The strongest power of all

If violence is out, what power can nonviolence offer? Courage, numbers and solidarity are vital to confront oppressive power, but macho dynamics perpetuate aggression. Human connections are the key to transformation

Diana Francis
27 April 2010

 The goal of nonviolent action is the radical transformation of behaviour, systems and relationships, from destructive to positive, life-affirming ones. What are the sources of nonviolent power that can achieve such transformation? The principles of nonviolence are unconditional respect for others, a consequent determination not to do harm and a constant will to enter into dialogue. The forms of power it draws on are many. One source of its power is the number of people it can mobilise, combined with their collective psychological/ spiritual strength. Nonviolent action seeks the widest possible social involvement. It includes people who are marginalised and excluded by society. It does not rely on physical prowess or status among its participants, but depends on their commitment and common values. Its strength comes from shared vision and courage, persistence and solidarity. The current land rights movement in India is a shining example of this kind of power. In the face of oppression, nonviolent action may sometimes, of necessity, be confrontational, directly contravening the system and the edicts of the powers that be; but it never attacks them as persons. Its methods include non-cooperation and physical obstruction or occupation, but its aim is to overcome violence and antagonism. Acts of civil disobedience, like Gandhi’s salt marches or the Civil Rights sit-ins, can be undertaken in a spirit of quiet determination rather than hostility.

Finding the discipline and courage to stand one’s ground under attack is immensely demanding, but so is military action. Examples of people power and protest around the world have shown that it is possible. As Jorgen Johansen argues, effective nonviolent resistance to national invasion would require serious preparatory work. Mental preparation, training and a sense of togetherness will strengthen any movement and often what is apparently spontaneous arises from many years of work by core activists. Yet for the majority, that preparation can come from a degree of weariness with oppression that releases courage – as happened in the countries of the former Soviet empire. Once people feel the power of solidarity, they are able to stand their ground.

Direct confrontation or resistance can be seen as the ‘hard power’ of nonviolence. It can assume a macho tenor and take on the dynamics of battle. Though this can be seductively exciting, it distorts thought and action, contributing to the energy of competition and aggression, so increasing danger rather than the power to transform relationships. As Cynthia Cockburn suggests in her incisive article, peace movements generally have failed to see the connection between war and gender and to recognise that endemic gender violence needs to be resisted as much as any war. From her research she has found that ‘a gender struggle goes on in them too’.

It is all too easy for anti-war movements to reflect the gendered realities of militarism. For instance, one of the important goals of the wonderful War Resisters International (WRI) has been to support conscientious objectors to military service – and objectors, like soldiers, have mostly been male. The iconic image of the WRI badge – bare hands breaking a rifle – has a somewhat macho flavour, representing the power to resist in terms of physical strength. But in recent years feminist analysis, making direct links between dominant constructions of masculinity, gender violence and the institution of war, has made itself felt in the organisation, which includes many powerful women activists. And it is launching a new book on the role of women conscientious objectors.

In practice, some of the most inspiring and persistent nonviolent action in recent years has been carried out by women. Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a film that documents the thousands of women, Christian and Moslem, whose courageous prayer rally and silent protest outside Liberia’s Presidential Palace, at a time when peace talks had stalled, helped bring about a political agreement to end their countries catastrophic civil war. At the global level, the Join me on the Bridge campaign, which calls for world wide peace and development for women, last month, to celebrate International Women’s Day, mobilised events in over 100 places around the world, including Rwanda and DR Congo, USA and Britain. Their pledge will extend the mobilisation process still further. The Greenham Common women’s peace camp, which was established in 1981 outside a huge US missile base on English common land, showed the ways in which different forms and levels of protest and resistance can work together. There were women like me who came when they could to take part in special events, to do ‘night watch’ and to carry out occasional acts of civil disobedience.  Then there were women like my daughter, who spent two years of her young life sleeping under polythene sheeting, making ‘illegal’ entries into the base and facing arrest on a daily (or nightly) basis. The courts in neighbouring Newbury were processing the ‘crimes’ of the Greenham women several times a week. Their fearless solidarity in action, which Rosemary Bechler calls ‘power between or shared or mutual power’, inspired the wider peace movement both in the UK and overseas. Even in this women’s movement there could be a perceived hierarchy, in which the ‘harder’ confrontational roles were sometimes felt to be superior to more humdrum efforts at communication. For those of us who were mostly engaged at home – in house to house canvassing, petitioning on the streets, holding public meetings and joining in demonstrations – there was sometimes a sense of being second-class campaigners. Yet it was through our connection with the daily lives of ‘regular citizens’ where we lived and overseas that the message from Greenham was communicated to a local and international public.

