Why active nonviolence isn’t taken seriously

    Over at openDemocracy, Shelley Anderson has written a nice article that explores why nonviolence – which she beautifully describes as “a continuous and radical struggle to stay human by always recognising the humanity of others” – is not better known. She begins by telling a moving story of nonviolence at work:

    The scene: several years ago in a Dublin sidewalk café. Two human rights activists, one African, the other North American, are talking at the next table. I sit at another table, an unrepentant eavesdropper.

    “I must tell you this story,” the African lawyer said. “Some women from both sides of the conflict had been secretly talking to each other. A message from the other side was smuggled to the wife of a local military commander. The women learned that her husband has been ordered to attack a nearby village. In the message, the women beg her to stop the attack.

    “The wife is in a quandary. How can she stop a military attack? Time is running out. Then she has an idea. She goes to her husband and tells him that she must go shopping the next day in that village. Her husband tries to dissuade her but she insists she must go. She knows the attack is scheduled for tomorrow morning. Her husband is in a panic. He calls off the attack. The women succeeded!”

    Most nonviolent success stories are similar to this one, she argues, in that they are not written down because they are “anecdotal, anonymous and above all, ordinary.” Many proponents of nonviolence have made this observation. Gandhi perhaps said it best in Hind Swaraj, which he penned in 1909 on a return voyage from London to South Africa:

    The fact that there are so many men still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of truth or love. Therefore, the greatest and most unimpeachable evidence of the success of this force is to be found in the fact that, in spite of the wars in the world, it still lives on.

    Thousands, indeed tens of thousands, depend for their existence on a very active working of this force. Little quarrels of millions of families in their lives disappear before the exercise of this force. Hundreds of nations live in peace. History does not and cannot take note of this fact. History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of this force of love or of the soul.

    In 2003, UC Berkeley professor and founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence Michael Nagler explained the dilemma in another way to the SF Weekly:

    “It’s difficult to document a war that hasn’t happened,” he says. “You can document bullets and airplanes, but when someone has a change of heart, you can’t document it. You can collect anecdotes and resonate with it, but you can’t make it into a spreadsheet.”

    While there is no doubt a lot of truth in this, Anderson argues that we have to make a better effort at recording stories of nonviolence:

    The undocumented nature of much nonviolent action helps perpetrate a myth that nonviolence is ineffectual. Anonymity deprives people of necessary role models. The ordinariness of nonviolence makes people blind to all the potential of organised, active nonviolence.


    Documenting and spreading stories, both individual and collective, of active nonviolence are important in empowering people. Nonviolence is not the reserve of saints or specialists with academic degrees in conflict management. Nonviolence is a value, a tool, and a force which ordinary people can and do use daily.

    Needless to say, sharing such stories is one of the primary reasons we started this site.

    Recent Stories

    • Feature

    Why activism needs to be part of any meaningful climate education

    October 12, 2021

    Simply teaching kids about the science of the climate crisis isn’t enough. To prevent feelings of disempowerment, they need to see how they can make a meaningful impact.

    • Feature

    ‘You only get what you’re organized to take’ — lessons from the National Union of the Homeless

    October 8, 2021

    As the pandemic continues to devastate America’s poorest, coalitions of unhoused people are finding inspiration in the powerful history of homeless organizing.

    • Analysis

    Why the far right’s use of nonviolent action should be questioned

    October 5, 2021

    Research shows why right-wing actors trying to reap the tactical benefits of nonviolent action often fail to meet its standards.