Commonly Posed Objections
What Skeptics of Nonviolence Say
If you’ve studied nonviolence even for a day, you’ve likely heard at least one of the common objections raised by those who doubt its power. Below, we respond to questions and misperceptions frequently brought up by skeptics. Our responses follow the italicized objections in plain text. Have some tough questions of your own? Send them our way!
1. “Nonviolence is Passivity.”
NV is weak; people who use nonviolence can be walked all over, and they can be pushed around and intimidated easily.
If you take away violence, we will have nothing.
The above arguments come from people who feel strongly connected with their sense of being victimized.
Violence must be used to get a response from the enemy that will then result in some change. Corporations and government officials “have never listened to calm, reasoned arguments,” explains one member of the anti-nuclear forces in Rocky Flats, Colorado (Piller 1991, 70). “Only the people who use angry, confrontational tactics will move the government to action.”
There should be no compromise with evil. When people try to collaborate, instead of fighting the enemy, they are liable to be co-opted. They are losing their principles; they are like environmental groups that take money from big corporations that pollute and then look the other way. When you are trying to save Earth from rapacious corporate destruction, there is no win-win. When you are facing brutal dictators, there is no win-win. You simply have to fight and use “us vs. them” tactics.
Nonviolence (Satyagraha) is total noncompliance with injustice. To stop an injustice, one must refuse to comply with the injustice itself and the methods, rules and logic that allowed the injustice to occur, namely, the rules of violence, coercion and domination.
To adopt violent methods against one’s opponent, even if they are “soft” methods of violence such as name calling, ridicule or intimidation, is to reinforce the paradigm of domination that allows individuals and groups to exploit one another. The roles may shift and those who were oppressed today may later find themselves in a position to exact unfair advantage, as individuals if not as a group, unless the underlying logic of oppression is itself challenged.
One injustice mitigated, other injustices will continue to arise on an ongoing basis, putting those who seek change on the losing end of a never-ending battle. Furthermore, for anyone to act as a victimizer, someone must comply with the role of victim. Passivity and cowardice, then, also perpetuate the logic of violence by reinforcing the idea that coercion is the natural order of human relationships, that it is natural for there to be victims and victimizers.
To allow oneself to be victimized is to enable the violence of the victimizer, and therefore to be violent oneself. Nonviolence involves total noncompliance with the logic of coercion, ruling out both a violent and passive response. Nonviolence is the active noncompliance with injustice while concurrently creating a positive alternative; it rejects both indignity and dependence in favor of dignity, self-sufficiency and interdependence for all parties involved.
2. “It’s human nature to be violent.”
Humans are selfish and evil, but the fundamental belief system of nonviolence is that people are innately “good.”Many people do not agree with this premise and think that there is good and evil in the world. We must fight and defeat the bad of the world, even to death!
The cultural myth that humans are inherently violent and selfish has persisted, despite the large body of scientific and psychological evidence showing otherwise. More than 20 years ago, a group of prominent behavioral scientists convened by the United Nations released The Seville Statement, which publicly debunks the theory of innate aggression.
Studies have shown that cooperation and altruism are just as natural to humans as conflict (Davitz 1952, Sherif 1954). Biologist Mary Clark named three essential needs that all humans strive to have met, beyond the basic physical needs. Those needs are for bonding, autonomy and meaning. Violence is a separating and dominating force that undermines the fulfillment of all three of those needs, and nonviolence is the integrative force that brings people closer together. Nonviolence fosters both independence and interdependence, and it creates a sense of meaning in that the act of choosing nonviolence over violence is the ultimate exercise of free will.
The military is the only thing standing between us and international chaos. If we were to convert our military to nonviolnece projects, it would lead to disaster. Israel would get nuked, because the Arab states would know that we were too weak to protect them. Iran and North Korea and other troublesome states would use much more force, because they wouldn’t be afraid of our deterrent threat against them. We wouldn’t even succeed in stopping pirates! Even Obama knew that he had to use military force against Somali pirates to solve the problem of them kidnapping and hijacking an American ship. And we successfully rescued the hostage and killed the pirates! Now pirates will be much more reluctant to mess with us. If they knew that we had no threat of force to stop them, pirates would rule the seas!
If we want to avoid international chaos, we should address the underlying problems that undermine our national and private security and not become dependent on having the most weapons. Threat power breeds more threat power, and in a never ending arms race we will never experience true security. Likewise for dealing with crimes. Pirates, like many engaged in crime, are often people who have been displaced from the economy. If the underlying problems were addressed, increased security would follow.
