“Understanding Hidden Violence” by Thomas Weber and Robert J. Burrowes

Reference: Nonviolence International

For many strategic exponents of nonviolent action the search for truth also entails a detailed analysis designed to uncover the violence inherent in existing structures. According to this analysis, violence is a problem at the level of individual behaviour, at the level of group process and at the level of political structure. It is for this reason that nonviolent analysis can be clearly distinguished from that of liberalism and pacifism on the one hand and from Marxism and anarchism on the other.

At the personal level, this analysis – like that of feminism – recognises the structural violence inherent, for instance, in exclusive language and behaviour. And while it is clear that this language and behaviour reflects the nature of institutionalised values and political structures, it is only at the level of individual behaviour that meaningful change to this form of structural violence can occur. Consequently, the analysis encourages the adoption of an alternative value set which manifests itself, inter alia, in the use of non-exclusive language and behaviour.

At the process level, this analysis emphasises the structural violence inherent, for instance, in traditional group dynamics which are usually hierarchical, dominated by men and decided by majority vote. It is also recognised that this process reinforces and is reinforced by personal and political structures of violence as well. Consequently, the analysis encourages the adoption of empowering group processes: no hierarchy, decisions by consensus, systematic efforts to deal with gender and other power imbalances within the group, and a genuine commitment to skill-sharing.

However, it is clear to most nonviolence theorists that violence whether direct, structural, cultural or ecological cannot he solved simply by the adoption of new norms regulating individual conduct or group behaviour. Therefore, nonviolence theorists emphasise the violence inherent in such political structures as patriarchy, capitalism and the state. However, unlike Marxists. who advocate the capture of state power by the proletariat through force, or the democratic socialists who argue that socialists should win political power by constitutional means before proceeding to replace capitalism with socialism, nonviolence theorists usually share the anarchist aversion to state power in any form. According to Gandhi, the state is deeply rooted in force and violence, in fact this is the essential nature of the state. It ‘represents violence in a concentrated or organised form’ (see Modern Review, October 1935, p. 415).

Therefore, nonviolence theorists are more interested in a comprehensive strategy of resistance and disruption, coupled with the creation of a vast network of cooperative organisations which will ultimately supplant capitalist control of the production process and functionally undermine patriarchy and state power.

Opponents; Not Enemies.

How this is done and the attitude to the opponent is centrally important however, and accounts for one further element in the structural analysis of nonviolence theory: the clear distinction made between political structures and their functionaries. For instance, agents of capitalism and the state may work to protect vested interests, but they are also human beings who share the wider struggle for liberation and self-realisation. It is for this reason that opponents, third parties and state functionaries (such as the police) are treated with respect. At the ideological level, the commitment is to resolutely resist particular facets of the opponents’ behavior; but to do so in a way which affirms the integrity of the opponents and their capacity for growth and in a way challenges them to examine their values and beliefs. At the strategic level, the aim is to undermine the role of state functionaries and to encourage their defection. There are obvious advantages to be gained from this approach. In the words of Gandhi: ‘My non-cooperation is with methods and systems, never with men‘ (Young India, 12 September 1929).

In essence then, instead of interpreting the conflict of interests inherent in capitalism, for example, as one between capitalists and workers, nonviolence theorists interpret the conflict as one between the structure of capitalism and the people within it. Having identified workers as the most exploited class, nonviolent strategists would endeavour to mobilise and organise workers (together with solidarity activists) in order to resist worker exploitation in a way which maxirnises the possibility of also liberating (rather than killing or marginalising) the oppressors. There is no doubt that this approach suggests a very different understanding of the process of revolution.

9. The Dynamics of Nonviolence

At the level of practice. nonviolent activists consider political oppression and economic exploitation to be the direct result of the ‘acquiescence’ of the oppressed and exploited. Therefore, nonviolence aims to empower the disempowered by providing them with an accessible ‘weapon’ with which to alter the power relationship. In addition, it allows for the possibility that power relationships may be sidestepped altogether.

Success through nonviolent action can be achieved in three main ways. Firstly, accommodation may result when the opponent has not experienced a change of heart but has conceded some or all points in order to gain peace or to cut losses. Secondly, nonviolent coercion may result when the opponent wants to continue the struggle but cannot do so because they have lost the sources of power and means of control. Thirdly, conversion may result when the opponent has changed inwardly to the degree that they want to make the changes desired by the nonviolent activist (or indeed the nonviolent activist has changed towards the views of the opponent) (Sharp, 1973, pp. 705-755).

