Should we bother trying to change our opponents’ hearts?

"Heart Of The Storm." (Flickr/JD Hancock)

“Heart Of The Storm.” (Flickr/JD Hancock)

The track record of wins for campaigns that use nonviolent direct action continues to grow. More activists around the world at this very moment are planning and carrying out campaigns than anyone can count.

The Global Nonviolent Action Database includes accounts of over 800 campaigns; researchers rate each on a scale of 0 to 10 to estimate its degree of success in achieving its goals. Many of the campaigns score 10, some score 0 and most fall in between. Today’s activists are bound to wonder: when campaigns win, how do they do it?

Mechanisms of change

When I tackled this question in graduate school in the 1960s, I noticed that movements’ pathways to success are different. So I focused on these differences to identify mechanisms for achieving success.

Gandhi sometimes said that his aim was to convince the opponent that the campaigners were correct. I used Gandhi’s word and called that mechanism conversion. One success happened when lower caste Hindus rebelled because they weren’t allowed on a temple road used by upper caste Hindus. The dalits were said to make the road unclean simply by using it.

Gandhi encouraged them to take direct action, and they occupied the temple road even when the monsoon flooded the road and they had to stand in water up to their waists. After a year the police took down the barricade preventing the dalits from proceeding on the road. But the campaigners decided to go for conversion, and they continued their vigil for four more months until the upper caste Hindus were convinced that the dalits were right.

As I searched through other cases, however, conversion seemed very rare, and Gandhi himself eventually dropped the conversion pathway when facing the British Empire. “England will never make any real advance so as to satisfy India’s aspirations till she is forced to it,” he said. “British rule is no philanthropic job, it is a terribly earnest business proposition worked out from day to day with deadly precision. The coating of benevolence that is periodically given to it merely prolongs the agony.”

England must be “forced,” Gandhi said — the mechanism of coercion. When we coerce we force a change against the will of the opponent, who still disagrees with us about the issue but must give in anyway.

We find this mechanism in the dozens of cases in the database where dictatorships are overthrown nonviolently. The shah of Iran in 1979 remained as fascistic and bloody-minded as ever, but he got on the plane to the United States because his people had shown they would no longer be governed by him.

So far, so good — conversion and coercion, two mechanisms very different from each other. But additional campaigns I was running into didn’t use either of these mechanisms. The people weren’t willing to wait until the opponent finally converted to their point of view, nor could they always mount such massive noncooperation as to be able to coerce.

I then identified a third mechanism, persuasion. Gene Sharp, when he drew from my work for his foundational book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, expanded the description of that mechanism into accommodation: The opponent realizes that yielding to the demands of the campaigners is the best thing to do under the circumstances, even though not actually forced to do so. In his later work Gene added disintegration, to identify regimes or opponents that actually dissolve under the impact of the campaign. That brought us to four pathways to success: conversion, coercion, accommodation and disintegration.

The mechanism more available to most of us

I was especially curious about the aspect of accommodation that I called persuasion, because so many winning campaigns have achieved this, and yet it seemed to me fairly tricky. It’s available to the labor movement, although labor is presently growing weaker in many countries, and to activists of many kinds. This is the pathway by which the opponent still has the means to maintain the oppressive policy and still believes in it — austerity or fossil fuels would be current examples of that situation — only to later shift once there is no longer the willingness to keep the machinery of punishment going that’s needed to continue the injustice.

The courageous women who used direct action to demand suffrage in the United States show us one version of how this works. The women of the early 1900s were not going to coerce the men to give them the vote. Nor could they convert the men to feminism; a century later most men in this country still aren’t there. The women’s strategy illuminates the pathway that might be most available for high-stakes issues in so-called liberal democracies.

When the United States joined World War I, a number of advocacy organizations did the expected thing and dialed back their pressure until after the war. The militant women led by Alice Paul did the opposite. They escalated their tactics and picketed the White House, which had never before been picketed, to pressure President Woodrow Wilson.

