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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.

The following is intended as background reading, though it can be worked through and different people's opinions and feelings explored. Possible exercises following looking at this sheet include going around in a circle asking everyone in turn to finish the sentence "Nonviolence is..." Better still, individuals can be allowed time to work out their own definition, possibly as 'home work' before another meeting or session if it is a series; they could be asked to take this information home as a handout sheet, read and reflect on it, and come back with their own definition the next time.

Nonviolence -
Background definitions and associated terms

[Click here to view print version]

There is a difficulty in projecting a positive image for a word containing a negative - nonviolence. But it may be helpful to think of the analogy with 'horseless carriage' - we may first describe something by what it's not, thus what we might now call simply a 'car' was first known as a 'horseless carriage'. One possibility here is the use of 'nonviolence' without a hyphen as based in principle, and 'non-violence' with a hyphen as pragmatically-based - but this only works in written English since as spoken they are identical. There is an inadequacy of language here and there is the need for different cultures and languages to develop terms which are indigenous or fit in well and incorporate the best of nonviolence.

'Peace' is used by so many sides in so many conflicts that it is a term which has often lost its meaning; everyone claims to be doing what they are doing 'for peace'. However there are concepts associated with peace in other languages, for examples 'shalom' (Hebrew), 'salam' (Arabic), and 'síocháin' (Irish) which can carry more positive and possibly even visionary implications of what might be involved and may not simply imply the retention of the status quo by everyone stopping physical violence.

This notwithstanding, let us start with the dictionary definition of 'violence'; "Quality of being violent; violent conduct or treatment, outrage, injury......(law) unlawful exercise of physical force, intimidation by exhibition of this." (Concise Oxford Dictionary) However a better definition of violence would be person centred; "A physical of mental attack or affront to an individual or group". The Quaker Peace Action Caravan in Britain "defined violence as anything which damages, degrades or destroys human beings".

Here we also come up with the term 'structural violence', i.e. violence imposed on people by unjust and inhuman structures; but other terms such as 'economic injustice' may be more accurate and helpful than 'structural violence' which is a very broad statement. Working our way on from these definitions of violence we can come towards a tentative definition of 'non'violence; "The absence of violence and the creative use, and resolution, of conflict." Note that this is more a definition of nonviolence as process rather than a state of being, since describing a situation the absence of violence is likely to be relative..

'Conflict' is often seen as a negative state of affairs, and yet without 'conflict' there would be no progress in the world since change comes through the 'conflict' between progressive, conservative and other ideas and their supporters. 'Conflict' can simply be termed "A process of decision making involving different parties in dispute with each other." Obviously some conflicts can be more productive than others and conflict can be entirely negative.

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Argentinean Nobel Peace Prize winner, has defined nonviolence this way; "Nonviolence is a respect for life and for the individual. That is to say, nonviolence is not a method of non-aggression (as it is often considered) but rather a way of life, and a way of understanding the relationship of human beings to their fellow beings and with nature."

There are an infinite number of possible individual bases of 'nonviolence'. There follows a very short attempt to classify a few general bases;

  1. Based in principle; a) Religious or spiritual, e.g. Christian or Buddhist ('our religion demands we be nonviolent and do not harm others', 'it is a basic tenet of our faith') and/or b) Secular, e.g. 'total respect for human life'.
  2. Pragmatic - 'nonviolence would seem to work in this situation so let's give it a go' or 'we don't have the arms we need to fight by military means so we'll use non-violent ones'. The first of these is a positive pragmatic reason ('it works') and the second a negative one ('we don't have the option to be violent').
  3. Geographical distinctions are also possible - 'Nonviolence is OK in Europe and the rich world but not in the poor, two thirds world'. Some years ago people arguing this line might have added 'South Africa' to the places nonviolence did not work but clearly the change from the apartheid system came much more through nonviolence, including international solidarity and pressure, than it did from violence. This 'geographically defined' approach is negative in failing to support people who are struggling for change nonviolently in atrociously difficult surroundings.

'Pacifism' can be taken as an older, more negative sounding, synonym for 'nonviolence'. There can be a confusion, too, of 'pacifism' with 'passivism' (as in being passive) or doing nothing. 'Pacifism' can sometimes be seen as being concerned almost exclusively the rejection of war and killing, though for others it is simply an older synonym for nonviolence. The concern of nonviolence is, in religious language, 'peace, justice and the integrity of creation', i.e. it is dynamic, active and forward looking, working for justice and positive change.

'Nonviolent action' can be used as a more positive, action-oriented term than 'nonviolence', though both may imply taking action on one side in a conflict. 'Mediation', on the other hand, is relatively 'neutral' between sides (though never value free), a third party intervention to try to help people solve a dispute themselves in taking the different parties through a mediation process, whether formal or informal. With mediation the first stage could be strengthening one side in a dispute to compete on equal terms with another disputant.

'Nonviolent direct action' is sometimes used in a confusing way, and has been elevated in some circles to being sacrosanct, but it can be useful to describe nonviolent action which is interventionist and possibly illegal. In nonviolence there is a belief that justice and human integrity are more important than laws; but laws are only broken where those participating are prepared to take the action nonviolently and are also prepared to accept the consequences of their action, which could mean court appearances, jail, or in some circumstances injury or even death.

Definitions of nonviolence can also be taken from its perceived world-renowned gurus such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or from lesser known prophets such as Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, Lanza del Vasto etc. However, sometimes the reliance on 'nonviolent gurus' can make nonviolence seem more remote and not something for ordinary people, so this is a danger to beware of. Here are a few relevant quotes from Gandhi;

"...nonviolence is not a cloistered virtue to be practised by the individual for his peace and final salvation, but it is a rule of conduct for society....To practise nonviolence in mundane matters is to know its true value. It is to bring heaven upon earth..."

"For a nonviolent person, the whole world is one family. He will thus fear none, nor will others fear him."

"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."

Gandhi used the term 'ahimsa' , which means 'not harming' or 'harmlessness'; this could be thought of as something akin to 'pacifism'. But he also used the much stronger term 'satyagraha' meaning 'truth force' or 'the power of truth'; by this he meant not only a dynamic, campaigning approach but one which sought a transformation of relationships rather than a simple victory or attempt at coercion. Satyagraha is one term that can be developed as a particular concept of nonviolence.

In the end of the day, however, what matters is the definition of nonviolence that we ourselves come up with. We each need our own, individual and unique, definition of what nonviolence means to us and the role that nonviolence can play in our lives and in helping to bring justice and peace to our neighbourhoods, our areas, our countries and the world.

Copyright INNATE 2016