What people get wrong about Nonviolence.

Since I did one of these about diversity of tactics, it seemed only fair to draw up a list of things that tend to get left out when people are talking about nonviolence:

1. “Nonviolence” is a terrible translation. The original term is “satyagraha”, which literally means “truth force” or “soul force”. It’s a strategy built around forcing people to face the truth of their own actions. This happens to be much easier when you aren’t using violence, for a host of reasons that cognitive neuroscience is only now starting to understand, but not using violence isn’t the point, nor is it inherently sufficient. You need to have planned out exactly what you’re going to do and how it is going to force people to see your issue in a new way. Imagine chaining yourself to a steamroller and calling the guy driving it an asshole. It isn’t violent, but it also isn’t satyagraha. Now imagine chaining yourself to a steamroller and telling the guy driving it that he has a choice, that whatever his bosses have told him to do, he is still an independent human being who knows in his heart that what he has been told to do is wrong, that you know he is capable of being a better man than the world expects him to be, and that you will be holding him responsible to that potential. That is satyagraha. The difference isn’t about violence, and it isn’t even about being nice. It’s about using the truth as a weapon that kills ideas while leaving people better than they were before.

2. Time scales are important. Changing minds takes time. If 50 senators want to pass a bill next month, you’ve got a good shot at using satyagraha principles to stop them. If you’ve got 10 years, satyagraha is your best bet for making sure that no one ever wants to try to pass a bill like that again. But if five dudes on the street want to beat up your friend 30 seconds from now, stopping them with satyagraha principles is going to be extremely difficult. I’ve seen a lot of arguments between people who see themselves as defending long term social change goals and people who see themselves as defending short term self defense goals. But because each side is thinking only of their own time scale, both sides think the other is being stupid and naive. We need to be open to the idea that both goals are important and should be kept in mind whenever we’re discussing strategy and tactics.

3. You can’t ask someone else to be a martyr. I’ve been in a handful of situations over the years where people intended physical violence against me. In each of them, I managed to resolve the situation without using violence myself or suffering serious injury. But A) I recognize that I have been lucky, B) I’ve had a f*ck-ton of practice and skill-building opportunities that most people haven’t had, C) I came to terms with my own mortality a very long time ago (and actually for unrelated reasons), and D) I know that I’m exactly the sort of moderately attractive white lady whose death society would actually care about. In those moments where I’ve had to choose, I’ve been able to be willing to spend my life if I had to, but that ability is based in a very weird sort of privilege, and it’s not something that I would ever ask of someone else. And frankly, if you’ve never had to make that choice in the real world, you don’t get to have an opinion on what other people should do.

4. “I would have supported [cause] if it weren’t for those people doing [tactic]” is NOT a valid argument. Human rights are human rights, and it’s not ok to respond to someone demanding that they be treated as an equal by insisting that they ask nicely. Unfortunately, it’s true that a lot of people do think this way. When you’ve talked to a dozen white people who claim they would support BLM if they didn’t keep blocking highways, it can start to feel like all BLM needs to do is stop blocking highways and they’ll have the support of all of your nice white friends. But A) your nice white friends are almost certainly lying to themselves and have a lot of growing to do and B) you are going to be far more effective helping them achieve that personal growth than you are scolding BLM. The role of radicals is to stir things up, move the Overton Window, and get people talking. The role of moderates is to help make sure that the ensuing conversation goes the right way and turns into tangible change. It’s true that if you’re white, middle class, and move in a largely apolitical social circle, the rhetoric used by the average 20-year-old Ethnic Studies major probably won’t be persuasive to most of your friends. That doesn’t mean you should get the Ethnic Studies major to change their rhetoric. It means that persuading your friends is your job.

5. Satyagraha is not about remaining morally superior to your opponents. They are trying to perpetuate injustice. You are trying to oppose injustice. I’m not going to say it’s impossible for a protest movement to become “worse” than the injustice they’re trying to stop, but short of developing nukes it’s kind of hard to imagine how most of them would do it. When you look at historical leaders who chose satyagraha as the primary method for their resistance, none of them chose it because it was “the right thing to do”. They chose it because it was effective. When we argue for satyagraha tactics, we need to be arguing for their efficacy, not their morality. And we need to challenge those around us who claim that breaking a window or setting a car on fire makes protesters “just as bad” as the oppression they are protesting. I happen to believe that setting cars on fire is an extremely ineffective and even counterproductive tactic. But compared with police violence, war, or capitalism, a burned out car is pretty damn trivial. We shouldn’t reinforce the narrative pushed by those in power that our movement can be invalidated by a few bad actors.

So, those are my thoughts on what we tend to miss when we talk about nonviolence. As usual, feel free to share/steal/remix. My only request is that you take these two lists together. If one of them seems “right” and the other seems “wrong”, interrogate those reactions in yourself. Don’t pick and choose the bits that agree with your side. I’ve been reading, thinking, and arguing about this stuff for more than 15 years (which makes me about 93 in activist years) and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there is always a new perspective out there that deserves my serious consideration.

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