Each month we bring you a nonviolence training workshop
based on the experience of the Nonviolent Action Training
project and INNATE.
Stating polar opposites on a topic can be
both a useful and entertaining means of exploring a subject
(just look at how a television debate works – though
whether this form of confrontation always brings clarity is
another question). In relation to, or rather within, nonviolence,
the classic English language short exploration of opposite
points of view is ‘Seven controversies in nonviolent
action’ by Sheila Rose and Lynne Shivers, which is reproduced
in slightly adapted form below.
If time is available as part of a course
on nonviolence, perhaps a full evening or even half a day
using this material is worthwhile because we all tend to be
dogmatic without much evidence for our point of view. As part
of a course it makes sense to take these ‘controversies’
after other introductory material, when people are feeling
quite at home with concepts about nonviolence, so it could
be taken half way or towards the end of such a course.
There are a number of ways in which this
can be used.
You could begin with a brainstorm/board
blast on ‘Controversies in nonviolence’, asking
people to think of ones themselves before they are given copies
of ‘Seven controversies in nonviolent action’.
You can let the participants’ list sit there while you
do the rest of the programme based around the ‘Seven
controversies’ material, and return to the brainstorm/board
blast sheet later on asking “Have your questions been
explored sufficiently? Are there controversies here we haven’t
But first of all, it is a good idea to have
paper copies to give everyone. The seven points can be used
for debate, one after the other, or better still as a spectrum
exercise (people position themselves physically across the
room from one point of view to another before people at different
points are asked to explain why they have put themselves there).
Another way to allow maximum discussion and sharing is to
get people to pair off and ask them to discuss each one, allowing,
say, 5 minutes for each question (just over half an hour total,
more if checking around the room people indicate they need
more time) before coming back into a plenary discussion or
the spectrum exercise.
The facilitator can also add historical/actual
examples of nonviolent action which illustrate the debate,
or fit in with one or other point of view. Of course space
has to be left to explore the reality that it may not be a
case of one or the other, but both, or it may simply be a
pragmatic choice of what is more likely to work, or is possible,
in a given situation. Part of the facilitator’s job
here can be to get people to recognise that other positions
are possible, however much an individual disagrees with them.
It is of course also possible that the seven
controversies dealt with may not cover all the dilemmas people
need discussed. If you did not use the brainstorm exercise
at the beginning, you can still ask “Are there other
dilemmas in nonviolence which are not represented here?”,
before exploring any additional ones that emerge.
By Sheila Rose and Lynne Shivers (slightly adapted)
here to view print version]
For principle: Unless nonviolent
action is based on principle, people will abandon it when
the going gets tough. It isn't "Quaker karate",
a technique we choose to use or not use, but the outcome in
action of our faith in God and humanity. Unless our actions
are based on a positive attitude towards our opponent which
in turn is based on our principles, they will not be able
positively to transform the situation.
For technique: Nonviolent action
is an effective method of change. We don't have to believe
in it for it to work effectively. And our main goal is change,
not just conversion to nonviolence. Trying to convert everyone
is not the best use of time and energy and anyway, by changing
the situation through nonviolent action you will change people
and their attitudes. Only a minority of people will ever adopt
nonviolence as a principle, and you need a mass movement to
effect change. Nonviolent action is a technique of taking
power and destroying the opponent's power by removing support
for the opponent. The vast majority of historical cases where
nonviolent action was used effectively have been carried out
by people who saw only the value of the technique.
For persuasion: Persuasion
brings more lasting change because it brings change of hearts
and values. If you force people, they'll change their minds
again as soon as they can, and there will have been no real
change in the situation. You should never force someone because
you might not be right. Anyway, it's not ethical to use force.
Our motto is, "better no change than change by force".
Admittedly it's slower than coercion, but it's better.
For coercion: Persuasion is
not enough. Power never gives up its power willingly. Some
institutions have to be coerced. There is a form of nonviolent
coercion in which we can act against the opponent while not
wishing them harm or destruction. Vested interests and systematic
oppression require nonviolent coercion from time to time.
One good example is the American civil rights movement. It's
true that we can't legislate morality, but we can force changes
in laws against people's wills so that a more just society
will have a chance to develop.
For personal change: We must
start with ourselves; we must begin at home. Changing the
world is hypocritical and false if our actions aren't reflected
on our lives. We can't have a new society without also having
For political change: Changing
lifestyles does nothing to confront governments or corporations
which hold the real power. The revolution is a change of institutions
- it means structural changes. We can work on our own lives
after the revolution. We're not free to live pure lives, anyhow,
because of the system. Lifestyles are irrelevant to political
struggle. We need to put all our energy into organising, not
to cooking lentils, meditating and so on, which are just self-indulgent.
For secrecy: It's nice when
you can be open but it's not always possible. Sometimes you
need to be secret, under fascism or dictatorships, where open
organisation and protests are illegal and heavily punished.
If nonviolent direct action plans are not kept secret, you
won't be able to carry them out, which is pointless. If you're
open, the government will have the upper hand, so they can
stop you in advance.
For openness: Secrecy undermines
trust among allies and splits the movement. Secrecy is defensive,
prevents a confrontation, increases fear among allies, and
encourages fear among the opponent. Most important, a policy
of secrecy develops two classes of people, those who know
and those who don't. There are examples of open resistance
to dictatorship; Guatemala, Holland, Norway.
For yes: Sabotage destroys
property, not people. Property is not as important as a revolution
for the people. Therefore it's OK to use sabotage. It's appropriate
as a means of protest or coercion. We make sure no one is
hurt, so it's nonviolent. Some property just shouldn't exist,
e.g. missile launchers. Therefore it makes sense to destroy
For no: Property destruction
escalates the struggle in a way that allows activists to have
less control over the struggle than if the property had not
been destroyed. It creates a climate of violence, which is
counterproductive in a struggle. Property destruction gives
clear justification for greater oppression. It frightens potential
allies and creates a bad image for the uncommitted. Finally
it easily spills over into a destruction of people and there's
always the problem of accidents.
For universal application: Nonviolent
action is applicable in all conflict situations whether or
not we're talking about an intensely repressive regime. This
analysis is based on the principle that governments derive
their power from the consent of the people. If people do not
cooperate with that power, then the regime ultimately falls.
The deciding force is the people's awareness of their own
power and capacity to organise themselves. It may be next
to impossible to pull off a nonviolent revolution in a repressive
regime. But an armed, military strategy has no greater chance
Against universal application:
People in less developed countries have tried nonviolent action
and found it doesn't work in their situation. They see nonviolence
as a weak, unrealistic idea which middle-class white Westerners
just talk about. We can't really know what people in their
situations are up against. So we shouldn't judge them harshly
if they opt for a military struggle for liberation. Besides,
Gandhi himself said that if you have to choose between a violent
struggle or no struggle at all, it's imperative to carry on
a violent struggle.
For power of love: Love should
not be seen as sentimental or effective only among individuals.
The central argument is based on the dynamic of love. Love
is disarming and prevents the development of fear and anger.
Love keeps the focus away from seeing people as the opponent
and on the focus as being greed, war, injustice, hatred etc.
Power is not the issue.
For force and aggression: You
can't change anything just by love. It takes forever and we
can't wait. We need power and aggression and an active force
to change anything. After all it's nonviolent action. We can't
abolish power; we need to take power and wield it for the
common good. Aggression toward our oppressors is healthy;
we don't need to love them to make change.
Slightly adapted from the original written by
Sheila Rose and Lynne Shivers, Movement for a New Society,