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This is among the most frequent questions we are asked at the Center for Peacemaking. Even a simple examination of nonviolence quickly reveals its depth and multidimensionality. The following overview is an introduction to some of the foundations of nonviolence.
In its most basic form, nonviolence is refusing to use violence. It is important, though, to recognize that violence manifests in many forms. Different approaches to peacemaking and nonviolence respond to the different types of violence.
There are many forms of violence. The most visible is physical violence, which usually manifests as physical harm to someone. Psychological violence can manifest as an independent event (lies, manipulation, or threats) or as an aftereffect of other physical or psychological harm (psychological damage, distress, or trauma). This form of violence targets the mind and soul.
Another important distinction is the relationship between violence and influence. Negative influence occurs in the form of punishment for doing something the influencer considers wrong. Positive influence occurs as a reward for doing something the influencer considers right. In this sense, positive influence can be used to coerce others into committing violence.
Each of these types of violence play out on three different levels personal, structural and cultural.
Direct violence, also called personal violence, is initiated by an identifiable actor and serves to threaten the life, basic needs, or well-being of another person or group. Direct violence is usually easy to identify, which may make it easier to address.
Structural violence is not initiated by a specific actor, but instead imposed by a structure. For example, an unjust legal system can enforce disproportionately violent punishment for minor infractions or ethically questionable laws.
Likewise, cultural violence manifests in ways that blend with social and cultural norms. Structural and cultural violence intend to maintain an unequal distribution of power or resources and results in unequal life chances. This is also known as social injustice.
Because these forms of violence are usually indirect and perceived as socially or culturally acceptable, they can be harder to identify and address. Examples include discrimination, exploitation, or marginalization based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, religion, or language.
From the intrapersonal (inner peace) to the interpersonal (outer peace), and spanning from ancient religions and civilizations to modern societies and governments, peace is an often discussed, rarely defined word. Peace studies has popularized the framework of negative and positive peace.
Negative peace is simply the absence of direct violence and war. While this is desirable, it still comes short of achieving social justice, or an equitable distribution of power and resources.
Positive peace, on the other hand, is the absence of structural and cultural violence. Thus, positive peace is evident in the presence of social justice, harmony, equity and dignity.
Considering both definitions, the aim of 'peace' is two-fold: the absence of direct violence and the presence of social justice.
Widespread recognition of the fight-or-flight response has popularized passivity (flight) and violent opposition (fight) as the two responses to a threat. However, there is another way to respond: active nonviolence.
The flight response, though not violent, avoids addressing the threat. Flight thus can appear as submission, passivity, withdrawal, or surrender. The fight response meets violence with violence and can appear as direct retaliation, revenge, armed revolt, or violent rebellion.
The way of active nonviolence (creative engagement) is a third way to respond. Contrary to images of passivity the word “nonviolence” may conjure, nonviolence is an active response that directly addresses the threat and has the power to transform opponents into allies. Active nonviolence can appear as noncooperation, intervention, self-suffering, protest and the creation of alternative systems.
Furthermore, active nonviolence requires creativity, discipline, courage and strength. Creativity and discipline are required to channel anger over injustice toward the creation of opportunities that disrupt cycles of violence and constructively engage adversaries. Courage and strength are required to control one’s fear and persevere while confronting injustice. It is because of these attributes that Gandhi called nonviolence the weapon of the strong and violence the weapon of the weak.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Nonviolence is the greatest and the activist force in the world. It is a force which is more positive than electricity and more powerful than even ether.”
Nonviolence is a strategic application of tactics to achieve goals. Individuals and campaigns that utilize nonviolence can be segmented into two groups: principled and pragmatic. The difference is in their goals and motivations.
Principled nonviolence, also known as Gandhian or Kingian nonviolence, is often associated with a moral, ethical, or religious motivation or commitment. Its goal is to transform relationships, societies and adversaries through nonviolent direct action so individuals are not oppressed or exploited. The power concern is to build “power with others” to shape society.
Ensuring continuity between means and ends is a key component of principled nonviolence. This requires that nonviolent means be used to achieve nonviolent ends. For instance, it includes a willingness to endure rather than inflict suffering and seeks to transform rather than defeat adversaries. Principled nonviolence derives its strength from its consistency—nonviolence is viewed as a way of life.
Examples of principled nonviolence campaigns include the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the Satyagraha movements in India, the United Farm Workers movement in American farm fields and the Peace People movement in Northern Ireland.
Tactical nonviolence, also known as pragmatic nonviolence, is utilitarian in nature. Its goal is to accomplish specific objectives and to defeat adversaries through nonviolent direct action. Its power concern is to gain “power over others” and is expressed in more adversarial terms. Gene Sharp, a leading advocate of tactical nonviolence, defines it as “a technique of socio-political action for applying power in a conflict without the use of violence.”
