened out my random lacunas of ignorance or insensitivity and assisted me in thinking about my choice of words and concepts. And I offer my own nudges when I read or hear unhelpful use of concepts, such as two-way violence as a "direct result" of nonviolence. 

Similarly, from the same piece, "Between 5 October and 30 January 1972 those wishing to escalate the conflict won out over those who tried to pursue civil rights non-violently" (p. 501-502). Strategic nonviolence is escalation, but in a way that doesn't target anyone as the enemy, just as an opponent. Strategic nonviolence seeks to do what Dr. King wrote about in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, to bring the light of day to a festering wound, to open it up, to escalate the conflict in a robust nonviolent manner. 

Yes, we want to de-escalate individuals who might give our movement a violent image, but bursts of escalation contribute to the winning strategy in nonviolent struggle.

Think of a song you like that starts with just one instrument and gradually adds more. That is escalation, by adding more people, not more volume per individual. Or that music may move from pianissimo (very soft) to fortissimo (earsplitting), from larghissimo (very, very slow) to prestissimo (very rapid). Nonviolent struggle, especially over long periods, can seem like that. Escalation, de-escalation. Acts of intense inspiration and slow creation of parallel institutions.
The key to the nonviolent symphony is good planning (a core group are the best authors) and great execution (your outstanding nonviolent musicians). Each orchestra is different; each piece of music is unique. This is of course true for nonviolent campaigns. But to frame the nonviolent campaign as producing violent combat is an ahistorical examination of this method of struggle.

Reference List

Hancock, Landon E. 2014. "We Shall Not Overcome: Divided Identity and the Failure of NICRA 1968." Ethnopolitics 13, no. 5: 501-521. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed August 31, 2014).

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