Nonviolence is for saints! Most of us are not like Gandhi at all. If we need a “moral revolution” or “inner transformation” to practice it, then we are in trouble! It’s hard enough for people to transform their small behaviors, like going on a diet or quitting smoking. How then are they going to transform the much more difficult issues like becoming more empathic, compassionate, loving and kind?
Gandhi himself said that nonviolence is for ordinary people, that he had no doubt that anyone could do it. Since nonviolence is compatible with our basic needs and violence is not (see answer to “Humans are selfish” above), becoming more compassionate and kind should be easier than expected, as it is going with nature, not against it. Many troublesome “small behaviors” are so difficult to change because they are symptoms of anxiety caused by deeper problems. If that “inner transformation” takes place, the smaller problems will be much easier to fix, and the same is true of society as a whole.
The oppressor has dehumanized us, so we can respond in kind.
By dehumanizing others, you dehumanize yourself as well. You’re doing the oppressor’s work for him.
Nonviolence is Utopian. There are many situations where there is no win-win.
We’d need specific examples of situations where “there is no win-win.” People often harbor an unexamined believe that human beings have irreconcilably conflicting interests, which is rarely, if ever, the case. There is no irreducible conflict.
3. “History proves that nonviolence doesn’t work.”
Look at Tibet. All the Dali Lama’s nonviolence has gotten him nowhere. Look at Tiananmen Square in China in 1989. The military slaughtered tons of unarmed students and squelched a movement for freedom. Look at Burma in 2008; the government killed unarmed monks and imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. And also the Darfur Genocide. What were the people of Darfur supposed to do there? The only way to stop the genocide is for us to send military troops. The people perpetrating the massacres are not open to reason or persuasion, and certainly not to nonviolent sanctions.
Nonviolence can take a long time to show its effects. The India freedom struggle took decades, but the result was a democratic government for India and positive relations between India and Britain. A war can be over within a few years, appearing to result in a victory, but lead to blowback and strife later on as defeated parties seek retribution. Violence always causes negative effects, even when it “works” by achieving its short-term objectives. Nonviolence always works in that it moves the situation towards a more positive outcome, however slowly, even when it doesn’t accomplish its short-term objectives.
I’d love to believe in nonviolence, but I’ve read history…
History is a record of notable events, and events have typically been considered “notable” if they are unusual. War and dysfunction are recorded in history because they stand out as unusual from the normal flow of human civilization, of which we record very little. Therefore, history is “a record of the breakdowns” of normal human society, where peace and reconciliation is too common to be of note to historians.
Force works. Look at WWII, “The good war.” We needed force to stop Hitler. And it’s not true that violence only leads to more violence. By bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we ended the war, saved millions of lives and got Japan to surrender. Japan became a peaceful country and one of our greatest allies. So violence does lead to peace.
Yes, we defeated Hitler. But we can hardly claim that doing so led to peace. The end of WWII ushered in an unprecedented era of militarism and domination. There’s tremendous room for improving how we bring about “peace.”
Similarly, the only reason we won the Cold War and defeated the Soviet Union and all of communism is because we built up our nuclear weapons so much and intimidated them. This is “peace through strength.” That’s why the surge worked in Iraq.
Communism did not work and crumbled from within. The Cold War ended because the people living under communism grew tired of living in poverty and under oppression, and they nonviolently took back their countries (Poland’s Solidarity Movement, the Velvet Revolution, etc.), and because some of the leaders, notably Gorbachev, opened the door to reforms.
The question of whether the surge in Iraq “worked” is a tricky one. For one thing, critics have questioned whether even the short-term effects of the surge are the result of the surge itself, or of other factors within the Sunni-Shia fighting. Furthermore, if the goal in Iraq is a stable, self-sufficient nation that does not depend on military force to maintain internal security, then the surge failed, as it relies heavily on military force (including foreign troops) rather than improvements in economic conditions and political reforms.
We need to protect ourselves against criminals, and to deter criminals from thinking they can break into our homes and rob us. If they know that we are armed, they will think twice before breaking in. Professional criminals are not deterred that you have a gun. It only makes them more likely to shoot first, since now you are perceived as a threat.
Nonviolence can only work when you have enough people. It needs a critical mass. If only a few people act in nonviolent ways, they will get arrested or killed. It’s only when hundreds of thousands act in nonviolent ways that a difference can be made.
