(Material Courtesy of ACT UP)
“Without a direct action expression of it, nonviolence, to my mind, is meaningless.”
— M.K. Gandhi
Practice is a key word in understanding nonviolence. A nonviolent approach assumes that people take active roles, making choices and commitments and building on their experience. It also presents a constant challenge: to weave together the diversity of individual experiences into an ever-changing vision. There is no fixed, static “definition” of nonviolence.
Nonviolence is active. Although to some the word nonviolence implies passivity, nonviolence is actually an active form of resistance. It analyzes the sources of institutional violence and intervenes on a philosophical and political level through direct and persistent actions.
Gandhi’s vision of nonviolence is translated as “clinging to truth” or sometimes “truth force”, which includes both determination to speak out even when one’s truth is unpopular, and willingness to hear the truth of other people’s experience. He also defined two other components of nonviolence: the refusal to harm others and willingness to suffer for one’s beliefs. Many activists who adopt nonviolent tactics are reluctant to accept these aspects philosophically, or to prescribe them to others. For example, Third World people in the U.S. and other countries are often pressed to use violent action to defend their lives. Some feminists point out that since our society pressures women to be self-sacrificing, the decision to accept suffering is often reinforcement of women’s oppression rather than a free choice.
Jo Vellacott, in her essay “Women, Peace and Power”, speaks of violence as “resourcelessness” -seeing few options, feeling like one’s self or small group is alone against a hostile or at best indifferent universe. Many societal institutions and conventions, despite their original intention to benefit at least some people, perpetuate this violence by depriving people of their lives, health, self-respect or hope. Nonviolence then becomes resourcefulness — seeing the possibilities for change in oneself and in others, and having the power to act on those possibilities. Much of the task of becoming effectively nonviolent lies in removing the preconceptions that keep us from seeing those resources. Undoing the violence within us involves challenging myths that we are not good enough, not smart enough or not skilled enough to act. The best way to do this is to try it, working with friends or in small groups at first, and starting with roleplays or less intimidating activities like leafletting. As confidence in our own resourcefulness grows, we become more able to support each other in maintaining our nonviolent actions.
Getting rid of the patterns of violence that societal conditioning has placed in us is not always a polite process; it involves releasing despair, anger, and other emotions that haven’t been allowed to surface before. The myth that emotions are destructive and unreliable prevents us from trusting our own experience and forces us to rely on rigid formulas and people we perceive as authorities for guidance. Most of us have been taught that expressing anger especially provokes disapproval, invalidation and physical attack, or else will hurt others and make us suffer guilt. This conditioning serves to make us both repress our own anger and also respond repressively to each other’s anger.
Anger is a sign of life. It arises with recognition that injustice exists and contains the hope that things can be different. it is often hard to see this clearly because, as Barbara Deming says, “… our anger is in great part hidden -from others and even from ourselves -and when it is finally allowed to emerge into the open — this pride — it is shaking, unsure of itself, and so quick to be violent. For now it believes and yet it doesn’t quite dare to believe that it can claim its rights at last.”
To make room for a healthy expression of and response to this anger, it helps to create a general attitude of respect and support. Verbal violence — snide or vicious tones, interrupting, shouting down or misrepresenting what people say — is the antithesis of respect and communication. When people sense this happening, they should pause and consider their feelings and objectives. Clearing the air is especially important when people are feeling defensive or threatened; developing a sense of safety and acceptance of our anger with each other helps us concentrate all our emotional energies towards constructive, effective action.
“Non-violence is the constant awareness of the dignity and humanity of oneself and others; it seeks truth and justice; it renounces violence both in method and in attitude; it is a courageous acceptance of active love and goodwill as the instrument with which to overcome evil and transform both oneself and others. It is the willingness to undergo suffering rather than inflict it. It excludes retaliation and flight.”
— Wally Nelson conscientious objector, civil rights activist, and tax resister
Nonviolence focuses on communication: