Each month we bring you a nonviolence training workshop
based on the experience of the Nonviolent Action Training
project and INNATE.
The following is intended as background
reading, though it can be worked through and different people's
opinions and feelings explored. Possible exercises following
looking at this sheet include going around in a circle asking
everyone in turn to finish the sentence "Nonviolence
is..." Better still, individuals can be allowed time
to work out their own definition, possibly as 'home work'
before another meeting or session if it is a series; they
could be asked to take this information home as a handout
sheet, read and reflect on it, and come back with their own
definition the next time.
Background definitions and associated terms
There is a difficulty in projecting a positive
image for a word containing a negative - nonviolence. But
it may be helpful to think of the analogy with 'horseless
carriage' - we may first describe something by what it's not,
thus what we might now call simply a 'car' was first known
as a 'horseless carriage'. One possibility here is the use
of 'nonviolence' without a hyphen as based in principle, and
'non-violence' with a hyphen as pragmatically-based - but
this only works in written English since as spoken they are
identical. There is an inadequacy of language here and there
is the need for different cultures and languages to develop
terms which are indigenous or fit in well and incorporate
the best of nonviolence.
'Peace' is used by so many sides in so many
conflicts that it is a term which has often lost its meaning;
everyone claims to be doing what they are doing 'for peace'.
However there are concepts associated with peace in other
languages, for examples 'shalom' (Hebrew), 'salam' (Arabic),
and 'síocháin' (Irish) which can carry more
positive and possibly even visionary implications of what
might be involved and may not simply imply the retention of
the status quo by everyone stopping physical violence.
This notwithstanding, let us start with the
dictionary definition of 'violence'; "Quality of being
violent; violent conduct or treatment, outrage, injury......(law)
unlawful exercise of physical force, intimidation by exhibition
of this." (Concise Oxford Dictionary) However a better
definition of violence would be person centred; "A physical
of mental attack or affront to an individual or group".
The Quaker Peace Action Caravan in Britain "defined violence
as anything which damages, degrades or destroys human beings".
Here we also come up with the term 'structural
violence', i.e. violence imposed on people by unjust and inhuman
structures; but other terms such as 'economic injustice' may
be more accurate and helpful than 'structural violence' which
is a very broad statement. Working our way on from these definitions
of violence we can come towards a tentative definition of
'non'violence; "The absence of violence and the creative
use, and resolution, of conflict." Note that this is
more a definition of nonviolence as process rather than a
state of being, since describing a situation the absence of
violence is likely to be relative..
'Conflict' is often seen as a negative state
of affairs, and yet without 'conflict' there would be no progress
in the world since change comes through the 'conflict' between
progressive, conservative and other ideas and their supporters.
'Conflict' can simply be termed "A process of decision
making involving different parties in dispute with each other."
Obviously some conflicts can be more productive than others
and conflict can be entirely negative.
Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Argentinean Nobel
Peace Prize winner, has defined nonviolence this way; "Nonviolence
is a respect for life and for the individual. That is to say,
nonviolence is not a method of non-aggression (as it is often
considered) but rather a way of life, and a way of understanding
the relationship of human beings to their fellow beings and
There are an infinite number of possible individual
bases of 'nonviolence'. There follows a very short attempt
to classify a few general bases;
Based in principle;
a) Religious or spiritual, e.g. Christian or Buddhist ('our
religion demands we be nonviolent and do not harm others',
'it is a basic tenet of our faith') and/or b) Secular, e.g.
'total respect for human life'.
Pragmatic - 'nonviolence
would seem to work in this situation so let's give it a
go' or 'we don't have the arms we need to fight by military
means so we'll use non-violent ones'. The first of these
is a positive pragmatic reason ('it works') and the second
a negative one ('we don't have the option to be violent').
Geographical distinctions are also
possible - 'Nonviolence is OK in Europe and the
rich world but not in the poor, two thirds world'. Some
years ago people arguing this line might have added 'South
Africa' to the places nonviolence did not work but clearly
the change from the apartheid system came much more through
nonviolence, including international solidarity and pressure,
than it did from violence. This 'geographically defined'
approach is negative in failing to support people who are
struggling for change nonviolently in atrociously difficult
'Pacifism' can be taken as an older, more negative
sounding, synonym for 'nonviolence'. There can be a confusion,
too, of 'pacifism' with 'passivism' (as in being passive)
or doing nothing. 'Pacifism' can sometimes be seen as being
concerned almost exclusively the rejection of war and killing,
though for others it is simply an older synonym for nonviolence.
The concern of nonviolence is, in religious language, 'peace,
justice and the integrity of creation', i.e. it is dynamic,
active and forward looking, working for justice and positive
'Nonviolent action' can be used as a more positive,
action-oriented term than 'nonviolence', though both may imply
taking action on one side in a conflict. 'Mediation', on the
other hand, is relatively 'neutral' between sides (though
never value free), a third party intervention to try to help
people solve a dispute themselves in taking the different
parties through a mediation process, whether formal or informal.
With mediation the first stage could be strengthening one
side in a dispute to compete on equal terms with another disputant.
'Nonviolent direct action' is sometimes used
in a confusing way, and has been elevated in some circles
to being sacrosanct, but it can be useful to describe nonviolent
action which is interventionist and possibly illegal. In nonviolence
there is a belief that justice and human integrity are more
important than laws; but laws are only broken where those
participating are prepared to take the action nonviolently
and are also prepared to accept the consequences of their
action, which could mean court appearances, jail, or in some
circumstances injury or even death.
Definitions of nonviolence can also be taken
from its perceived world-renowned gurus such as Gandhi, Martin
Luther King, or from lesser known prophets such as Tolstoy,
Dorothy Day, Lanza del Vasto etc. However, sometimes the reliance
on 'nonviolent gurus' can make nonviolence seem more remote
and not something for ordinary people, so this is a danger
to beware of. Here are a few relevant quotes from Gandhi;
"...nonviolence is not a cloistered
virtue to be practised by the individual for his peace and
final salvation, but it is a rule of conduct for society....To
practise nonviolence in mundane matters is to know its true
value. It is to bring heaven upon earth..."
"For a nonviolent person, the whole
world is one family. He will thus fear none, nor will others
"We are constantly being astonished
these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence.
But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible
discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence."
Gandhi used the term 'ahimsa' , which means
'not harming' or 'harmlessness'; this could be thought of
as something akin to 'pacifism'. But he also used the much
stronger term 'satyagraha' meaning 'truth force' or 'the power
of truth'; by this he meant not only a dynamic, campaigning
approach but one which sought a transformation of relationships
rather than a simple victory or attempt at coercion. Satyagraha
is one term that can be developed as a particular concept
In the end of the day, however, what matters
is the definition of nonviolence that we ourselves come up
with. We each need our own, individual and unique, definition
of what nonviolence means to us and the role that nonviolence
can play in our lives and in helping to bring justice and
peace to our neighbourhoods, our areas, our countries and