Must we change our hearts before throwing off our chains?

    Protesters praying in Tahrir Square on May 27, 2011. By Maggie Osama, via Flickr.

    One of the consequences of the Occupy movement’s emergence onto the scene over the last nine months is the escalating disagreement about the role of various strands of nonviolence and nonviolent action in the struggle. In the process, misconceptions about nonviolent strategy are being unfortunately perpetuated by earnest adherents of principled nonviolence and require correction. The phenomenon of nonviolent action is already misunderstood in most media. To see it further distorted by our own colleagues is disheartening.

    In an article called “How to Sustain a Revolution” that appeared on Truthout several months ago, Stephanie Van Hook made an eloquent case for personal transformation in the context of nonviolent struggle. The essence of her argument was that acting nonviolently is not enough to sustain a people-powered revolution, and that a person must have nonviolent intentions and the willingness and ability to engage in an internal discipline of personal nonviolence if the struggle is to be truly won. On this point, I don’t have any serious disagreement. While I am not sure I would make the same case that nonviolent success requires this level of individual transformation prior to the waging of the struggle, Van Hook’s argument is similar enough to the case I would make — that nonviolent success requires genuine appreciation of one’s own (and thus our collective) power. I am someone who does not align solely with one camp of nonviolence or nonviolent action, and am someone who believes that both principle and strategy are magnified when they are married. I think our differences here are mostly rhetorical rather than conceptual.

    However, in describing what she sees as a key challenge to nonviolent success in the ongoing people power struggles around the world, Van Hook writes:

    Those who profess a commitment to what is called strategic nonviolence know how to start a revolution, that is, in the same way that one would have to fight if one is the weaker party: you do what you your opponent is trying to prevent you from doing, you cast all or most of the blame on them, and you draw upon the sympathies of the masses — the “reference public” — to express your power. In this approach it’s acceptable to use threat, humiliation, and coercion to get what you want, and you often accept short-term and short-lived “success” as your goal. Nonviolence in this approach is simply refraining from physical violence while one’s inner frustrations and pains continue to grow, or are left wholly unresolved. After lighting the match of revolution, a person using nonviolence by this definition can walk away from the responsibility to carrying it forward for the long run. So a people left their guns at home this round? Where will it get them when they decide to take them back out because a limited vision of nonviolence did not bring about the deep changes needed?

    Although I believe it was unintentional, Van Hook’s characterization of adherents of “strategic nonviolence” seems to be guilty of the same sort of stereotyping with which she takes issue. I know hundreds of scholars, activists and journalists who study and engage in this form of struggle, and have yet to meet one who has “professed a commitment to strategic nonviolence.” Such an assertion does not make sense because nonviolent strategy is not an article of faith or a belief system. More concerning, though, is the implication that those engaging in strategic nonviolent action are not just unprincipled, but also undisciplined and lacking in a basic sense of social or civic responsibility.

    One part of the problem is in the mislabeling of the phenomenon. By calling it “strategic nonviolence” instead of “strategic nonviolent action” or “nonviolent strategy,” she implies that the phenomenon is fairly classified as a category of nonviolence, but this isn’t accurate. Nonviolence implies commitment to a philosophy that eschews violence in all forms and that adheres to some key principles. By calling it “strategic nonviolence,” which is juxtaposed conceptually against “principled nonviolence,” the field of study with which Van Hook identifies, the suggestion is that the commitment to nonviolence has been made for non-principled reasons. But according to Van Hook’s principled outlook, a person who engages in nonviolent action for reasons other than commitment to principle is suspect because they are not embracing or practicing “true” nonviolence. No wonder there is tension — the person practicing principled nonviolence sees the person practicing “strategic nonviolence” as a pretender.

    The other problem with this terminology is that it implies that the phenomenon being discussed is actually attempting to be what is understood by adherents of principled nonviolence as nonviolence. Recall that nonviolence embodies an entire philosophy and set of principles regarding the ethics of eschewing violence. Nonviolent strategy — defined as organized, collective action in pursuit of a clear and achievable objective, carried out with nonviolent weapons — does not, on the other hand, require the practitioner to adopt a philosophy in order to utilize it. In fact, to me, this is a great appeal of nonviolent strategy: its inclusiveness. Anyone can practice it. There is no spiritual or philosophical litmus test. And since unity is a criterion for success in nonviolent struggle, inclusiveness is a very helpful means to achieving that end. And moreover, contrary to principled critics of “strategic nonviolence,” I would argue, the unwillingness to adopt a philosophy of principled nonviolence from the outset does not necessarily make the subsequent action an inferior form of nonviolence. I suppose this is where Van Hook and I really part ways. She wants nonviolent action to be engaged in with full intention and consciousness of the power of nonviolence, while I believe that the use of nonviolent tools produces an appreciation for the power of the phenomenon and probably does more to convert skeptics than any other mechanism. In other words, I believe that commitment to the principle can evolve from the action, which itself is a result of the strategy.

    On the other hand, by demanding a commitment to a spiritual philosophy as a prerequisite for joining the struggle, there is a danger of being perceived as (or of actually being) exclusionary. Such a requirement suggests that in order for the practice of nonviolence to be effective, the activist must hold a set of spiritual beliefs about, say, the unity of all life or the imperative to turn the other cheek. But there have been many successful nonviolent struggles waged by people who either held religious or spiritual beliefs different than those commonly found amongst practitioners of principled nonviolence, or who held spiritual beliefs very different from others in the movement, so that there was no unity over fundamental belief systems. The unity came from the commitment to nonviolent action as the most effective set of means to address the injustice. Would these movements have been formed and the struggles been waged if there had been a spiritual litmus test in place before action was taken? I doubt it.

