Saturday, February 07, 2015

Thrash blindly! Bang head! Real action!

One major misconception--one of many--about nonviolent activists is that they must be willing to risk their lives and freedom to achieve any change. Indeed, goes the myth, the ones who fling themselves willy-nilly at the system are the ones who can win and who are the heroes.

Actually, it is usually the prudent ones who are victorious in the end (Ackerman & DuVall, 2000). Yes, they are often hurt and imprisoned, but the greater the strategic approach, the less, generally, they are treated with raging brutality.
For too long, and far too often, some critics of nonviolence have associated careful actions with a principled approach involving religious mandate or philosophical stance (Coy, 2013). However, it is simply untrue in many cases over a fair amount of time and learning these histories can assist in any strategic planning.

One of the primary core causes of conflict is face, or respect, or dignity (Kriesberg & Dayton, 2012). In turn, many nonviolent activists have a strong sense of dignity when offering nonviolent action of any sort. You have your nuns and priests who solemnly bring hammers to weapons and engage in Swords into Plowshares actions, usually accompanied before and after by prayer. You had Dr. King and his fellow ministers leading the Civil Rights movement from churches and all their actions were quite dignified. So this association of a moral, or religious, approach with deliberate, even prayerful, action is natural.

But there are many other careful and dignified actions that are purely strategic, without a great deal of nonviolent philosophy. These are simply adaptive; police, soldiers, and thugs both hired and ideologically driven are far less likely to attack and hurt or even kill nonviolent activists who are balanced, stable, serious, transparent, dignified, and calm. This calm method is thus quite strategic if by strategy we mean the most gain for the least pain--that is, the best choices in a cost-benefit analysis.

So when the Anishinabe practiced their treaty rights despite death threats from racist white opponents, and when they practiced those rights with perfect nonviolent discipline, they were doing so from a strategic standpoint. They were warriors and philosophically not nonviolent. They decided, simply, to use the most pragmatic approach possible and it was victorious.

This is not to say that a strategic approach might not yield over time to a new philosophy. That is my story. I began as a young activist with an unformed philosophy, only attracted to fighting for racial justice and against the stupid war in Vietnam. Over time, as I engaged in nonviolent action and both took and gave nonviolence trainings, my faith in nonviolence became my philosophy.

So the strategic value of careful actions sometimes overlaps with the philosophy of nonviolence but sometimes does not. No assumptions should be made in this regard, except that more investigation is usually a good idea.


Ackerman, P., & DuVall, J. (2000). A force more powerful: A century of nonviolent conflict. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Coy, P. G. (2013). Whither Nonviolent Studies? Peace Review, 25(2), 257-265. doi:10.1080/10402659.2013.785331

Kriesberg, Louis, & Dayton, Bruce W. (2012). Constructive conflicts: From escalation to resolution. (4th ed.) Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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