Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Must we change our hearts before throwing off our chains?


Must we change our hearts before throwing off our chains?

by Cynthia Boaz
July 9, 2012

Protesters praying in Tahrir Square on May 27, 2011. By Maggie Osama, via Flickr.

One of the consequences of the Occupy movement’s emergence onto the scene over the last nine months is the escalating disagreement about the role of various strands of nonviolence and nonviolent action in the struggle. In the process, misconceptions about nonviolent strategy are being unfortunately perpetuated by earnest adherents of principled nonviolence and require correction. The phenomenon of nonviolent action is already misunderstood in most media. To see it further distorted by our own colleagues is disheartening.

In an article called “How to Sustain a Revolution” that appeared on Truthout several months ago, Stephanie Van Hook made an eloquent case for personal transformation in the context of nonviolent struggle. The essence of her argument was that acting nonviolently is not enough to sustain a people-powered revolution, and that a person must have nonviolent intentions and the willingness and ability to engage in an internal discipline of personal nonviolence if the struggle is to be truly won. On this point, I don’t have any serious disagreement. While I am not sure I would make the same case that nonviolent success requires this level of individual transformation prior to the waging of the struggle, Van Hook’s argument is similar enough to the case I would make — that nonviolent success requires genuine appreciation of one’s own (and thus our collective) power. I am someone who does not align solely with one camp of nonviolence or nonviolent action, and am someone who believes that both principle and strategy are magnified when they are married. I think our differences here are mostly rhetorical rather than conceptual.

However, in describing what she sees as a key challenge to nonviolent success in the ongoing people power struggles around the world, Van Hook writes:

Those who profess a commitment to what is called strategic nonviolence know how to start a revolution, that is, in the same way that one would have to fight if one is the weaker party: you do what you your opponent is trying to prevent you from doing, you cast all or most of the blame on them, and you draw upon the sympathies of the masses — the “reference public” — to express your power. In this approach it’s acceptable to use threat, humiliation, and coercion to get what you want, and you often accept short-term and short-lived “success” as your goal. Nonviolence in this approach is simply refraining from physical violence while one’s inner frustrations and pains continue to grow, or are left wholly unresolved. After lighting the match of revolution, a person using nonviolence by this definition can walk away from the responsibility to carrying it forward for the long run. So a people left their guns at home this round? Where will it get them when they decide to take them back out because a limited vision of nonviolence did not bring about the deep changes needed?

Although I believe it was unintentional, Van Hook’s characterization of adherents of “strategic nonviolence” seems to be guilty of the same sort of stereotyping with which she takes issue. I know hundreds of scholars, activists and journalists who study and engage in this form of struggle, and have yet to meet one who has “professed a commitment to strategic nonviolence.” Such an assertion does not make sense because nonviolent strategy is not an article of faith or a belief system. More concerning, though, is the implication that those engaging in strategic nonviolent action are not just unprincipled, but also undisciplined and lacking in a basic sense of social or civic responsibility.

One part of the problem is in the mislabeling of the phenomenon. By calling it “strategic nonviolence” instead of “strategic nonviolent action” or “nonviolent strategy,” she implies that the phenomenon is fairly classified as a category of nonviolence, but this isn’t accurate. Nonviolence implies commitment to a philosophy that eschews violence in all forms and that adheres to some key principles. By calling it “strategic nonviolence,” which is juxtaposed conceptually against “principled nonviolence,” the field of study with which Van Hook identifies, the suggestion is that the commitment to nonviolence has been made for non-principled reasons. But according to Van Hook’s principled outlook, a person who engages in nonviolent action for reasons other than commitment to principle is suspect because they are not embracing or practicing “true” nonviolence. No wonder there is tension — the person practicing principled nonviolence sees the person practicing “strategic nonviolence” as a pretender.

The other problem with this terminology is that it implies that the phenomenon being discussed is actually attempting to be what is understood by adherents of principled nonviolence as nonviolence. Recall that nonviolence embodies an entire philosophy and set of principles regarding the ethics of eschewing violence. Nonviolent strategy — defined as organized, collective action in pursuit of a clear and achievable objective, carried out with nonviolent weapons — does not, on the other hand, require the practitioner to adopt a philosophy in order to utilize it. In fact, to me, this is a great appeal of nonviolent strategy: its inclusiveness. Anyone can practice it. There is no spiritual or philosophical litmus test. And since unity is a criterion for success in nonviolent struggle, inclusiveness is a very helpful means to achieving that end. And moreover, contrary to principled critics of “strategic nonviolence,” I would argue, the unwillingness to adopt a philosophy of principled nonviolence from the outset does not necessarily make the subsequent action an inferior form of nonviolence. I suppose this is where Van Hook and I really part ways. She wants nonviolent action to be engaged in with full intention and consciousness of the power of nonviolence, while I believe that the use of nonviolent tools produces an appreciation for the power of the phenomenon and probably does more to convert skeptics than any other mechanism. In other words, I believe that commitment to the principle can evolve from the action, which itself is a result of the strategy.

