“The Term has Become Meaningless to Me”: on Violence, Social Change, and Nonviolent Communication

“Paying your taxes is violent.” I signal to both ends of the hall and say, “This side is ‘totally agree’ and this side is ‘totally disagree.’”

The workshop participants spread across the spectrum and stand at places that best signify their level of agreement with the statement. One participant sighs in frustration as he stands in the same place somewhere in the middle, clenching his fists as if unable to move.

A Palestinian participant stands at the far edge of the spectrum showing she totally agrees. “Would you like to explain your position?” I ask.

“When I pay taxes to the Israeli government,” she says. “I contribute to the occupation and to all of the violence against Palestinians. So in my opinion paying your taxes is violent.”

I hand the microphone over to the participant who sighed in frustration earlier. “I can’t move.” He laughs. “I am torn by my wish to express my political position to the rest of the group and by the understanding that the term has become totally meaningless to me.”

This workshop comes at the beginning of the very last section – the social change section – of a March 2016 two-week residential training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) at EcoME Center in the occupied West Bank. The conclusion of the (Dis-)Agreement Spectrum described above is clear: violence means different things to different people. While some people find it important to show their opposition to acts like touching someone against their will or supporting an oppressive regime, others mill about in confusion around the middle of the space when facing supposedly unambiguous statements such as “murder is violent.” Participants from the same family or the same activist group disagree on the classification of certain acts as violent.[i] In our context, two important questions arise out of this apparent incoherence of the term: what are the implications for Nonviolent Communication? And, what does this mean about nonviolence as a political strategy for social change?

Let’s start with the latter. After the last statement of the (Dis-)Agreement Spectrum – “linking up arms in front of a police line is violent” – I read a statement from a UC police captain as quoted in The San Francisco Chronicle justifying the use of force against students at the University of California at Berkeley:

The individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence… linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.

We then try to come up with a collective definition of violence. A participant suggests that one way to understand violence is in terms of the threat perceived by other people. In this light, if police perceives a line of protesters as a threat, then they could define the protesters’ actions as violent. Building on top of that, I suggest that violence is a floating signifier which shows the emotional disposition of the person using the term with respect to acts which they do not like. I express a concern that in the broader political discourse, the term often narrows down to a hegemonic framework in ways which de-legitimize any action which challenges the powers that be. The state can define anything which challenges its power as violent, whether it involves protesters linking arms or consumers calling for boycott, as exemplified by the UC police captain or by the way Israeli officials categorize the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as “economic terrorism.”

It follows that nonviolence as a political praxis – or pseudopraxis, in Ward Churchill’s words – is easily co-optable, and intentionally used by states in order to contain and control social movements. This process is documented in great detail in the book How Nonviolence Protects the State by Peter Gelderloos. One way in which it manifests is with the nonviolent rewriting of history. The film A Force More Powerful, which was screened at our NVC training, is a good example. The first part presents the three historical processes most often claimed as examples of the power of nonviolence – the decolonization of India, the Civil Rights movement in the US, and resistance to Apartheid South Africa – as purely nonviolent movements. There is a pattern of deceit in this narrative. All of those movements had armed factions, and all of them had widespread organized rioting (or “ungovernability,” as the ANC called it). No success can be attributed solely to nonviolent efforts.[ii] In fact, different methods informed each other in a diversity of tactics. It is no coincidence that the film was funded by the United States Institute of Peace, an Orwellian-named Reagan-era institution with close ties to American intelligence services and whose administrators championed counterintelligence and outright genocidal programs in Central America, Iran, and elsewhere.[iii]

Upon reviewing the literature challenging the hegemonic role of nonviolence, another pattern emerges with the way the discourse for and against nonviolence flows up and down the social hierarchy. While corporate media, big labor unions, NGO’s, and celebrated authors ignore and whitewash at best and at worst vilify and demonize people who choose to engage in more combative tactics, the latter can respond only from the margins of empirical discourse,[iv] or with anonymously written self-published pamphlets,[v] or with graffiti on city walls. The debate normally stalls after the unheard response, and the proponents of nonviolence repeat the same old dead-horse arguments, misquoting Audre Lorde on the “Master’s Tools” over and over again and so on, as if no one has ever pointed out their mistakes, ad nauseum. To use a term from NVC – these proponents of nonviolence don’t “reflect back” when confronted with critique. From their position on the hierarchy, they can meet their needs quite well without engaging in conversation, empathic or otherwise.

Many activists have had the experience of knocking on the doors of the people in power, begging them to acknowledge grievances and change their ways. When the powers that be smile and turn the activists down, many still return with even lengthier petitions and more colorful banners. The problem with this form of communication, however, is that it is not communication, at least in the NVC sense of the term. In this format, empathy really goes only one way up the hierarchy.

Thankfully for us NVC enthusiasts, Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, articulated a way out of the stalemate. In his classical book A Language of Life, he briefly describes the idea of “the protective use of force”:

In situations where there is no opportunity for communication, such as in instances of imminent danger, we may need to resort to the protective use of force. The intention behind the protective use of force is to prevent injury or injustice, never to punish or to cause individuals to suffer, repent, or change. (2003: 169)

His main point is about differentiating between protective and punitive use of force towards the abolition of the latter. The concept of protective force is left perhaps intentionally vague. There is no clear articulation of injustice, nor is there a generalization for the protective use of force in the larger political context.[vi] The concept is open for interpretation, and may have place for the use of force or self-defense the way it is understood by popular and resistance movements the world over. As I insinuated elsewhere, is it not the protective use of force to pelt an occupying army with stones and Molotov cocktails? And isn’t the lack of decisive action in the face of genocidal injustice inherently violent in and of itself?

