In the marketplace of ideas, does love still trump violence?
By Kristy Jansen
“We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”
Anti-colonialism activist Frantz Fanon was fighting racism and black oppression in Algeria and Martinique when he wrote these words, yet their relevance to contemporary America is potent as thousands gather to repeat the last words of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by police in Minneapolis last month: “I can’t breathe.”
At least 430 cities across the United States and around the world have held protests this week calling for police reform and racial justice. Spurred by the murder of George Floyd and countless other innocent black Americans, mainstream media was quick to pounce on images of violence and destruction from these demonstrations.
What was not widely covered were the hundreds of protests that took place peacefully. On some occasions, police even joined protestors. Yes, some of the protests turned violent, resulting in damaged property in cities like New York and Minneapolis, but for the most part, the protests consisted of communities gathering together in the streets to demand accountability and action on the part of institutions and individuals that perpetrate black oppression in this country both in explicit acts of racism and in the subconscious expression of biases learned from racism ingrained in the systems around us.
Former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush both released statements reinforcing the value and right to peaceful protest in the United States thisweek. As the protests continue to raise awareness and support for racial justice, we at The Optimist
Daily take the opportunity to reflect back on some of the fundamental thinkers who influenced modern protest movements such as Mahatma Gandhi, who theorized some of the key principles of nonviolent action which influenced Martin Luther King and other famous nonviolent leaders.
If you are participating in the protests, or supporting them with donations, calls to representatives, or other conscious calls to action, we hope you are inspired by the words from these thinkers and use them to fuel your passion for civic action.
According to Gandhi who first invoked the power of nonviolence in social transformation, truth and nonviolence were intricately linked. His satyagraha movement was predicated on the notion that truth, or the truth-force, is what animates the world, and for Gandhi, as truth implied love, to act out violence is to act against the true nature of reality. In other words, “Truth is the end, and Ahimsa (nonviolence) is the means thereto” (From Yeravda Mandir, p. 7).
Gandhi’s definition of nonviolence went far deeper than the negative constructions of non-injury or non-killing and became rather a positive assertion of giving love in thought and in action to one’s fellow beings, including one’s adversaries. As a seminary student, King connected this to the Christian doctrine of loving your enemies and praying for their salvation. In fact, for King, Gandhi’s notion that one could harness the power of love and righteousness and change society without resorting to violence became the guiding light in his own approach to civil injustice. “I came to see,” King wrote, “that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
Both Gandhi and King understood that this was hard work, and took time, training and intention. Gandhi started employing his satyagraha techniques successfully towards the Indian Independence movement in 1930, but nearly 2 decades passed before the British handed over the keys to the Indian state, for better or worse. The Montgomery Bus boycott may have kick-started America’s 20th-century civil rights movement, but we are still working to fully realize King’s dream. Gandhi and King both faced many questions about the effectiveness of their nonviolent strategies from many of their compatriots, and both were killed with violence for their beliefs, martyred.
Yet, we celebrate both King and Gandhi, and their truth-force continues to inspire us today. Perhaps more than ever.
Being a nonviolent activist: The Six Principles
As developed by Dr. King in Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, his practice of nonviolence had six key principles.
- One can resist evil without resorting to violence, but this is a practice that takes courage and fortitude.
- Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding, not to humiliate one’s opponents. The goal of nonviolence is not revenge or retribution, but rather redemption and reconciliation.
- Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people. The perpetrators of oppression are also victims of the oppressive system and are not evil themselves.
- Those committed to nonviolence must be willing to suffer without retribution, and such suffering can be transformative. Unearned suffering is in itself redemptive and has tremendous educational and transformative possibilities.
- Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as the body. The nonviolent actor seeks to give love in the sense of the Greek “agape”, that is in itself redemptive, without expectation of anything in return.
- Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resistor must have a “deep faith in the future,” stemming from this conviction.
So, it’s a hard road, requires discipline and persistence, emotional maturity, long-term thinking, and a basic belief that the world is not out to get you, that people, in general, are basically decent, and where a better future is possible. All of this resonates with my basic orientation – clearly, I am an optimist – but also, it turns out that despite the awfulness that we hear about much of the time, the things in the world that enrage us, that make us want to fight back with our fists and a rifle, on balance, peaceful civil resistance has been the lever that works more often to effect long-term lasting societal change.
Nonviolence trumps Violence
For some, the idea that not fighting back is the best way to fight is counter-intuitive. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s groundbreaking book, “Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of nonviolent conflict” (2011) grew out of an argument the two researchers had about political tactics, and what was more effective: taking up arms to overthrow a regime or peaceful civil resistance. Chenoweth, a researcher of political conflicts including the French and Russian revolutions, argued for the more violent side of things. Stephan thought otherwise. To find out who was right, the two gathered up all the data available on 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns that had occurred between 1900 and 2006 – literally every political action that had resulted in the overthrow of a government or in territorial liberation. They analyzed the data systematically, looking at more than 160 data points, and found, much to Chenoweth’s surprise, nonviolent actions were more than twice as likely to produce lasting change.
