The Character of Nonviolence

By Stuart Rees

While I want to avoid producing a score for or against nonviolence, as this would misrepresent nonviolent philosophy, language and practice, I would like to reflect on the recent record of nonviolent intervention. Such reflection brings me closer to a thesis about the liberating, life-enhancing qualities of nonviolence. It also prepares a response to the question: what would a nonviolent society look like?

Denmark's King Christian taking his daily horseback ride during the Nazi occupation of his country. Along with a variety of techniques of noncooperation with the occupiers, public displays of Danish national pride helped undermine German objectives.   [The Museum of Danish Resistance 1940-1945]

Numerous examples of the political revolutions achieved without resort to violence can be listed: Hungarians loosening the yoke of Austrian rule in the 19th century; the people's revolution which overthrew President Marcos of the Philippines in 1986; or the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia which in 1989 brought to leadership the playwright and advocate of nonviolence Vaclav Havel. Most recently the overthrow of the Soviet-style leader Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia and the "Orange Revolution" achieved after months of protest in last winter's snows in the Ukraine gave new faces to democracy.

To demonstrate the achievements of nonviolent civil disobedience, it is not necessary to rely only on examples of the overthrow of governments. History is peppered with examples of major improvements in the quality of people's lives following nonviolent protest against oppressive social policies. In Britain in the 18th century the movement for the abolition of slavery was a dramatic challenge to one of the most oppressive forms of violence. Throughout Europe in the early 20th century, the attainment of women's suffrage provided for a form of participation in public life previously denied to over 50 percent of the population. In Australia in 1967, the nonviolent campaign to recognize indigenous peoples as citizens marked another watershed in a struggle for justice.

Raising Awareness

If descriptions of nonviolent techniques always included accounts of the consequences of such actions, one could easily recall the small victories which have been achieved in raising people's awareness of injustice and articulating the just alternatives. To explain the means of nonviolent protest, Gene Sharp listed over 100 different techniques. His rich examples included reference to Chief Albert Luthuli burning his passbooks in protest against apartheid South Africa's rigid pass laws and the similar protests of U.S. draft resisters when called up to serve in the Vietnam War. These were more than symbolic gestures. They reminded poets to record for history the evils of wars and the callous indifference of the politicians who were apparently fascinated with violence. The Australian poet A.D. Hope, who usually regarded poetry and politics as separate, wrote at the time of the Vietnam conflict "Inscription for a War." That poem includes the lines:

We are the young they drafted out
For wars their follies brought about
Go tell those old men, safe in bed
We took their orders and are dead

Although such examples of nonviolent initiatives appear to refer to activities that occurred at one point in time, the biographies of the protesters show their fascination with the philosophy and language of nonviolence over long periods. Their way of living was nondestructive, enhanced the lives of others and contributed to their own mental health. Gandhi went further than saying that nonviolence was a way of living. For him it was the law for life, the means and ends of existence.

Nonviolent Living

That nonviolence requires constant practice to attain proficiency belies the claim that it simply means a series of techniques unconnected to other aspects of people's lives. Mustering sufficient stamina to participate in nonviolent advocacy requires daily attention to language which respects other people's identity and dignity. From such a base confidence and skills are acquired in order to branch out in different directions and to take considerable risks.

I recall being asked in radio interviews in the weeks before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 about the motives of the protesters who had traveled to Baghdad and Basra to act as human shields, to come between the weapons of war and the nonmilitary installations which affected the quality of people's lives. The radio interviewers asked, "Why did they put themselves in danger?" "Why would they incur financial costs to the government which would have to pay to repatriate them?" "What could they possibly achieve?" These questions rested on that list-like way of thinking which assumes that nonviolence can be measured in terms of boundaries in cricket, goals in soccer or home runs in baseball. The brave human shields who went to Baghdad were continuing to practice a nonviolent set of beliefs, albeit this time in a war zone and under the glare of international media. Their actions were an expression of caring, of humanitarian intervention in which no one would be hurt and no lives lost. They were following Mahatma Gandhi's dictum that it is the aim of nonviolent action to translate courage, dignity and assertiveness into an effective form of struggle. Gandhi of course stressed that nonviolence required more bravery than violence.

