Gandhi and King on the Mavi Marmara
by Dustin Howes | June 8, 2010, 1:22 pm
The recent attack on the Mavi Marmara has inspired discussions of the techniques of nonviolence in the mainstream media. Here at Waging Nonviolence, we have already lamented what appears to have been a lack of discipline on the part of the protesters. However, an interesting commentary by Lane Wallace in The Atlantic shows how misunderstandings about the basic principles of nonviolence play a role in skewing coverage of and opinion about the events.
Information is still murky, but what Wallace gets right in her piece is that Gandhi was insistent that one should always defend oneself with nonviolence, not physical force, if one is able. When the Israeli military raided the ship, they hoped to send the message that the blockade of
By breaking from strict nonviolent discipline, the activists played into this narrative, giving it a measure of plausibility and shifting the field of interpretation. Wallace says, expressing the sentiments of many:
[T]here is at best a naivete, and at worst a disingenuousness, in provoking a fight and then complaining noisily that a fight broke out. The activists decided to take on the Israeli military. It doesn’t matter whether the military should have resisted their passage to
Wallace is sympathetic to nonviolent activism and her piece is an indication of the extent to which the Free
However, Wallace makes a critical, faulty assumption in her analysis of nonviolence and one that is frequent among those who are casual observers of it. She writes that the problem with the flotilla was that it “went into the confrontation looking for conflict, to draw attention to their cause.” Citing Gandhi and King she says that “[q]uiet, uncomplaining courage is harder and less satisfying than provoking an opponent.” Unlike the Gaza protesters, when “Martin Luther King, John Lewis, the Freedom Riders and the rest of the non-violent protesters for civil rights set out, they knew what they were walking into. And if we admire their courage, it’s because they walked into a hailstorm without so much as a word of complaint.”
Both Dr. King and Gandhi were very keen to use nonviolence to inspire confrontation and they did so in conjunction with some of the most profound words of complaint the world has ever known. Even in particular instances of direct action, “complaining” was important (think of C.T. Vivian confronting Sheriff Jim Clark in
Nonviolent means usually have a more direct relationship to political outcomes than violent means. When militants fire rockets into
Wallace both underestimates how difficult it is to maintain nonviolent discipline in the face of highly trained uses of violence and misunderstands the purpose of nonviolent protests. But her impressions of nonviolence are not uncommon and something those of us who use nonviolent means should keep in mind going forward.
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