On the other hand, by demanding a commitment to a spiritual philosophy as a prerequisite for joining the struggle, there is a danger of being perceived as (or of actually being) exclusionary. Such a requirement suggests that in order for the practice of nonviolence to be effective, the activist must hold a set of spiritual beliefs about, say, the unity of all life or the imperative to turn the other cheek. But there have been many successful nonviolent struggles waged by people who either held religious or spiritual beliefs different than those commonly found amongst practitioners of principled nonviolence, or who held spiritual beliefs very different from others in the movement, so that there was no unity over fundamental belief systems. The unity came from the commitment to nonviolent action as the most effective set of means to address the injustice. Would these movements have been formed and the struggles been waged if there had been a spiritual litmus test in place before action was taken? I doubt it.

Nonviolent action, when done well, can achieve results. When people come to see its efficacy and power through its use, they may develop more appreciation for the principles called for in Van Hook’s treatise. But whether activists get to the principle prior to action or through it does not matter. One need not necessarily be fully converted to the philosophy of nonviolence before being willing to try a new means of waging struggle. Willingness to take such a risk is the essence of courage — the most important personal quality in the nonviolent activist.

My second major concern about Van Hook’s article can be summed up by a look at her closing paragraph, where she states, “It is time we moved away from cruelty and alienation, and refused to give it a place in our toolkits of revolution … [E]very small victory in becoming kinder is fuel for the fire for the long-term struggle for freedom. It is much harder than strategic nonviolence.”

Again, this is a cogent argument, and I absolutely endorse the notion that our evolution as a species depends on cultivating more empathy and compassion for others. But, in the process, Van Hook conflates emphasis on strategy with unharnessed anger. Earlier in the article, she references Occupy protesters who seem to be engaging in nothing but venting their anger publicly. I am not sure, why, however, she associates that phenomenon with “strategic nonviolence.” The assumption seems to be based on a caricature of nonviolent strategy.

In reality, it is quite rare that overt anger and an emphasis on strategy are seen together in the context of a struggle. As a strategist, I would strongly discourage activists from the kinds of behavior with which Van Hook takes issue. Such behavior alienates people, the death knell for a nascent movement. Additionally, it is hard to be constructive as an activist if your energy is focused only on obstruction. By starting with the questionable assumption that strategy and anger are interchangeable, it is not at all surprising that Van Hook comes to the conclusion that emphasis on strategy is not enough to sustain a revolution.

Ironically, I would use the same quote from Martin Luther King Jr. cited by Van Hook — “We harnessed our anger and released it under discipline for maximum effect” — but would interpret it a little differently. To me, King is arguing here for the strategic effectiveness of disciplining anger, even while recognizing anger as an inevitable consequence of injustice. He is not, in my view, arguing against anger as such. Gandhi himself was not above the occasional use of sarcasm — a form of speech often considered to be verbal aggression by adherents of principled nonviolence.

Once again, Van Hook essentially creates a straw man by opposing principle and strategy against one another, and then adds insult to injury by stating that the former is “harder” than the latter. The truth is that I’m not sure it always is harder. Deeply ingrained behaviors, standard operating procedures and habits can be incredibly hard to break, even after a person’s heart has been transformed. Every person who has felt the sting of their conscience after backsliding on a personal commitment understands this.

Even the most principled of history’s nonviolent advocates did not lead flawless movements filled with activists whose hearts were always in the right place, and none were able to transform all of the individuals around them. Which is not to say personal commitment to nonviolence should not be an objective or that Van Hook is wrong to argue for changing our hearts in the end. I’m just not so sure we must always start there.

Van Hook’s version of nonviolence is very personal in that it addresses transformation at the level of the individual human being, in a very existential sense. But the target for transformation in the people-power struggles around the world is, in most cases, the state or some other trans- or sub-national political entity. Such entities, for whom repression is status quo, will not likely be persuaded against using violence simply because they have been exposed to and saturated with the moral righteousness of principled nonviolence by earnest and loving activists. Such an approach assumes that violence is a force unto itself. But here, I throw in my lot with Hannah Arendt, who argued that violence is merely instrumental — a means to an end. And if violence is only a means (not a belief or an ideology or a force), then those who use it can be persuaded away from it when its use as a mechanism for social or political change is neutralized. When violence no longer has the ability to command fear or respect, it is no longer an effective tool. And bringing about this state of things is the ultimate objective of nonviolent strategy. Thus, ironically, I think Van Hook’s article actually represents a case for both more principle and more strategy, and — with a corrected understanding of strategic nonviolent action — makes the point that these two things are not distinct phenomena at all.

