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The Uses of Nonviolence

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The Nonviolence Handbook
(image by Berret-Koehler Publishers)

excerpted from chapter one of Michael N. Nagler's book, The Nonviolence Handbook-- A Guide for Practical Action The Uses of Nonviolence

We have all used nonviolent energy countless times in countless interactions, without naming it as such. We catch ourselves on the point of making a sharp criticism of someone and think, "Well, I guess I've done that too, sometimes," and say something kind instead. We swallow our impatience when the guy in front of us in line takes too much time. A friend of mine, to escalate our examples, shook hands with a would-be carjacker, asked the startled young man if he needed some money, and sent him on his way.

Nonviolence, as a fundamental energy, is quietly operating at all times, like gravity. We tend to use the term nonviolence only when some kind of conflict erupts, especially between a people and their government, but the thing itself is working unnoticed in many other areas and can be used in any situation, from national revolutions to personal interactions. Therefore, although my examples in this book mainly focus on people who find themselves in an insurrectionary movement, all of us can benefit from understanding the dynamics of this force. Anyone who is confronted by one of the many forms of violence in our world (whether this is outright force or an inequity built into a system) and feels called upon to assert his or her human dignity against that violence can benefit from taking a nonviolent stance toward all living things. My hope is that this book, in conjunction with the various resources listed in the back, can help activists understand the main principles underlying the dynamics of nonviolent action, but with a little imagination anyone can use these principles in their daily life. They can become our way of life.

Such a turn toward nonviolence first requires that we outgrow our present image of ourselves as separate, physical, and competitive. Imagine if we were to seek out a third way in international relations, in deplorable situations such as Rwanda or Syria, for instance, when the international community thinks its only options are to bomb someone (fight) or to do nothing (flight). A whole array of very different options would open up if enlightened state actors understood what nonviolence really is: international law, good offices and diplomacy, reconciliation commissions, and so forth. Nonstate or civil society actors could do even more--such as third-party nonviolent interventions--and they are beginning to realize this.

There is no quick and easy way to become nonviolent. It calls for constant effort and becomes a lifelong challenge. Learning about it is very helpful, but this is only a beginning. Learning along with practice is much more effective.

Fortunately, nonviolence offers many ways to create permanent, long-term positive changes that would enable us to rebuild social institutions on a more humane and sustainable basis. Not all of those approaches need to be confrontational, as we will see. Each of us, whatever our station in life or relation to activism, can carry out this grand "experiment with truth," to paraphrase Gandhi, according to our own capacities and the situations we confront.

Because the principle or energy of nonviolence can be applied in different ways by different practitioners and in so many different situations, I have concentrated here on the principle or energy itself, without trying to spell out very often just how it can best be applied. With a good infrastructure and a little imagination we can adapt the principle to any given situation, and of course work out best practices of our own, when the basic principles are assimilated.8

Satyagraha: A New Term for an Eternal Principle

Reading "history" might give you the impression that life unfolds in an endless series of competitions, conflicts, and wars. But as far back as 1909, Gandhi pointed out that history as we have practiced it is "a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or the soul." Soul-force, being natural, is not noted in history."9 Note that Gandhi does not use the word nonviolence here, which had not yet become current (as a translation of ahimsa), and he had rejected the misleading term "passive resistance." Around this period he had to invent another term, satyagraha (pronounced sat-YAH-gra-ha), which literally means "clinging to truth." Satyagraha is sometimes used to mean nonviolence in general, as in this quote, but sometimes it means nonviolence in the form of active, resistant struggle.

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By coining the term satyagraha, based on the Sanskrit word sat, which means "truth" or "reality" (as well as "the good"), Gandhi made it quite clear that he saw nonviolence as the positive reality of which violence is the shadow or negation. Consequently, nonviolence was bound to prevail in the long run: "The world rests upon the bedrock of satya or truth. Asatya, meaning untruth, also means nonexistent, and satya or truth also means that which is. If untruth does not so much as exist, its victory is out of the question. And truth being that which is, can never be destroyed. This is the doctrine of satyagraha in a nutshell."10

Though satyagraha literally means "clinging to truth," it is often translated, not inappropriately, as "soul force." We all have that force within us, and under the right circumstances it can come forth from anyone, with amazing results. This can best be seen in what's called a nonviolent moment, when the "unstoppable force" of one party's nonviolence confronts the apparently immoveable commitment to violence of another. This moment will always lead to success, sometimes evidently and immediately, sometimes further down the road.

For instance, in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, black marchers, inspired by the intention to "win our freedom, and as we do it " set our white brothers free," in the words of one of their leaders, found themselves unexpectedly blocked by a line of police and firemen with dogs and hoses. The marchers knelt to pray. After a while they became "spiritually intoxicated," as David Dellinger recounts. They got up off their knees as though someone had given a signal and steadily marched toward the police and firemen. Once they got within earshot, some of them said, "We're not turning back. We haven't done anything wrong. All we want is our freedom. How do you feel doing these things?"11 Even though the police commissioner, a notorious segregationist, repeatedly shouted, "Turn on the hoses!" the firemen found their hands frozen. The marchers walked steadily on, passing right through the lines of the police and firemen. Some of these men were seen to be crying.

Gandhi, who had seen this working time and again, gave a beautiful explanation of how this transformation takes place: "What satyagraha does in these cases is not to suppress reason but to free it from inertia and to establish its sovereignty over prejudice, hatred, and other baser passions. In other words, if one may paradoxically put it, it does not enslave, it compels reason to be free." What he calls "reason" here is better described as the innate awareness that we are all connected and that nonviolence is "the law of our species." As we've noted, this is an awareness latent in everyone, a natural human state, however temporarily obscured it may be by the fog of hatred. In principle, we should be able to awaken this awareness in virtually anyone, given enough time and know-how. Once awake, such awareness automatically takes precedence over the "baser passions."

That human beings have the potential to be nonviolent--and to respond to nonviolence when it's offered--implies a much higher image of the human being than we are presented with in the mass media and throughout our present culture, but because of that very culture, we can't expect our nonviolent potential to manifest by itself. To bring it to fruition we must first try to understand it better and get into the habit of using it creatively in our relationships, our institutions, and our culture. Then, to use it in situations of intense conflict such as Birmingham, there are two basic ingredients that make the nonviolent magic work:

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1. We approach our situation with right intention. We are not and do not need to be against the well-being of any person.

2. We employ right means. Wrong means such as violence can never, in the long run, bring about right ends.

The source of our empowerment and strength in satyagraha lies in our having right intention and using right means. If we operate from anger or envy or ignorance, then no matter how good the cause, we are not approaching it correctly. Note that the Birmingham marchers asked, "How do you feel doing this?" In other words, they credited the opponent with some moral awareness and thereby helped to awaken that awareness--for the opponent's own benefit.

Likewise, obviously, if we give in to violence, we are not employing right means. Let's look into each of these guidelines in turn.


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Michael N. Nagler is the founder and presidento of the Metta Center for Nonviolence. He cofounded the Peace and Conflict Sutdies Program at UC Berkeley, where is is professor emeritus of classics and comparative literature. 

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