It is nigh time to introduce the concept of structural violence, defined by Johan Galtung in terms of universal human needs, as a form of violence in which some social institution or structure harms people by preventing them from meeting their “fundamental human needs” (1993). Or, as David Graeber claims, structural violence is “systematic inequality ultimately backed up by the threat of force” (2009). In Palestine/Israel examples abound. Structural violence allows for Jewish citizens to speed past checkpoints while Palestinians squander hours and days. In less dramatically visible manifestations, it governs and enforces implicit gender roles, like the Hebrew news on TV given in the male form and the kitchenware commercials in female. Structural violence is the invisible billy club which keeps the penniless out of the supermarket when they hunger for food. It is the lack of Arabic characters on police cars, silently showing for whom lies their allegiance.

Which leads us to answer the first question I raised earlier – there is little chance of nonviolent communication in situations which are structurally violent. Some basic human needs remain invisible to the party higher up on the hierarchy. An effort to hold that kind of dialogue without observing, acknowledging and attempting to meet those needs simply normalizes the structurally violent power dynamics. Calls for reconciliation without an end to injustice evoke the image of one person beating up others to a pulp, while demanding them to accept his feelings and needs. That is, indeed, the essence of “normalization,” an accusation facing EcoME and many other coexistence projects in Palestine/Israel.

However, after the NVC intensive at EcoME, I am hopeful that NVC has the potential of transcending these structural boundaries. As a participant in one workshop early in the program, I raised a concern that introducing NVC to the region may be a pacifying force in a situation which really warrants a decisive resistance movement. I pointed out that radical proponents of Palestinian dissent aren’t heard in the space, because they don’t attend in the first place out of objection to normalization (of course, some of them are also physically excluded from this geographic location). This triggered a long and tearful conversation. One Israeli woman expressed deep feelings of hurt, frustration and anxiety, and a need for acceptance of her differing views and background in Israeli settlements. When members of the group applied “emergency first aid empathy” – meaning they attempted to hear her observations, understand her feelings, and help meet her needs – I noticed the conversation oscillated away from the concerns I raised. Radical voices of Palestinian dissent were not introduced to the conversation, as it was consumed by the facilitation of the occupiers’ experience. In my mind I saw that image I mentioned of the crying man expressing regret and asking for reconciliation while repeatedly striking blows at another person prostrated at his feet. Although I left that conversation spent and frustrated, having given empathy without fully expressing my observations and anger, I noticed that the person went through a very deep process over the course of the retreat, really listening to grievances expressed by Palestinian participants, and really transgressing their enemy images. The question of whether she will actively participate in a decisive movement against Israeli apartheid (or in other words – whether this transgression will develop into the protective use of force when communication is impossible) is yet to be answered.

In conclusion I would like to offer two new premises: 1) that NVC can and should integrate a more refined understanding of violence, and an analysis of systemic inequality; and 2) that NVC should not be conflated with nonviolence as a political praxis. This framework can help NVC practitioners to avoid the implicit re-enforcement of structural violence, and give space for change-seeking activists to use NVC as a process of compassionate communication, without the sense that they’re being asked to give up their uncompromising fight for a livable planet. After this two-week NVC session in Palestine, I believe that NVC can be divorced from its curious wedding with state-sponsored nonviolence, and be a useful tool for activists in terms of prefiguring a harmonious society, solving inner-conflicts, and assisting group processes, among the rest. The ways in which a fundamental-needs-based worldview can inform social movements and political strategising is a topic for future analysis.


[i]    One can imagine that if different family members have different notions of violence, then the polarization will be much more extreme across different cultures. In our falafel context, as acutely noted by the anonymous interlocutor of this CrimethInc interview, most Palestinians see “nonviolent” simply as “unarmed,” or “popular.” Popular struggle with use of stones and Molotov cocktails is widely accepted as a legitimate form of protest. A similar observation is made by anthropologist David Graeber with respect to Egyptian revolutionaries during the Arab Spring.

[ii]   Gelderloos mentions how those movements were not nonviolent, nor were they really successful. With a deeply entrenched neocolonial system of inequality in India, an unfathomably elaborate prison industrial complex replete with a racist police force in America, and a status-quot in which a white minority controls the flow of resources and most of the land in South Africa, one can’t help but wonder whose interests are served by the nonviolent historical narrative.

[iii]  http://web.archive.org/web/20070807022129/http://zmagsite.zmag.org/JulAug2007/diamond_print.html Accessed: April 2, 2016

[iv]  See, for example, Peter Gelderloos, an ex-political prisoner and college dropout writing from the squats of Barcelona, in his latest The Failure of Nonviolence, published by the esoteric Left Bank Books, carefully dissecting Chenoweth and Stephan and other establishment proponents of nonviolence who were published and endorsed by high academia,.

[v]   One such noteworthy pamphlet was written in an attempt to explain the window smashing at the anti-WTO protests in Seattle at 1999, an event which triggered a media fiasco around the smashing of windows, regardless of the harm to individuals: “When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights … The number of broken windows pales in comparison to the number of spells—spells cast by a corporate hegemony to lull us into forgetfulness of all the violence committed in the name of private property rights and of all the potential of a society without them. Broken windows can be boarded and eventually replaced, but the shattering of assumptions will hopefully persist for some time to come.”

[vi]  Although he directs us to an out-of-print book about the topic: Irwin, Robert. Nonviolent Social Defense. Harper & Row, 1962.

Amitai Ben-Abba, Producer/Writer of the award-winning documentary Objector, is a writer and filmmaker based in Oakland, CA.