Print version

Nonviolence -
Basis and forms of action

[Go back to main page]

This is an analytical exercise for people who want to explore in some detail the kinds of action possible within 'nonviolence', and where they would like to be involved. It includes exploration of being 'partisan' versus being 'neutral', and being 'morally based' versus being 'pragmatic'.

It is best done with people who have experience of community, voluntary or political action but can be done with others if more time is allowed in preparation - otherwise they may not have the knowledge to be able to reflect and fill in the chart which is the tool of the exercise. An alternative is to allow people to include actions and activities they are aware of as opposed to only those they have personally been involved in.

If needed, some introductory exercises or material on nonviolence can be used (e.g. "Nonviolence - Background definitions and associated terms", and/or "Nonviolent tactics workshop" from the INNATE website). The facilitator can judge how much information or preparatory work is required for a particular group.

This exercise has some similarities to the "Violence/Nonviolence spectrum" exercise (also on the INNATE website) but is more geared to personal orientation towards nonviolence and the reasons for it.

0. Any necessary introductions.

1. Workshop overview; what we're going to be doing and why.

2. If using introductory material on nonviolence (e.g. as mentioned above), use it here possibly using a handout. An alternative, extremely short, introduction might include the following:

Nonviolence. A positive concept represented by a negative use of words. But comparing it with the term 'horseless carriage' for the early motor car is appropriate...our terminolgy and concepts are still evolving. Different cultures have different concepts of nonviolence; 'satyagraha' is a Gandhian term ('truth force') but we can work on our own terms and our own definitions. Nonviolence is not some static ideology, It is neither simply method nor morality - but both can come into it.

Nonviolence can be introduced in 10 minutes. Equally it is something that can be dealt with in a 10-hour or a 10-day workshop, or 10 years to 10 decades of discovery and living. It's all there, waiting to be discovered; the practical, the philosophical, the spiritual, the ways to grow; nonviolence, truth-force, satyagraha, love-force - you name it, you can develop your own concept of nonviolence and work with others in its implementation.

2. Members of the group are each then given a copy of the (blank) Nonviolence - Basis and forms of action chart (following) which covers Partisan/Neutral/Moral/Tactical positions (some notes follow which can be included with what people are given or omitted). Working by themselves, they are asked to think of actions and activities - at a community, voluntary, political or other level - which they have been involved in, and plot them on the chart. It needs to be pointed out that they can be at different points on the diagram at the one time, on different issues, and even on the one issue it might be plotted in different positions (which can be shown by a line or an area). The further out from the centre of the two axes, Partisan/Neutral, and Moral/Tactical, the more strongly 'partisan', 'neutral', 'moral' or 'tactical' is the action. There is deliberately no 'right' or 'wrong' here - it is a question of helping people explore actions and activities they have been involved in.

It may assist the group to grasp what is to be done if the facilitator gives one or two examples of activities they have been involved in personally, and how this would fit in the chart. Once people have begun working individually the facilitator should check with each person that they have grasped what is being done and are happy in trying to do it.

The group can be given 10 or more minutes to think and fill in the form individually. The facilitator can check out with the group how long is needed.

3. This can be followed by a one-to-one sharing; people pair off, preferably with someone they don't know so well. Each in turn is given five minutes to explain to the other person where they stand on the chart, and as much of 'why' and 'where I'd like to be' as they wish to share; the role of the listener is to listen actively rather than start a discussion. The facilitator calls 'time to change over' once it has been checked that people are ready to change from speaker to listener and vice versa.

4. Back in plenary session, the group can be asked if anyone has any learning or questions arising from the exercise. A discussion can be started, for example, on particular actions or forms of action which people wish to share as an example of a partisan/neutral/moral/tactical stand, and why on one issue someone may take a 'neutral' stand and be 'partisan' on another. As usual, people are asked to share about themselves and not their partner in the one-to-one.

5. If it is an ongoing group, the facilitator can check at the end (as well as for normal feedback on the session) whether there are issues which people want to take further. If there are further issues they can be dealt with in future programme.

Nonviolence - Basis and forms of action CHART

= Pragmatic; a) 'it works' / 'violence isn't necessary'
b) 'it's the only possibility'

Nonviolent direct action solidarity work etc

'Third party' interventions
inc. mediation monitoring, process & facilitation work

Basis in a) respect for others/life
b) morality ('wrong to kill' etc.)
c) spirituality/religion

Please note; it is possible to be at different points on this diagram at the same time, perhaps even on the same issue! The further out from the centre, the more strongly an action fits the label.

Nonviolence can be pragmatic or morally-based. The pragmatic approach includes those who use it because they feel violence is ineffective, unnecessary or simply impossible (e.g. 'the government has all the guns') in a particular situation. The 'moral' basis here includes both secular and spiritual beliefs. Nonviolent Christians believe the message of Jesus is a nonviolent one (most Christians disagree!). A good 'secular' definition of nonviolence is simply 'complete respect for human life'. In terms of forms of action, it can be partisan - taking a particular side - or 'neutral'. By 'neutral' is meant 'neutral between different sides' rather than 'taking no position' - nonviolence always implies taking a position!

A key tension can be between believing in a nonviolent process and in a mediation-type approach to disputes (all sides being heard, all sides being involved in a settlement) but also having partisan beliefs on an issue. Involvement based on the latter can mean not being acceptable to other people in the former ('neutral') category. But both partisan action and a positive, collective process are necessary for resolution; i.e. a group who feels an injustice or concern and who is dedicated to do something about it, and a process which enables voices to be heard and solutions to be hammered out.

Another tension is represented by the tactical/moral axis in the diagram. It is possible -perhaps even desirable - to believe in both the effectiveness of nonviolence and its moral/spiritual necessity. There need not be a contradiction. But you are asked to analyse your own actions as you see fit.

Despite the collapse of the cold war between 'east' and 'west' around 1989 (or possibly even more so because of it), humankind has a tendency to think in military terms about the problems which confront our globe - not just about military intervention but more especially about who are our 'friends' and who are our 'enemies'.