Although preferable to coercion based on physical force or threat, the first two types of conflict outcome imply a contest of power between the parties. In these cases, productive outcomes (ones in which all parties are satisfied with the result) will rarely be arrived at. Conversion, on the other hand, operates outside the framework of the interplay between power and powerlessness the touching of the conscience involves a totally different dynamic.

Acceptance of Suffering.

The dynamics of ideological nonviolence is based on the acceptance of suffering. By accepting rather than inflicting suffering, the opponent is confronted with a situation that requires a choice rather than a reflex action. In addition, it requires that this choice be made against someone who has occupied the moral highground, producing a situation that Richard Gregg has aptly termed ‘moral jiu-jitsu’. A moral choice, which others otherwise may not not have been contemplated, is demanded of the opponent:

He suddenly and unexpectedly loses the moral support which the usual violent resistance of most victims would render him. He plunges forward, as it were, into a new world of values. He feels insecure because of the novelty of the situation and his ignorance of how to handle it. He loses his poise and self-confidence. The victim not only lets the attacker come, but, as it were, pulls him forward by kindness, generosity and voluntary suffering, so that the attacker loses his moral balance.

(Gregg, 1966, p. 41).

The voluntary acceptance of suffering is designed to purify the activist by demonstrating the sincerity of the activist to themselves; it also demonstrates this sincerity to others. Further, it is an appeal to the opponent and the (as yet) uncommitted audience. In the dialectic of nonviolence both the sufferer and the opponent are transformed: the opponent(s) by being compelled to confront their own views on the truth of the situation which may lead to conversion; and the sufferer who may be morally enriched by not compromising fundamental principles.

Even where nonviolence does not touch the conscience of the opponent it can still generate objective benefits in conflict situations, especially those involving social conflict. The opponent may be converted indirectly (or possibly coerced) by being shamed into changing their behaviour if consistent nonviolence in the face of provocation moves public opinion to the side of the activist. Gandhi, with surprising candour, has on occasion claimed that the method of reaching the heart is to awaken public opinion!

Violence to persons or property has the effect of clouding the real issues involved in the original conflict while nonviolent action when used non-coercively invites the parties to a dialogue about the issues themselves. Gandhian theorist Joan Bondurant explains it this way:

The objective is not to assert propositions. but to create possibilities. In opening up new choices and in confronting an opponent with the demand that he make a choice, the [nonviolent activist] involves himself in acts of ‘ethical existence’. The process forces a continuing examination of one’s own motives, an examination undertaken within the context of relationships as they are changed towards a new, restructured, and reintegrated pattern.

(Bondurant, 1967, p. vii).

She continues by noting that this dialectical process is essentially creative and inherently constructive. Its immediate object is…

a restructuring of the opposing elements to achieve a situation which is satisfactory to both the original opposing antagonists but in such a way as to present an entirely new total circumstance … through the operation of non-violent action the truth as judged by the fulfillment of human needs will emerge in the in the form of a mutually satisfactory and agreed-upon solution.

(Bondurant, 1967, p. 195).

The end of this process is truth, means for reaching it is nonviolence. Because it is an axiom of satyagraha that good ends can never grow out of bad means, there should be no threat, coercion or punishment. Instead, the person practicing satyagraha undergoes self-suffering in the optimistic belief that by touching the opponent’s conscience, they can be converted to seeing the truth of the satyagrahi’s position; or in the belief that a clearer vision of truth for both parties will grow out of the dialectical process. While the adherent of satyagraha tries to convert, they remain open to persuasion. The use of violence indicates an already closed mind.

Ideologically motivated nonviolence aims not so much at changing the opponent’s behaviour; rather it aims to change the opponent’s values which in turn will lead to a change in behaviour. Changed behaviour without changed value and attitudes can only b maintained through coercion, which is inconsistent with the philosophy of ideological nonviolence. This form of nonviolence, in short, goes beyond merely redressing the immediate grievance that has surfaced as conflict, and aims to resolve the distrust and friction that may be the underlying sources of the conflict; this can lead to a clearer understanding of the self.