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Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Number 193: October 2011

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Effective nonviolence in the 21st century

‘Effective nonviolence in the 21st century’ is the title of the INNATE seminar coming up shortly with Javier Gárate as the resource person. So what is the relevance of nonviolence in today’s world – what does it mean, how does it act? The seminar will explore this topic and enable people to do some planning on their own activities and campaigns.

This editorial will put forward some suggestions in the way of signposts. In western societies where there seems little overt violence, nonviolence can seem an irrelevance, perhaps even a distraction, from dealing with injustice, with poverty, with racism, with other forms of exclusion, and speaking positively, with building a participative and egalitarian society. But it would be mistaken to think this.

Nonviolence is an approach to conflict in general as well as to violence. It includes seeing the humanity of the opponent – something which might seem weakness but is actually a strength. It is not a matter of ‘understanding your opponent so you can get the measure of them’ and beat them, though understanding your opponent is important is both making your stand and getting to grips with what your opponent needs to change or be changed. Nonviolence does not underestimate the opponent but neither does it deny their humanity, no matter how mistaken you may feel they are, or how evil they are portrayed in the media or elsewhere. Using religious language Quakers talk about ‘seeing that of God in everyone’ – this can also be understood in a secular sense as ‘seeing the humanity of everyone’.

But it is mistaken to see our western societies as not being violent. Of course there may not be the overt physical violence and repression so obvious in some other societies but violence is there. It is there in the form of ‘domestic’ violence, primarily against women. It is there against many different kinds of minorities in attitudes and sometimes in physical acts. It is there in structural violence against the poor and the unskilled and overworked (although it may usually be more productive to talk of injustice rather than violence in this context). It is there, just under the surface, in a casual way which alcohol may bring to the fore, particularly with men. It is there in the entertainment media where extreme violence can be considered ‘entertainment’ – something which we would argue has a definite knock-on effect in making violence permissible, abroad or at home.

Nonviolence in western societies may be about working on some of these issues, and how we deal with them. There are certain cultural norms about how people act, how politics happens and how pressure groups work. Some of the received wisdom about how we should work, how we ‘do politics’, is nonsense and ineffective. Nonviolence is also about maximising, strategically and tactically, the potential of working non-violently. Thus action may be legal, on the borders of legality and illegality, or outright illegal. But imagination and creativity will certainly be involved. The chosen and worked out course may be totally counterintuitive. It may also be stepping in for a long haul rather than thinking change can happen overnight. Nonviolence should be about maximising the potential for action in our own societies.

However violence in western societies is exhibited most directly and forcefully as something which its armies do to people ‘over there’ to sort them out and, supposedly, bring democracy and all sorts of other things. Wars are justified by a kind of western noblesse oblige which is much more about western elites setting the agenda (with hidden or not so hidden ‘agendas’ like oil being influential factors) and sending their soldiers, generally the working class, out to fight and perhaps die thousands of miles away from home. However technological advances, including drones, mean the victims of such wars are far more likely to be in the target country than coming home in a box to ours. There are also elements of imperialism or neo-imperialism in this, certainly so far as the USA and Britain are concerned; Labour’s ex-Security minister Lord West recently said the UK retained a ‘certain clout’ and that too much downgrading of military capacity would make it more like “bloody Denmark or Belgium”. Smaller countries like Ireland may be afraid to stand up against the bigger economic powers; Shannon Airport being given to the US military for whatever purposes it wanted is an absolute failure of courage, will and principle.

In the context of ‘the war on terror’ following 9/11 it is also clearly about revenge though revenge has been, and is, wrapped up as justice and concern. And so devastation is wrought across the world because western elites cannot see that there are other ways they can act. Why is it that in such situations the response is military? Why not something more on humanitarian lines – which might actually help people and might win friends and influence them? Why not seek justice, if justice is the issue, without war? Perhaps when countries pay so much for the upkeep of armies, justified on the grounds of ‘defence’, they feel obliged to use them, even if it is thousands of miles away, when there is an opportunity to do so, even though there is no real ‘defence’ issue (the idea that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have actually been ‘defensive’ wars for the likes of the USA and Britain is risible – these wars have made them more of a target rather than less). Clearly politicians lack imagination in how they can make a contribution in a messy and divided world without resorting to war.