    Nonviolent action, when done well, can achieve results. When people come to see its efficacy and power through its use, they may develop more appreciation for the principles called for in Van Hook’s treatise. But whether activists get to the principle prior to action or through it does not matter. One need not necessarily be fully converted to the philosophy of nonviolence before being willing to try a new means of waging struggle. Willingness to take such a risk is the essence of courage — the most important personal quality in the nonviolent activist.

    My second major concern about Van Hook’s article can be summed up by a look at her closing paragraph, where she states, “It is time we moved away from cruelty and alienation, and refused to give it a place in our toolkits of revolution … [E]very small victory in becoming kinder is fuel for the fire for the long-term struggle for freedom. It is much harder than strategic nonviolence.”

    Again, this is a cogent argument, and I absolutely endorse the notion that our evolution as a species depends on cultivating more empathy and compassion for others. But, in the process, Van Hook conflates emphasis on strategy with unharnessed anger. Earlier in the article, she references Occupy protesters who seem to be engaging in nothing but venting their anger publicly. I am not sure, why, however, she associates that phenomenon with “strategic nonviolence.” The assumption seems to be based on a caricature of nonviolent strategy.

    In reality, it is quite rare that overt anger and an emphasis on strategy are seen together in the context of a struggle. As a strategist, I would strongly discourage activists from the kinds of behavior with which Van Hook takes issue. Such behavior alienates people, the death knell for a nascent movement. Additionally, it is hard to be constructive as an activist if your energy is focused only on obstruction. By starting with the questionable assumption that strategy and anger are interchangeable, it is not at all surprising that Van Hook comes to the conclusion that emphasis on strategy is not enough to sustain a revolution.

    Ironically, I would use the same quote from Martin Luther King Jr. cited by Van Hook — “We harnessed our anger and released it under discipline for maximum effect” — but would interpret it a little differently. To me, King is arguing here for the strategic effectiveness of disciplining anger, even while recognizing anger as an inevitable consequence of injustice. He is not, in my view, arguing against anger as such. Gandhi himself was not above the occasional use of sarcasm — a form of speech often considered to be verbal aggression by adherents of principled nonviolence.

    Once again, Van Hook essentially creates a straw man by opposing principle and strategy against one another, and then adds insult to injury by stating that the former is “harder” than the latter. The truth is that I’m not sure it always is harder. Deeply ingrained behaviors, standard operating procedures and habits can be incredibly hard to break, even after a person’s heart has been transformed. Every person who has felt the sting of their conscience after backsliding on a personal commitment understands this.

    Even the most principled of history’s nonviolent advocates did not lead flawless movements filled with activists whose hearts were always in the right place, and none were able to transform all of the individuals around them. Which is not to say personal commitment to nonviolence should not be an objective or that Van Hook is wrong to argue for changing our hearts in the end. I’m just not so sure we must always start there.

    Van Hook’s version of nonviolence is very personal in that it addresses transformation at the level of the individual human being, in a very existential sense. But the target for transformation in the people-power struggles around the world is, in most cases, the state or some other trans- or sub-national political entity. Such entities, for whom repression is status quo, will not likely be persuaded against using violence simply because they have been exposed to and saturated with the moral righteousness of principled nonviolence by earnest and loving activists. Such an approach assumes that violence is a force unto itself. But here, I throw in my lot with Hannah Arendt, who argued that violence is merely instrumental — a means to an end. And if violence is only a means (not a belief or an ideology or a force), then those who use it can be persuaded away from it when its use as a mechanism for social or political change is neutralized. When violence no longer has the ability to command fear or respect, it is no longer an effective tool. And bringing about this state of things is the ultimate objective of nonviolent strategy. Thus, ironically, I think Van Hook’s article actually represents a case for both more principle and more strategy, and — with a corrected understanding of strategic nonviolent action — makes the point that these two things are not distinct phenomena at all.

    Finally, Van Hook’s article is constrained by its endorsement of an anarchist conceptualization of the state, in which the state is seen as intrinsically and necessarily violent. But what about the movements around the world that are fighting for democracy, civil rights and the rule of law? Most of today’s movements, in fact, seek not the elimination of the state but a healthy, well-functioning democracy that can correct the abusive use of violence by a repressive government. As these nonviolent people-power struggles continue to emerge and unfold around the world, activists need pragmatic tools — as well as philosophical ones — for addressing injustices perpetuated by tyrants. Pretending that the state does not or should not exist does little to help the activists in Burma or Egypt or Zimbabwe who need ways to wage their struggles without being arrested or abused by the (very real) state for the nth time.

    At a presentation last month to international activists and journalists during the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict, U.S. civil rights veteran and Korean War resister Reverend James Lawson told the group about how strategy and planning were the keys to success in the Nashville sit-in campaign, which he helped lead. “I’m all for redemption and transformation of people,” he said. “I’m all for the enemy taking a different vision of himself and of his world. But I insist that while that is an important element, it is not the critical element of nonviolence.”

    The critical element of nonviolent power, argued Lawson, is that it puts “a new agenda on the table.” In other words, the exercise of nonviolent power is its own best advocate. As it succeeds, it reduces the perceived efficacy of violence and offers empowering alternatives to the status quo — both at the level of society and in the lives of individuals taking part.

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