Tactical nonviolence views physical violence as ineffective or impractical. Nonviolence is preferred so long as it is effective and practical—it is not seen as a lifestyle. Thus, it has a lower barrier to entry. However, because it also has a lower barrier to exit, some may abandon their commitment to nonviolence once they gain significant political power.
Examples of tactical nonviolence campaigns include the First Palestinian Intifada uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the student-led Otpor! movement to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, and the Orange Revolution in response to corruption, voter intimidation, and electoral fraud in Ukraine.
Below are three classifications of nonviolent action. Emerging research demonstrates the effectiveness of nonviolence in each of these situations.
Civil resistance includes nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation with oppressive social, economic and political systems, as well as the creation of parallel institutions of government. Civil resistance may lead to peacemaking—bringing parties of a conflict into negotiated agreement—or result in overthrowing a regime or overturning oppressive laws and policies.
In their groundbreaking book, Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan find that nonviolent campaigns worldwide were two times more successful than campaigns using violent methods. They collected data from 1900-2006 on all major nonviolent and violent campaigns aiming to overthrow a government or expel an occupying power. They argue that the moral, physical, informational and commitment barriers to participation are much lower for nonviolent resistance than for violent insurgency. Thus, nonviolent campaigns are more likely to gather mass participation or garner mass appeal.
Civil defense includes building, protecting and preserving democratic structures from invasion, coup d’etat, natural disasters, or other threats. Civil defense largely encompasses the area of peacebuilding—developing tools to change unjust structures, systems and policies; as well as to resolve tensions, disagreements and conflicts without resorting to violence. Examples of civil defense or peacebuilding programs include agriculture and natural resource management, water and sanitation programs, as well as access to education, health and social service programs.
For example, Catholic Relief Services has integrated civil defense and peacebuilding approaches into water projects in southern Honduras, where conflict over water is pervasive. Strengthening local capacities in this way can contribute to improved social outcomes.
Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP), is the practice of deploying teams of trained, unarmed civilians before, during, or after violent conflict. The goals of UCP include to prevent or reduce violence, to provide direct physical protection to civilian populations under threat and to strengthen or build resilient local peace infrastructures. UCP is considered a form of peacekeeping.
Most UCP practitioners are nonpartisan and engage in dialogue with all parties of a conflict. Key methodologies of UCP include relationship building, proactive engagement, monitoring and capacity development. These methods have been put into place to successfully train civilians as ceasefire monitors, facilitate dialogue between adversaries, and to educate civilians in their own protection, especially women and children.
Nonviolent Peaceforce is an example of UCP with presence in South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Guatemala, the Philippines and Indonesia.
There are many tools available to address violence: mediation, negotiation, alternative dispute resolution, circle processes, restorative justice, truth and reconciliation commissions, peace accords, transitional justice, etc.
Jean Paul Lederach's differentiation of conflict resolution and conflict transformation present a useful framework to understand the difference between breaking the cycle of violence and building lasting peace.
Conflict resolution is focused on the need to de-escalate a conflict or to end something that is not desired. It strives to achieve short-term agreements and solutions to specific incidents of violence. Thus, its goal aligns with negative peace.
Conflict transformation is focused on the need to pursue constructive change—to build something that is desired in the place of something that is destructive. It is a mid- to long-term approach of increasing local capacity to effectively resolve incidents of conflict and generate solutions that address structural and cultural causes of conflict. Thus, its goal aligns with positive peace.
For example, recurring "isolated incidents" are usually symptoms of structural or cultural violence. Handling each incident independently (conflict resolution) may address the specific incidents but fails to address the root cause(s). Conflict transformation intentionally engages the complex history of long-term conflicts and asks questions such as what are patterns that generate this?
“The Meanings of Peace.” Peace & Conflict Studies, by David P. Barash and Charles Webel, SAGE Publications, Inc., 2018, pp. 3–12.
Chenoweth, Erica, and Maria J. Stephan. Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Columbia University Press, 2013.
(Editor), Ellen Furnari, and For Peace Work and Nonviolent Conflict Transformation, Institute. Wielding Nonviolence in the Midst of Violence Case Studies of Good Practices in Unarmed Civilian Protection. Books on Demand, 2016.
Galtung, Johan. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 6, no. 3, 1969, pp. 167–191.
Lederach, John Paul. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation: Clear Articulation of the Guiding Principles by a Pioneer in the Field. Good Books, 2003.
Case Studies of Unarmed Civilian Protection. Nonviolent Peaceforce, 2015, Case Studies of Unarmed Civilian Protection, www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org/images/publications/UCP_Case_Studies___vFinal_8-4-15.pdf.
Paffenholz, Thania. Civil Society & Peacebuilding. VIVA Books, 2011.
Sharp, Gene. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973
Wink, Walter. Jesus and Nonviolence: a Third Way. Fortress, 2003..