The women branded him with the title of the hated German emperor by writing on their picket signs, “Kaiser Wilson.” Their boldness got them physically attacked by passersby and thrown into jail, where they escalated still further by prolonged hunger strikes. A number of the women, when released, went right back to the picket line; one woman was arrested dozens of times!

The larger and more cautious part of the women’s suffrage movement was appalled at the polarization caused by this nonviolent direct action, and it’s true that at first many doors closed to the cause of suffrage in a nation at war. I interviewed Alice Paul many years later and found in her the shrewd strategist who knows that polarization can close doors in the short run and open them for the longer run — it’s all in the timing.

What she did next was send women recovering from brutal prison treatment out on speaking tours to tell the story of their suffering. The public continued to dislike the picketing but became empathic with these women who were suffering for their beliefs. Power-holders started to feel the heat. U.S. Representative Volstead of Minnesota said, “While I do not approve of picketing, I disapprove more strongly of the hoodlum methods pursued in suppressing the practice.”

Finally, the fact of suffering became stronger than resistance to women voting, and one congressman is reported to have said, “While I have always been opposed to suffrage, I have been so aroused over the treatment of the women [in prison] that I have decided to vote for the federal amendment.”

A critical mass of the opponents, including President Wilson, was persuaded that, even though the women were wrong, they were not really so bad as to justify long and brutal prison sentences.

How does persuasion use the opponent’s violence to win?

To understand how this works we need to remember something about systematic violence. In social conflicts the people tasked with violent repression are given dehumanized images to help them do their work. Ancient Greek soldiers waged war against “the barbarians.” White people were taught that African slaves were “animals.” The Nazis called Jews “vermin” and U.S. soldiers called Vietnamese “gooks.” Detainees in Guantanamo are “terrorists” — “the worst of the worst.”

When I research some successful persuasion campaigns in detail, I find that the campaigners use tactics that brilliantly undermine the images that perpetrators use to support their violence. Movement tactics vary, depending on the specific context and set of images.

The Danny Glover film Freedom Song shows graphically how detailed and nuanced these tactics can be; the film is based on the 1961 entry of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee into Ku Klux Klan-dominated Mississippi. When activists’ lives are on the line, attention to detail can make the difference between a beating and killing. Here’s a sample of racist imagery: “Black men carry razors and knives” and “demonstrators are riff-raff with nothing better to do.” Before confrontations the black students dressed in shirts and ties, carried their schoolbooks, and left their knives at home. The early SNCC and others were systematically undermining the framing that racists needed fully to unleash their repression.

What the white, middle-class suffragists and the black students had in common was a knack for focusing their opponents’ attention on something the opponents could not have seen earlier. The previously infantilized women, by dramatizing their own strength and determination, pierced sexist paternalism. The previously dehumanized black students, by dramatizing their own intelligence, courage and dignity, weakened racist contempt.

SNCC organizer Charlie Jones once told me about the white woman entering a southern lunch counter who went hysterical when she saw black students sitting where she thought only white people should be. She launched a torrent of abuse at the biggest student, then violently pushed him off his lunch counter stool. He fell to the floor, paused a moment to gather himself, calmly rose to his full height while holding her with his gaze, and motioned with outstretched hand that she was free to go.

She broke into tears and was led from the store by a friend. A week later the woman had joined a white women’s auxiliary working in support of the sit-ins, a group of allies that made it difficult for the racist power structure to keep repressing the students.

Similar stories can be drawn from many struggles in many cultures. The key is that the campaigners’ suffering is voluntary. Involuntary suffering such as that experienced by victims of genocide rarely has this effect. The dehumanized image of a group that perpetrators need to continue their violence is contradicted, in all cultures I know of, by dramatized courage. The campaigners’ refusal to run and hide, but instead to step up to “take it,” is a universal signifier of courage and carries a contagious self-respect.

Gene Sharp’s metaphor of “political jiu-jitsu” is fitting, since martial artists, like nonviolent campaigners, are eager to use the opponent’s apparent strength against him. Sometimes this means changing his mind or heart, while other times it doesn’t. Either way, campaigners can win.

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