Finally, Van Hook’s article is constrained by its endorsement of an anarchist conceptualization of the state, in which the state is seen as intrinsically and necessarily violent. But what about the movements around the world that are fighting for democracy, civil rights and the rule of law? Most of today’s movements, in fact, seek not the elimination of the state but a healthy, well-functioning democracy that can correct the abusive use of violence by a repressive government. As these nonviolent people-power struggles continue to emerge and unfold around the world, activists need pragmatic tools — as well as philosophical ones — for addressing injustices perpetuated by tyrants. Pretending that the state does not or should not exist does little to help the activists in Burma or Egypt or Zimbabwe who need ways to wage their struggles without being arrested or abused by the (very real) state for the nth time.

At a presentation last month to international activists and journalists during the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict, U.S. civil rights veteran and Korean War resister Reverend James Lawson told the group about how strategy and planning were the keys to success in the Nashville sit-in campaign, which he helped lead. “I’m all for redemption and transformation of people,” he said. “I’m all for the enemy taking a different vision of himself and of his world. But I insist that while that is an important element, it is not the critical element of nonviolence.”

The critical element of nonviolent power, argued Lawson, is that it puts “a new agenda on the table.” In other words, the exercise of nonviolent power is its own best advocate. As it succeeds, it reduces the perceived efficacy of violence and offers empowering alternatives to the status quo — both at the level of society and in the lives of individuals taking part.

Pick-ups: Nation of Change

Posted under Anarchism, Gandhi, History, Martin Luther King Jr., Philosophy, Religion, Theory


1. Daryn Cambridge says:

July 9, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Great post, Cynthia! My favorite line is, “I believe that commitment to the principle can evolve from the action, which itself is a result of the strategy.” Amen, sister!

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2. Nathan Schneider says:

July 9, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Readers might be interested in reading Stephanie Van Hook’s latest piece on WNV, in which she takes up a different critique of the strategic approach:

There is generally thought to be a split between approaches to nonviolence that have been (poorly) labeled as “principled” and “strategic.” The strategic side does not want to touch emotions or ideals because they want to show that nonviolence is forceful and threatening to those in power — essentially, masculine and strong. Advocates of the strategic approach make advocates of principled nonviolence out to be emotional, impractical, unrealistic, somewhat irrational and preoccupied with human well-being — effeminate and passive.

It is a gendered debate, and it has consequences that fall along gendered lines. The movement in Egypt took a “strategic” route in the Arab Spring, for example, but although it encouraged women’s participation for a strategic purpose, it did little to undermine patriarchy and militarism, and the “revolution” was immediately followed by abuses against women and by military rule.

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3. nonviolenceftw says:

July 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm

“Nonviolence implies commitment to a philosophy that eschews violence in all forms and that adheres to some key principles.”

Whoa! That is far too contentious to just baldly state–especially since so much of your argument rests on assuming it to be true.

When Gandhi, for example, spoke of nonviolence, he was talking about ahimsa–not a belief, but a virtue. (“It takes a fairly strenuous course of training to attain to a mental state of non-violence.”) For him, nonviolence no more requires a certain set of beliefs than does any other virtue–courage, or love, or generosity.

In English, we often use “nonviolence” to refer to what he would have called satyagraha, which, again, is not a philosophy. It is a practice. It requires certain commitments, yes, but that is no less true of strategic nonviolent action.

Even a brief look at Dr. King or Thich Nhat Hanh will reveal a similar take on nonviolence, not as a dogma, but as an internal state or a practice. (Hanh: “Nonviolence is not a dogma; it is a process.” King: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him.” Note–King does not mention needing to believe anything about your opponent, only a certain kind of behavior toward your opponent.)

It makes no sense to talk about nonviolence having a philosophical litmus test. If anything was notable about Gandhi’s efforts for Indian independence, it was the extraordinary diversity of beliefs among the members of his ashrams and the participants in his campaigns.

Nonviolence requires commitments that strategic nonviolent action does not. But the commitments strategic nonviolent action requires are very real. It is less demanding. That does not make it all-inclusive.

In both instances, whether or not you can participate is not about holding a certain set of beliefs about the universe (beyond “this is worth doing”). It’s about whether you’re ready to take up the practice.

