Nonviolent direct action is what persons as great as Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Cesar Chavez counsel as the main way to bring about social change. Indeed, protesting, collective action, organizing, struggle, and the like are key tools in the social justice arsenal. This blog is in commemoration of today’s stellar event that barnstormed Washington, D.C. — the March for Our Lives. I will share a few things, and include many quotes about nonviolent direct action, protesting, organizing, social change, and struggle.
Significant civil rights leaderI am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice.” He is not alone. Many wise and experienced leaders of social justice movements agree.
Philosopher Lou Marinoff writes: “Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance is known as satyagraha, or ‘a firm and unflinching adherence to truth.’ To what truth? That people who oppress others are morally wrong to do so, but need to learn (or be taught) that they are wrong.” That is one of the strengths of this method, and Gandhi and King knew it. They both needed to change the hearts and minds of onlookers, white American and English individuals, and those with greater power. It is how one thin Indian guy in a loincloth brought the huge country of India to a peaceful release from the tight grip of the uber-colonial British Empire.
Nonviolence doesn’t always work – but violence never does.
Civil rights hero emeritus Howard Zinn has this to say about nonviolent struggle: “History is full of instances of successful resistance (although we are not informed very much about this) without violence and against tyranny, by people using strikes, boycotts, propaganda, and a dozen different ingenious forms of struggle. Gene Sharp, in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, records hundreds of instances and dozens of methods of action.”
The Albert Einstein Institution informs us about “nonviolent action” on their laudable website:
Nonviolent action (also sometimes referred to as people power, political defiance, and nonviolent struggle) is a technique of action for applying power in a conflict by using symbolic protests, noncooperation, and defiance, but not physical violence. Nonviolent action may involve:
1. Acts of omission—that is, people may refuse to perform acts that they usually perform, are expected by custom to perform, or are required by law or regulation to perform;
2. Acts of commission—that is, people may perform acts that they do not usually perform, are not expected by custom to perform, or are forbidden to perform; or
3. A combination of the two.
As a technique, therefore, nonviolent action is not passive. It is not inaction. Nonviolent direct action is action that is nonviolent.
“The issue of the criminal justice system is deeper than simply the death penalty. There is unequal justice in this country, not only racial profiling, not only crack cocaine, but also in terms of kids getting mandatory sentences for first-time nonviolent drug use and being put away 20 years. That should not happen.”
“There are a multitude of specific methods of nonviolent action or ‘nonviolent weapons.’ Nearly two hundred have been identified to date, and without doubt, scores more already exist or will emerge in future conflicts. Three broad classes of nonviolent methods exist: 1. Nonviolent protest and persuasion, 2. Noncooperation, and 3. Nonviolent intervention,” according to the aforementioned site.
It is not just sitting there, taking abuse. It is active. “Pacifism is passive; but nonviolence is active. When Jesus Christ said that a victim should turn the other cheek, he was preaching pacifism. But when he said that an enemy should be won over through the power of love, he was preaching nonviolence”
In a word, the goal is to disobey social convention and even laws in order to encourage, facilitate, or force change. It’s as far as one can go without being violent. It’s not easy, and it’s not quick. But think of what Gandhi was able to accomplish with this tried-and-true method of social change. No less a civil rights pioneer than Martin Luther King, Jr. recorded: “I’m more convinced than ever before that nonviolence is the way. I’m more convinced than ever before that violence is impractical as well as immoral. If we are to build right here a better America, we have a method as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mohandas K. Gandhi. We need not hate; we need not use violence. We can stand up to our most violent opponent and say: We will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force.”
“Only two kinds of force—violent and nonviolent—are available, and both have failed. It’s left to us to determine which kind of failure has been worse and which kind of force we want to risk.”
How does change occur using nonviolent direct action? The Albert Einstein Institution indicates: “[it] operates by producing one or more of these four mechanisms of change:
1. Conversion—changes in attitude cause the opponents to voluntarily make concessions;
2. Accommodation—the opponents negotiate and compromise;
3. Nonviolent coercion—the opponents are weakened so much that they are forced to capitulate; and
4. Disintegration—the opponents are weakened to the point where their regime simply falls apart.
The war for total brotherhood must be a nonviolent war carried on by methods worthy of the ideals we seek to serve. The acts we perform must be the responsible acts of free men, not the irresponsible acts of conscripts under orders. We must fight against institutions but not against people.
This is a skill, and it is teachable. It isn’t something intuitive, or easy. Georgetown University professor and author Colman McCarthy made a name for himself for “teaching peace.” He says that “[i]t’s the shame of American schools that the young are not taught even the basics about pacifism and nonviolence. We raise our children in a culture saturated with violence and then wonder why individuals, groups, and nations keep opting for fists, guns, and bombs as the way to settle differences.”