A protest in August 1990 outside the South African Embassy in London against the apartheid system and the detention of activists in South Africa.   [Anti-Apartheid Movement/Bodleian Library]

Advocacy of nonviolence presupposes a vision of what a nonviolent society would look like, though such a vision is often assumed rather than made explicit. It is usually a picture of a utopia carried around in people's minds without the characteristics of such a society being acknowledged. The idealism in the vision can be important and inspiring.

The qualities of passionate reverence and active love are examples of traits which researchers have attributed to peaceful societies, in which--in common with one of the key UNESCO prescriptions for a culture of peace--the rejection of violence is a key feature. Examples of peace promoting societies come not only from studies of indigenous hill tribes of South East Asia, but also in documentation, in 1994, of Norwegian society's response to children who committed murder. A modernized society also rejected punishment, retribution and violence.

The qualities of reverence for life and active love of others were the social cement of cultures in which power was dispersed, hierarchies flattened and a consistent disdain for punishment was maintained. In total contrast with current governments which love law-and-order platforms and can think of nothing better than to build more prisons and punish wrongdoers with more severe sentences, in nonviolent societies reconciliation of differences has been achieved without the threat of punishment.

The Creative Use of Power

If nonviolence is to realize its potential to be health-promoting and life-enhancing, its values and language have to influence the design and implementation of social and foreign policies. A nonviolent society cannot be realized merely by better imagery, a few charismatic leaders and an improved psychology of human relations.

In Derrida's terms we have to strive to create an inclusive, cosmopolitan democracy. In my terms the nonviolent society would be socially just, characterized by services and opportunities which affect all people's basic freedoms: for access to clean water, adequate food and housing, for high-quality services in health and education and for the rule of law to be administered equitably, without fear or favor. That may sound like a shopping list that has been easily forgotten in governments' rush to be competitive and--in the violent imagery of the war on terror--to be even more militaristic than usual. My social policy goals include the vision which Daisaku Ikeda had in mind when he spoke of the application of Buddhist principles in daily life. In the same analysis he identified greed, poverty, the illusion of efficiency and environmental irresponsibility as among the major obstacles to the achievement of a just and lasting peace.

Enroute to a violence-torn area, Mahatma Gandhi holds an impromptu public meeting at a railway station.   []

As a postscript to this vision of the nonviolent society, I return to the ideal of a creative, liberating, life-enhancing use of power. That is something which can be exercised and realized every day, as long as it is joined to a struggle to ensure that a creative use of power affects social structures and influences the goals of social policies. Numerous examples come to mind: alliances between Indonesian, West Papuan and Australian human rights organizations to investigate human rights abuses in West Papua; the decision of Indian writer Arundhati Roy to divide her 2004 Sydney Peace Prize money between Australian Aboriginal groups; conductor Daniel Barenboim's creation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra drawn from young Arab and Israeli musicians who perform in the Occupied Territories.

The promotion of nonviolence requires a certain street wisdom and political literacy. The English poet William Wordsworth had these ideals and political literacy in mind when he wrote the poem "Humanity" in answer to the trend of his times which witnessed the Industrial Revolution and with it an unashamed exploitation of people and resources:

What a fair world were ours for verse to paint
If power could live at ease with self restraint
(But) ...a thirst so keen
Is ever driving on the vast machine
Of sleepless labour, 'mid whose dizzy wheels,
The Power least prized is that which thinks and feels.

For centuries, and even at the beginning of the 21st century, strenuous efforts have been made to make violence more efficient. The only antidote to this political and, I suspect, sexual fascination with violence is to embrace the philosophy, language and practice of nonviolence, that life-enhancing way of influencing policies and conducting relationships, that law for life.

Stuart Rees is professor emeritus at the University of Sydney and director of the Sydney Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Passion for Peace, Exercising Power Creatively, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2003. His most recent poetry anthology is Tell Me The Truth About War, Canberra, Ginninderra Press, 2004.