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o Nathan Schneider says:

July 9, 2012 at 4:59 pm

What, for example, do you think are the differences between the demands required by strategic and principled nonviolent action? For instance, it is often suggested that managing anger is one such difference which would make strategic nonviolent action “easier” because it would be less demanding in that respect. But Boaz suggests that, in fact, a strategic approach might very well call participants to significant anger management:

As a strategist, I would strongly discourage activists from the kinds of behavior with which Van Hook takes issue. Such behavior alienates people, the death knell for a nascent movement. Additionally, it is hard to be constructive as an activist if your energy is focused only on obstruction. By starting with the questionable assumption that strategy and anger are interchangeable, it is not at all surprising that Van Hook comes to the conclusion that emphasis on strategy is not enough to sustain a revolution.

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 Stephanie says:

July 9, 2012 at 9:44 pm

What we see is that principled nonviolence asks of the person to cultivate nonviolence in thought, word and deed. It’s hard to do that, but it’s possible. It’s easier, in a way, to hold back from kicking someone when I want to, it’s not as easy not to utter a word that would harm them, or even want to think something negative about who that person “really” is. That is where principled nonviolence goes, strategic nonviolent action (or what I call strategic nonviolence) never points to nonviolence in thought, for instance. At least I have never seen it.

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 Jack DuVall says:

July 10, 2012 at 12:13 am

When continuous nonviolent action, taken even for instrumental reasons, is seen repetitively by the actor to be more effective than violent action in curbing an evil — such as racism embodied in laws, or exploitation by a military occupier — you can be sure that it will inhibit the reversion to violence as a default response. For the individual, the location for such a change is always in thought. Some people learn deductively from propositions that seem attractive to them. Others learn inductively from experience. The latter shouldn’t be regarded as inferior to the former.

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 Stephanie says:

July 10, 2012 at 12:31 am

This is very interesting, Jack. Can you point me to literature where this is discussed in further depth?

 nonviolenceftw says:

July 10, 2012 at 2:01 am

I think one important commitment distinguishing nonviolence from strategic nonviolent action is the commitment not to harm one’s opponent.

Gene Sharp is very clear in Waging Nonviolent Struggle: any action in which blows are not struck is an example of nonviolent struggle. He explicitly includes struggles where the intent was to suppress or drive out an ethnic group. One of those instances led not to a widespread understanding of the power of nonviolence, but to genocide.

Other examples of strategic nonviolent struggle include lots of what Bondurant called duragraha (as opposed to satyagraha): using any means short of beatings to hurt an opponent into doing our bidding. Think of your average strike: impose economic costs on the management until they give you what you’re demanding. That definitely requires courage and discipline. It doesn’t call for nonviolence.

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4. Jack DuVall says:

July 9, 2012 at 5:16 pm

The statement by Stephanie Van Hook, quoted above by Nathan Schneider, that “the strategic side [of "nonviolence"] does not want to touch emotions or ideals” is untrue as a matter of history. The conscious use of nonviolent action in a strategic manner, as I have examined it in many movements and campaigns, could not have been successful without broad popular mobilization, summoned typically by reference to the ideals as well as the interests of diverse people, who not only think about how to engage in nonviolent action so that it is effective but also feel that they must do so in an existential sense. Passion and principle thus join astute planning and discipline in the use of civil resistance to yield what we call “people power.”

Here’s one of a number of relevant examples. Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity in the occupation strikes that shut down Polish ports and forced the authoritarian regime in that country to legalize free trade unions in 1980, was a cold-eyed strategist who realized that pushing for maximum demands would have triggered repression and instead kept asking only for what he believed the regime might yield. It did, and Solidarity was legalized. But when repression came anyway 16 months later, and Lech Walesa was dragged away by the police, he screamed at them, “At this moment, you lost. We are arrested but you have driven a nail into your communist coffin…You’ll come back to us on your knees!”

That was not just a cry from the heart. He knew that repression can backfire on the state, and eight years later, the regime that had thrown him in jail came back to him and asked him to help negotiate a new political opening in Poland that led to its first free and fair elections and his own ascent to the presidency. How did he know that one day he would succeed? He understood that the only possible source of the state’s legitimacy and thus its ability to function was the consent of the people, the last vestiges of which the state had destroyed by imposing martial law. He couldn’t have understood that if he hadn’t grasped the strategic dynamic of the conflict in which he was engaged. But basing his action on that understanding didn’t at all indicate that he wasn’t capable of showing and summoning belief in the justice of his cause and the conviction that it would prevail, which can help give a movement resilience in the face of serious setbacks.

The evidence of history is incontrovertible: The great sundering of oppression that the strategic use of nonviolent action has engineered time and time again is accomplished in great part because movements that are strategically directed are able to harness the participation of millions, not only because leaders and participants are capable of exhibiting principle but also because they are capable of acquiring the skills necessary to wage a nonviolent conflict and practice the shrewd decision-making that victory requires.

Waging Nonviolence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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