But there is another end to the question of nonviolence, and that concerns the personal and interpersonal level of nonviolence, the level that can actually be the most difficult. How we treat our family, our friends, how we interact in our groups and our political life is also part of nonviolence, and perhaps the most difficult to get right. In our political involvements, how do we deal with disagreements? How do we develop consensus? How do we support each other (not just ‘our’ side in any group)? How do we help each other to grow? How do we deal with gender issues? How do we deal with newcomers? How do we deal with awkward people who are there but don’t quite seem to fit our notion of what participants in a group should be? These are all critical questions which are not at the same level, perhaps, as how we can stop a particular war or win a critical ecological struggle, but they are actually the bedrock of taking such struggles forward. If we cannot get it right at a basic level we are unlikely to get it right on a macro level either; the two are almost inextricably intertwined. The end does not justify the means; the means is the way to achieve the end.

The issue and questions touched on here are only a small sampling of the ones relevant to building effective nonviolence in our time and place. This is also simply one take on what is needed and ‘nonviolence’ is not a party line but both an effective personal and political philosophy as well as a means of political struggle. Much more is possible. As Gandhi said, “We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.”

- - - - -


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Fracking in County Fermanagh

The Horrible History programmes arouse a mixture of mirth and incredulity through depicting the ridiculous beliefs and practices of bygone days, which at the time, as in ancient Egypt and Rome seemed perfectly sensible. A Horrible History programme in the distant future might well cause laughter and shocked disbelief by accounts of how early 21st century global civilization was based on the premise that nonhuman nature was of no account.

The programmes might focus on how governments and corporations continued to build mega dams long after the scientific evidence showed they resulted in ecological disaster, unsustainable economies and the mass displacement of people. They might illustrate the case of the Ashaninka inhabitants of the River Ene in the Peruvian Amazon who are fighting against the building of a hydroelectric dam which will flood 734 square kilometres of the forests, arable lands and waterways on which they rely.

A programme might look at how the indigenous peoples of Bolivia protested against the building of a 185-mile long road through the bio-rich Isiboro Secure national park. Or they might focus on the fight of the Penan people of Malaysia and Indonesia to prevent the clear felling of their forests by large oil palm firms. The ongoing destruction of rainforests in Brazil, Guyana, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela in pursuit of gold is likely to lead to aghast rather than laughter.

The makers of the Horrible History programmes need not, however, enlarge their carbon footprint by flying to such distant places to show the extent of early 21st century disregard for nonhuman nature. They could come to County Fermanagh where a license has been issued to the Canadian based Tamboran Company to explore for shale gas in the Shannon / Erne water system.

The industrial process by which the gas is tapped is known as fracking. The process is as follows. A well is drilled vertically to depths of 1,000 – 6,000 feet, the drill then moves horizontally over the same distance. Steel pipes are pushed down the well and explosions are set off to crack the shale rock. This is the fracking stage. After this, at least 2.5 million gallons of fluid composed of water, sand and chemicals is pumped down at very high pressures to enlarge the cracks and release the gas. The gas then has to be refined and transported.

Although franking companies would say otherwise, the procedure causes enormous environmental destruction and disruption to everyday life. To quote from a leaflet available at the Fracking Information Evening held at the Clinton Centre, Enniskillen, 28th September:

“Fracking will seriously affect: our health, our roads, our water & air quality, our landscape & ecosystems, our agriculture & tourism industries, our local economy, house & land prices, our communities and our way of life.”

Fracking turns a rural environment into an industrial one. Such is the devastation fracking can be seen in terms of humankind making war against nonhuman nature. An argument fracking companies, Local Councils and Ministries use in favour of fracking is that it creates jobs and brings in revenue. While new jobs will be created, many will be lost in tourism and farming and the rate payer will likely have to pay for increased road maintenance, fire protection, the cleanup of spillages and health costs. When the gas reserves are exhausted in 10 or 15 years the jobs will go, many of which will be low-skilled and probably poorly paid.

As Dr. Aedin McLoughlin said in her presentation at the Clinton Centre, “there will be gains for the few, loss for everyone.” The overwhelming view of the audience was abhorrence at what might be imposed on them. There was a great deal of anger that a prospecting licence was issued without public consultation. The audience called upon their political representatives to inform themselves about the issue, and one lady wisely called for a judicial review.

If there is a judicial review, and the interests of nonhuman nature and human wellbeing are taken into account, there should be no reason for a Horrible History programme to be made in County Fermanagh. The county, however, is not the only one fracking companies are interested in. Other counties include Leitrim, Roscommon, Cavan, Sligo and Donegal. To view a fracking map of Ireland and learn more about the subject logon to

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