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What is Nonviolence Anyhow?

What is it, this nonviolence? Who gets to define it? A kindergarten teacher is nonviolent when she puts a vase of fresh flowers on her desk and smiles at her little students, right? A young man who publicly refuses to be drafted during an invasion of another country is nonviolent, certainly. How about an old man who writes a letter to the editor arguing for peace on Earth? And really, how about a rich man who makes money entirely by playing the stock market from his home computer? That’s nonviolent, eh? How about the police who pulls over the black motorist to check him out solely because he feels like it, and never pulls his gun nor does he even touch the motorist, only detains him for some questions and a computer check? Hey, the cop might have been armed but he never used violence, so that was nonviolent, right? Hmmm…

What about the little girl who is grabbed by the man and she kicks him in the groin to escape? Certainly we can’t fault that, and who is going to accuse her of violence? For that matter, how about a nonviolent protester who is grabbed and smacked by the cops? Can’t that protester defend himself without being called violent?

Perhaps our concept needs modification. There are several ways to do that. One, include a modifier–best way to modify, eh? So, for example, religious nonviolence, or philosophical nonviolence, or technical nonviolence, or strategic nonviolence, or structural nonviolence. All of these modifiers might need further explanation, but at least we are starting down the path toward meaningful definition.

To agree to learn more about nonviolence, check out this Pace e Bene campaign pledge. And read about strategic nonviolence at the ICNC or Einstein Institution websites. Strategic nonviolence is the sort that has–what? let’s see hands–a strategy. Yes. So if I am a pacifist and I sit in blockade of a military convoy one day by myself in a fairly spontaneous act, that is not strategic nonviolence, it is nonviolent civil resistance. Nonviolent civil resistance can include strategic nonviolence but it can also include more ad hoc actions that are not part of a strategy to achieve any named goal. This is not to say that a strategy cannot follow an inspired first action of nonviolent resistance–there are certainly historical cases of that—but also thousands of examples of spontaneous one-offs.

While some seem to modify pacifism into subsets of nonviolent positions–e.g., offensive pacifism, political pacifism, absolute pacifism, nuclear pacifism–it is most helpful to remember that pacifism at its roots is about nonparticipation, a religious or philosophical decision to not directly participate in some sort of violence.

It may be helpful to shift from attempting to narrow a definition of nonviolence and instead use nonviolent as a modifier for another noun, resistance. Nonviolent resistance begins to help us narrow the concept from a generally rosy disposition to interfering directly with violence and doing so by nonviolent means. Therefore nonviolent resistance would rule out committing or threatening to commit acts of violence, even in self-defense or defense of others. Nonviolent resistance means something more and more specific and can take in some forms of pacifism, especially, when that pacifism might involve either breaking the law (such as refusing to comply with conscription laws) or when the acts of a pacifist coincide with an element of a strategic nonviolent resistance campaign, such as refusing to purchase any product made or sold by a corporation involved in producing weapons (e.g. the GE boycott that had us all purchasing other brands of consumer goods until GE no longer produced nuclear weapons).

Perception is reality in many cases. Officer Friendly may have a sidearm because it’s part of his uniform and is regarded as a tool of his profession. Only pacifists would object. But a SWAT team in milspec gear, lined up with faceless shields and even balaclavas in padded kevlar toting automatic weapons–that is a violent image that transmits a stench of unfeeling brutality to all who are either in targeted populations or who fear for the nonviolent victims of those militarized regimented anonymous attackers. Similarly, a rural granddad of any ethnic background with a gun rack may look violent only to a pacifist but is otherwise unremarkable, yet a Tea Party gathering featuring scowling open carry white males, or a line of armed militant African American community defenders all look quite violent to a large number of us. Both are going to be widely judged to be engaged in a show of violence and would never be classified by many as engaged in nonviolent resistance, even when no one fires a shot.

Filters are helpful. Can the act of nonviolent resistance also achieve reconciliation? Arguably, the more it can do so, the more it approaches pure nonviolence. This can involve focus on universally highly valued victims (join us in protecting the children) or, as peace scholar Janjira Sombutpoonsiri finds, it may involve fraternization or humor.

Definitions are tricky. Thinking about them and seeking consensus on their meanings in real life is helpful but complex. Asking ourselves to think critically instead of ideologically is a tough challenge but in our pluralistic low context culture it is a good step to take on the journey of common understanding.

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Tom H. Hastings is core faculty in the Conflict Resolution Department at Portland State University and founding director of PeaceVoice

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