Chenoweth, now a professor of public policy at Harvard University, has become one of the most sought after experts in the field of why civil resistance works, and how it can be strategically employed in the most effective way. And it is effective. From marching on the Capitol to general strikes, even mass civil action that does not immediately result in change has an impact. To quote her from a recent interview in the Harvard Gazette, “Countries in which there were nonviolent campaigns were about 10 times likelier to transition to democracies within a five-year period compared to countries in which there were violent campaigns — whether the campaigns succeeded or failed.”
The reasons behind the relative success of nonviolent mass protest that Chenoweth explains boil down to four main points: first, as there is a lower barrier to entry for the population to engage in civil protest as opposed to picking up a weapon, nonviolent civil resistance tends to draw larger and more diverse participants. Second, nonviolent campaigns work when they elicit sympathy in the elite and security forces of the regime in power. It is the very vulnerability of the people protesting that makes them sympathetic to those in power over them. Third, a variety of tactics must be employed, not just protesting in the street. Boycotts and strikes, which have an economic impact, direct actions like the lunch counter sit-ins or Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, which call out the injustice and create media attention. Lastly, successful nonviolent resistance must keep to the plan in the face of inevitable repression from the powerful. As Chenoweth explains, “If campaigns allow their repression to throw the movement into total disarray or they use it as a pretext to militarize their campaign, then they’re essentially co-signing what the regime wants — for the resisters to play on its own playing field.”
Chenoweth has continued to study the tactics of resistance, and in the last decade, while large state actors have been better at counteracting all sorts of agitation for change, the relative efficacy has widened so that nonviolent resistance is now three times as likely to succeed compared to violent campaigns. But the resistance needs to be strategic, well-coordinated, and smart. I am looking forward to her next book, Civil Resistance: What everyone needs to know, expected in summer 2020, that includes insights from the last decade, and how civil resistance is shaping our world even today – with actions like the Women’s March, the Sunrise Movement, and Extinction Rebellion.
Another argument for love over arms
In preparing for this article, I called up my friend Joe White to talk about Gandhi, King, and nonviolent resistance. Joe is the Founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit 2020: A Year Without War, and also once many years ago, was my college philosophy professor. I thought he’d be an interesting person to explore the philosophy with, as his outlook on pausing war is uncolored by shades of love.
Joe is unmoved by the notion that the universe is anything but impartial, has little faith in any consciousness bigger than collective human minds, prefers hard facts and the tangible tasks to lofty idealism or anything that proscribes an absolute moral code on humanity. He pointed out that the way Gandhian ideals or King’s Christian values are touted, they often seem nothing more than platitudes. What does “love your neighbor” mean after all? He also made the valid point that a successful nonviolent resistance campaign requires at least the potential that a sense of shared humanity will take root in the minds of the aggressor. To Joe’s thinking, Gandhi and King were lucky to be dealing with the British and the Americans, both cultures that celebrated equality and justness. If Germany had been the imperial power in India, Joe argued, a nonviolent approach would never have worked. Sometimes perhaps, violence is necessary to stop the badness from continuing.
I found myself in the awkward position of arguing for the strategic logic of nonviolent action in the face of injustice with an anti-war activist who was saying violence might be necessary to create lasting change. Nevertheless, I persisted, and we had a lively and productive conversation.
After spending a fun hour debating our various positions on the relative merits of truth, love, and nonviolence versus the need for violent action, I asked Joe if he’d read Chenoweth’s research. He admitted that he was not aware of it. After I pointed out several of the book’s conclusions, Joe mentioned that perhaps the first nonviolent civil resistor in Western Civilization was Socrates. He refused to bend his principles, took his punishment, and launched 2500 years of moral philosophical thought.
Transformation: Inner to Outer
Perhaps Hafiz, the fourteenth-century Sufi Muslim poet has something to add to this Hindu/ Christian/ secular mash-up I’ve written. One of my favorites from his pen goes like this:
The small man builds cages
For everyone he knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the beautiful, rowdy prisoners.
Both Gandhi and King sought to uplevel the inner world of the nonviolent activist, but with the larger goal of complete societal transformation. Gandhi argued that if we seek to live in a world that is just, peaceful and cohesive, we must start with inner worlds that emphasize the “nonviolence” latent within each of us. Whether this is a saintly or heroic requirement that is a stretch too far for most of us or not, I still believe there’s hope. For Gandhi, the point of the collective use of nonviolence was the creation of a culture organized around its principles. That’s King’s sixth principle: faith in the future and a universe that bends towards justice.
And so beautiful, rowdy prisoners, the keys have been dropped. Let’s pick them up and start opening doors.
Kristy Jansen is Chief Content Officer at the Optimist Daily, produces a weekly radio show, Solutions News and serves as Chief of Staff at TOD’s publishing partner, the World Business Academy. Her passions include conscious mass media, socially responsible entrepreneurialism, intentional communities, nonviolent civil resistance, regenerative economies, smart science fiction and, of course, the positive power of rational optimism.