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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Each month we bring you a nonviolence training workshop based on the experience of the Nonviolent Action Training project and INNATE.

Stating polar opposites on a topic can be both a useful and entertaining means of exploring a subject (just look at how a television debate works – though whether this form of confrontation always brings clarity is another question). In relation to, or rather within, nonviolence, the classic English language short exploration of opposite points of view is ‘Seven controversies in nonviolent action’ by Sheila Rose and Lynne Shivers, which is reproduced in slightly adapted form below.

If time is available as part of a course on nonviolence, perhaps a full evening or even half a day using this material is worthwhile because we all tend to be dogmatic without much evidence for our point of view. As part of a course it makes sense to take these ‘controversies’ after other introductory material, when people are feeling quite at home with concepts about nonviolence, so it could be taken half way or towards the end of such a course.

There are a number of ways in which this can be used.

You could begin with a brainstorm/board blast on ‘Controversies in nonviolence’, asking people to think of ones themselves before they are given copies of ‘Seven controversies in nonviolent action’. You can let the participants’ list sit there while you do the rest of the programme based around the ‘Seven controversies’ material, and return to the brainstorm/board blast sheet later on asking “Have your questions been explored sufficiently? Are there controversies here we haven’t dealt with?”

But first of all, it is a good idea to have paper copies to give everyone. The seven points can be used for debate, one after the other, or better still as a spectrum exercise (people position themselves physically across the room from one point of view to another before people at different points are asked to explain why they have put themselves there). Another way to allow maximum discussion and sharing is to get people to pair off and ask them to discuss each one, allowing, say, 5 minutes for each question (just over half an hour total, more if checking around the room people indicate they need more time) before coming back into a plenary discussion or the spectrum exercise.

The facilitator can also add historical/actual examples of nonviolent action which illustrate the debate, or fit in with one or other point of view. Of course space has to be left to explore the reality that it may not be a case of one or the other, but both, or it may simply be a pragmatic choice of what is more likely to work, or is possible, in a given situation. Part of the facilitator’s job here can be to get people to recognise that other positions are possible, however much an individual disagrees with them.

It is of course also possible that the seven controversies dealt with may not cover all the dilemmas people need discussed. If you did not use the brainstorm exercise at the beginning, you can still ask “Are there other dilemmas in nonviolence which are not represented here?”, before exploring any additional ones that emerge.

7 Controversies in nonviolent action
By Sheila Rose and Lynne Shivers (slightly adapted)

[Click here to view print version]

1. Principle versus technique

For principle: Unless nonviolent action is based on principle, people will abandon it when the going gets tough. It isn't "Quaker karate", a technique we choose to use or not use, but the outcome in action of our faith in God and humanity. Unless our actions are based on a positive attitude towards our opponent which in turn is based on our principles, they will not be able positively to transform the situation.

For technique: Nonviolent action is an effective method of change. We don't have to believe in it for it to work effectively. And our main goal is change, not just conversion to nonviolence. Trying to convert everyone is not the best use of time and energy and anyway, by changing the situation through nonviolent action you will change people and their attitudes. Only a minority of people will ever adopt nonviolence as a principle, and you need a mass movement to effect change. Nonviolent action is a technique of taking power and destroying the opponent's power by removing support for the opponent. The vast majority of historical cases where nonviolent action was used effectively have been carried out by people who saw only the value of the technique.

2. Persuasion versus coercion

For persuasion: Persuasion brings more lasting change because it brings change of hearts and values. If you force people, they'll change their minds again as soon as they can, and there will have been no real change in the situation. You should never force someone because you might not be right. Anyway, it's not ethical to use force. Our motto is, "better no change than change by force". Admittedly it's slower than coercion, but it's better.

For coercion: Persuasion is not enough. Power never gives up its power willingly. Some institutions have to be coerced. There is a form of nonviolent coercion in which we can act against the opponent while not wishing them harm or destruction. Vested interests and systematic oppression require nonviolent coercion from time to time. One good example is the American civil rights movement. It's true that we can't legislate morality, but we can force changes in laws against people's wills so that a more just society will have a chance to develop.

3. Personal change versus political change

For personal change: We must start with ourselves; we must begin at home. Changing the world is hypocritical and false if our actions aren't reflected on our lives. We can't have a new society without also having new people.

For political change: Changing lifestyles does nothing to confront governments or corporations which hold the real power. The revolution is a change of institutions - it means structural changes. We can work on our own lives after the revolution. We're not free to live pure lives, anyhow, because of the system. Lifestyles are irrelevant to political struggle. We need to put all our energy into organising, not to cooking lentils, meditating and so on, which are just self-indulgent.

4. Secrecy versus openness

For secrecy: It's nice when you can be open but it's not always possible. Sometimes you need to be secret, under fascism or dictatorships, where open organisation and protests are illegal and heavily punished. If nonviolent direct action plans are not kept secret, you won't be able to carry them out, which is pointless. If you're open, the government will have the upper hand, so they can stop you in advance.

For openness: Secrecy undermines trust among allies and splits the movement. Secrecy is defensive, prevents a confrontation, increases fear among allies, and encourages fear among the opponent. Most important, a policy of secrecy develops two classes of people, those who know and those who don't. There are examples of open resistance to dictatorship; Guatemala, Holland, Norway.

5. Property destruction and sabotage: Yes or no

For yes: Sabotage destroys property, not people. Property is not as important as a revolution for the people. Therefore it's OK to use sabotage. It's appropriate as a means of protest or coercion. We make sure no one is hurt, so it's nonviolent. Some property just shouldn't exist, e.g. missile launchers. Therefore it makes sense to destroy them.

For no: Property destruction escalates the struggle in a way that allows activists to have less control over the struggle than if the property had not been destroyed. It creates a climate of violence, which is counterproductive in a struggle. Property destruction gives clear justification for greater oppression. It frightens potential allies and creates a bad image for the uncommitted. Finally it easily spills over into a destruction of people and there's always the problem of accidents.

6. First world - Third world (Universal application: Yes or no)

For universal application: Nonviolent action is applicable in all conflict situations whether or not we're talking about an intensely repressive regime. This analysis is based on the principle that governments derive their power from the consent of the people. If people do not cooperate with that power, then the regime ultimately falls. The deciding force is the people's awareness of their own power and capacity to organise themselves. It may be next to impossible to pull off a nonviolent revolution in a repressive regime. But an armed, military strategy has no greater chance of success.

Against universal application: People in less developed countries have tried nonviolent action and found it doesn't work in their situation. They see nonviolence as a weak, unrealistic idea which middle-class white Westerners just talk about. We can't really know what people in their situations are up against. So we shouldn't judge them harshly if they opt for a military struggle for liberation. Besides, Gandhi himself said that if you have to choose between a violent struggle or no struggle at all, it's imperative to carry on a violent struggle.

7. Force and aggression versus the power of love

For power of love: Love should not be seen as sentimental or effective only among individuals. The central argument is based on the dynamic of love. Love is disarming and prevents the development of fear and anger. Love keeps the focus away from seeing people as the opponent and on the focus as being greed, war, injustice, hatred etc. Power is not the issue.

For force and aggression: You can't change anything just by love. It takes forever and we can't wait. We need power and aggression and an active force to change anything. After all it's nonviolent action. We can't abolish power; we need to take power and wield it for the common good. Aggression toward our oppressors is healthy; we don't need to love them to make change.

Slightly adapted from the original written by Sheila Rose and Lynne Shivers, Movement for a New Society, Philadelphia, 1975.

Copyright INNATE 2016