In nonviolent movements many roles and gifts are needed. The person who designs a leaflet is as important as the person who climbs the fence. Speaking out against the prevailing discourse can take as much courage and have as much impact as courting arrest. Building our civil courage in daily life is excellent preparation for big moments of concerted action. Transformative communication lies at the heart of nonviolent power, whether it comes through public action, works of art, use of the internet or other mass media, or direct dialogue with opinion formers and decision makers. The tone of communication is a key part of the message. Slogans of abuse, however tempting they may be, are more likely to repel than to win over. Anger is an appropriate response to inhumanity but its raw energy needs to be channelled constructively.

A key moment comes in successful nonviolent uprisings when armed forces are psychologically disarmed and join the protestors, or at least refuse to take action against them. This happened in the nonviolent revolutions in the former Soviet empire and in the uprising in Serbia that removed Slobodan Milosevic from power. One cannot forget the cruel deaths of protesting students in Tiananmen Square, whose courage makes them unforgettable. At the same time, looking back, one can see that they were isolated from most of the population, being a very specific, young and urban segment of it, pitting themselves against the country’s leadership. Their numerical power and support did not match their huge demands, which went beyond what their rulers were ever likely to concede, and the regime, angry and under pressure, finally resorted to brutal repression and crushed them.   

Those who hold high office in state structures have the role of maintaining the integrity of the state and its orderly governance.  Given this perceived need, if radical transformation is to be achieved, it will have to come either progressively, step by step, through transformative persuasion, or through the overthrow of the regime itself. If the latter is necessary and is to be achieved nonviolently, it will be through the persistence and scope of non-cooperation or by the sheer number of protestors on the streets, over a sufficient stretch of time. If changes can be incremental and do not in themselves threaten the system of governance, they may be won by persuasion, without the coercive power of overwhelming numbers. Persuasive power is vital, whether it is used to mobilise support for change or to alter the way others think and behave. It requires understanding of those who are to be persuaded. It has both emotional and rational components and involves intuition as well as strategy. It is both the softest and the strongest form of power. A recent editorial in the New Scientist suggest that it far exceeds the power of torture.

In his extraordinary book, Humanity, Jonathan Glover describes the moment in which a soldier is unable to shoot a fleeing enemy whose trousers are falling down. His fellow feeling at the sight of the man’s predicament removes his capacity to kill. The power of mutual recognition cuts through the energy of violence. The man is no longer ‘other’ but simply another human being. In the same way, nonviolence is at its most powerful when it connects with those it opposes. When Philippinos blocked the tanks of Marcos’s soldiers, the soldiers saw the vulnerability of the people in front of them and could not crush them. Once they had stopped they were offered flowers, food and cigarettes and the connection was secure.

Effective engagement requires empathy. Recognition of others’ needs enables us to see how a bridge of understanding can be created and how the other can be touched and changed. Knowing empathy’s power can assure activists that showing their own vulnerability is likely to increase their safety, by disarming those who oppose them, opening them to their humanity and appealing to their self-respect. Current gender constructions would label these capacities as feminine. We must all own and develop them. Once we recognise that violence can only hurt and destroy and is powerless to build anything, that positive transformation requires a different kind of power, we can release our will, imagination and resources for creative action. In doing so we will be reframing the relationship between women and men, young and old, the strong and the vulnerable, and creating channels for their power to be joined for the common good.  Such radical change may sound utopian but the needs of the moment make it a necessity.

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