“You ready to shed blood, big dawg?” My former barber asked that question often. He believed a race war was inevitable. It was a necessary rite of passage for us to be free, he said. Then we’d go back and forth about armed struggle. He was in favor. I wasn’t. “So you gon’ let somebody attack you and not have a weapon to defend yourself? Talk to me, big dawg,” he’d scoff socratically. I understood his attitude.
I believe in nonviolence, but I can appreciate why some don’t. Violence worked for those Europeans seeking to revolutionize the world—to dominate it. So it’s understandable that others, aspiring for a different sort of revolution, would also believe violence is the best method to use. To believe there is another way, a method without guns or missiles, to change a society predicated on bloodshed seems absurd.
Many of us underestimate what is possible through nonviolent struggle. I think this is because many people don’t have enough information. As long as we understand nonviolence as nothing more than a moral philosophy, the prospect of nonviolent revolution will remain a quixotic fantasy. Nonviolence can be more pragmatic than that; and if people knew, they might take it more seriously.
Here are four important facts I think people should know about nonviolence before dismissing it:
There are many types of nonviolence.
Redemptive nonviolence often incorporates spirituality and seeks to convert oppressors to friends. It holds to nonviolence as a moral imperative. Proponents of this type of nonviolence also tend to be more open to the possibility that oppressive systems can be redeemed: for example, the most famous advocates, Gandhi and Dr. King, believed in the high ideals of British Empire and America, respectively.
Strategic nonviolence holds nonviolence as a kind of political technology. This approach doesn’t necessarily appeal to high ideals like love and solidarity. It adheres to nonviolence for its tactical advantages. It’s concerned with curbing opponents rather than converting them. This is the nonviolence of Nelson Mandela, Gene Sharp, and Srdja Popovich.
Revolutionary nonviolence sees nonviolent struggle as a means for radical social change. One of it’s essential champions, Jayaprakash Narayan, advanced this approach “in a framework that included anti-authoritarianism, non-Orthodox Marxism, and self-determination for all peoples.” He even suggested that there could be cohesion between the tenets of Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy (satyagraha) and communist revolutionary Mao Zedong’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution .”
The list goes on. The point is that there are many ways to think about nonviolence.
Nonviolence is often more successful than armed struggle.
There is no guaranteed strategy for social change. However, the numbers favor nonviolent struggle. In a study of 323 conflict situations from 1900-2006, scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan found that nonviolent movements proved to be about twice as successful as armed struggles. According to the study, armed struggles have a 26 percent chance at success, while nonviolent campaigns have a 53 percent chance. “Not surprisingly, if you look at the same statistics in the last two decades alone—with no Cold War to spur the financing of armed conflicts across the globe—the ratio spikes even more dramatically in favor of nonviolence .”
Nonviolence is more often about power than love.
The basic assumption behind nonviolence is that the status quo is maintained by our consent to it. Basically: things are the way they are because we go along with them. Since the status quo is sustained by the mass consent of ordinary people, it can be changed through the nonviolent, mass defiance of ordinary people. As Etienne de La Boetie writes in The Politics of Obedience:
That’s what nonviolent struggle is about.
Nonviolence often creates more sustainable societies.
The same study I mentioned earlier also found that the way social change is won has consequences. Revolutions achieved through arms have a five percent chance of becoming democratic and a 43 percent chance of descending into civil war within ten years. Countries that experience nonviolent resistance showed a 40 percent chance of becoming democratic and a 28 percent chance of civil war. Again, the numbers favor the nonviolent.
I think less people would scoff at the prospect of nonviolent struggle if they understood these things. It’s important that people at least consider nonviolent struggle as a viable method to confront racial oppression. It may be the most viable method we have.
Meyer, M. (2016). Revolutionary Nonviolence. In A. Boyd & D. O. Mitchell (Eds.), Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution (pp. 713-717). OR Books.
Popović, S., & Miller, M. (2015). Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World. New York: Spiegel & Grau.