What of the criticism that nonviolence is weak, and it is foolish to utilize those methods either as citizens, communities, or as nations? Let’s look to the late, great luminary Howard Zinn speak of war in particular: “Opposing the bombing of Afghanistan does not constitute ‘giving in to terrorism’ or ‘appeasement.’ It asks that other means be found than war to solve the problems that confront us. King and Gandhi both believed in action — nonviolent direct action, which is more powerful and certainly more morally defensible than war. To reject war is not to ‘turn the other cheek,’ as pacifism has been caricatured. It is, in the present instance, to act in ways that do not imitate the terrorists.” Zinn even felt it possible to have gone up against the Nazis using nonviolent direct action. It is that disruptive if everyone participates. He might have been a bit naive, but certainly within a country the best method by far is to peaceably protest and take other such actions. Violence only encourages retaliatory violence and imprisonment.
“Nonviolent direct action does not mean acceptance, but resistance — not waiting, but acting. It is not at all passive. It involves strikes, boycotts, noncooperation, mass demonstrations, and sabotage, as well as appeals to the conscience of the world, even to individuals in the oppressing group who might break away from their past.”
Social scientists — by infusing our culture with nonviolent ideals, challenging the social toxins that corrupt youth, and renewing the moral roots of character.”To be sure, we need police, prisons, and social workers, all of whom help us deal with the social pathologies that plague us. It’s fine to swat the mosquitoes, but better if we can drain the swamps
Nonviolence is a flop. The only bigger flop is violence.
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored,”
I’m sure the Albert Einstein Institution wouldn’t mind me sharing liberally from their awesome list of possible actions that can be categorized as nonviolent direct action. There are 198 on this page, and here are the bones of it:
METHODS OF NONVIOLENT PROTEST AND PERSUASION include:
Formal Statements (e.g., public speeches)
Communication with a Wider Audience (e.g., signs and commercials)
Group Representations (e.g., picketing)
Symbolic Public Acts (e.g., disrobing)
Pressure on Individuals (e.g., protesting outside one’s office)
Drama and music, processions, honoring the dead, public assemblies, and withdrawal and renunciation
Freedom is never given; it is won.
THE METHODS OF SOCIAL NONCOOPERATION include:
Ostracism of Persons (e.g., boycotting)
Noncooperation with Social Events, Customs, and Institutions (e.g., student strike)
Withdrawal from the Social System (e.g., “flight of workers”)
For all the rhetoric about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” it took a civil war to free the slaves and another hundred years to invest their freedom with meaning. Women came to the right to vote only in my mother’s time. New ages don’t arrive overnight, or without blood, sweat, and tears.
THE METHODS OF ECONOMIC NONCOOPERATION: ECONOMIC BOYCOTTS include:
Action by Consumers, Action by Workers and Producers, Action by Owners and Management, Action by Holders of Financial Resources, and Action by Governments.
I know of no anti-slavery treatise based on the universal principle of human rights before the 17th century, when the Quakers protested the importation of slaves from Africa.
THE METHODS OF ECONOMIC NONCOOPERATION: (THE STRIKE) include:
Symbolic Strikes, Agricultural Strikes, Strikes by Special Groups, Ordinary Industrial Strikes, Restricted Strikes, Multi-Industry Strikes, and Economic Shutdown.
I want to point out that people who seem to have no power, whether working people, people of color, or women – once they organize and protest and create movements – have a voice no government can suppress.
THE METHODS OF POLITICAL NONCOOPERATION include:
Rejection of Authority, Citizen Noncooperation with Government, Citizens’ Alternatives to Obedience, Action by Government Personnel, and Domestic and International Governmental Action.
Your Honor will not deny me this one and only poor privilege of protest against this high-handed outrage upon my citizens’ rights. May it please the Court to remember that since the day of my arrest last November this is the first time that either myself or any person of my disfranchised class has been allowed a word of defense before judge or jury.
THE METHODS OF NONVIOLENT INTERVENTION include:
Psychological Intervention (e.g., nonviolent harassment)
Physical Intervention (e.g., a sit-in)
Social Intervention (e.g., overloading of facilities)
Economic Intervention (e.g., selective patronage)
Political Intervention (e.g., civil disobedience of “neutral” laws)
Again, there are 198 examples listed on this informative page.
Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.
I will end with the probably-true story of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau was an early pioneer of nonviolent direct action, in that he refused to pay his income taxes as a protest against some war (probably The Phillippines). He went to jail. Emerson came to visit him and, probably arms akimbo, said “Henry, what is a man like you doing in here?!” Thoreau is said to have replied, “Ralph, what is a man like you doing out there?”
Additional quotes about protest, social justice, civil rights, and nonviolent direct action can be found by searching in The Wisdom Archive, perhaps the best searchable quotations database in the galaxy.
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