This objection is based on the assumption that nonviolence works through intimidation. It does not. It is an integrative power that brings people closer together through respect and humanization, and therefore it is not the numbers that count, but the act itself. In 1943, physicist Niels Bohr saved the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees by suggesting to the King of Sweden that if they were not let into the country, Bohr would turn himself in to the Nazis. That’s a telling example of how nonviolence works, even when a single person takes the action.
4. “Nonviolence can’t work with someone who isn’t rational.”
Nonviolence wouldn’t work with crazy people or psychopaths or mentally unstable people. You can’t win somebody over if they are not rational and have no sense of conscience.
When people are in an altered state (drugs, alcohol), nonviolence wouldn’t work. Nonviolence requires that our “adversary” be open to reason and to having their hearts transformed. This couldn’t work against people whose faculties are impaired.
We are not saying that you can “reason with” someone who is disconnected from reality due to psychosis or substances. But how you frame their situation affects how you will handle the interaction, which can change the outcome. If you view such persons through the lens of violence, you are likely to react violently and therefore escalate the violence and chaos of the situation. If you see them as human beings in trouble, you are more likely to address their behavior in a way that protects them and others from harm.
The question of a psychopath is more complicated, and somewhat beyond the scope of this document. A psychopath or sociopath (the terms have been used both interchangeably or differently in various contexts) is essentially someone who shows a lifelong pattern of lacking conscience and empathy. The term therefore might be applied to anyone who shows a persistent pattern of behavior violating social norms. The circumstances and inner realities of people who have had the label applied to them may differ, and therefore it is difficult to know the potential outcome for that person based on the label alone. I do not for example believe we should attempt to persuade a serial killer to stop killing (nor do I support retribution, but rather treating that person as sick and needing to be separated from society for the protection of all). Technically in nonviolence one must believe that at some level, every human being could be reached, but certainly discretion is necessary for the protection of self and others.
It is possible to use force, even lethal force, to stop such a person, without this force necessarily being considered an act of violence, if the following conditions are all met: 1. it is an emergency situation and lethal force is the only option to protect life, 2. the force is used not out of anger or fear but out of a need to stop the actions of the person committing the violence and 3. after the emergency has passed, those using this force seek to address the question of how such a situation arose in the first place and how it could be prevented in the future, rather than planning to rely upon the use of lethal force in future emergencies.
5. “Nonviolence is open to attack and ineffective.”
A single extremist can hijack nonviolence. One person wielding arms can overcome a million nonviolent people. An agent provocateur can completely discredit a movement.
The alternative is what, exactly? To be violent to begin with? If the argument is that violence “ruins” the efforts of a nonviolent movement (which can be true), then isn’t that an argument in favor of the effectiveness of nonviolence? The effectiveness of a movement is dependent on the public’s perception of its legitimacy, a legitimacy undermined by violence. (It would seem that it is as true for movements as it is for governments.) The only answer then for provocateurs is to try to minimize their ability to cause violence by confronting them nonviolently as one does any other opponent. That would also help to make clear your lack of cooperation with them, and also to get “person power” (rather than “people power”) into the public awareness—that is to get the public more accustomed to seeing a movement as the actions of many individuals rather than as an abstract “movement” or group that’s easily contaminated by one person’s violent act. A nonviolent confrontation would greatly magnify the power of any movement’s, showing it as many individual actions rather than one mass action. Encouraging the reference public to think in terms of individuals rather than groups is part of the nonviolent paradigm shift, anyway.
There is such a thing as “just war” or even “appropriate violence,” if that violence would stop a greater evil. For example, if somebody had killed Pol Pot in Cambodia, it would have saved millions of lives and stopped the Cambodian genocide. Similarly, if someone had killed Stalin or Hitler, or in our current day, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, it would have spared so much suffering in the world.
Leaders are brought into power by societal forces that look for a particular type of leader at a particular time. Violent leaders are a dime a dozen, and any of those leaders, once disposed of, would’ve been promptly replaced with another by the same conditions that brought the first leader into power. The important thing is to examine what conditions are allowing for a violent regime to remain in power and address those.
You can’t use nonviolence in battling corporations, because they have no sense of conscience. Even if CEOs feel moved to “do the right thing,” the structure of American capitalism values the bottom line over community concerns. In other words, nonviolence is selling out to the capitalist system by trying to work with it. The system itself is the fundamental problem. And by the way, the revolution will not be funded.
Corporations, like any faulty system, will only remain as long as people support them (both the people within and without). While the use of Satyagraha to move those who continue to support the present system to “do the right thing” is important to stop the damage of the present system and move the conscience’s of those individuals (and the values of the culture) closer to what we will need for the new world, you are correct that this is not enough to create deep social change. The goal of nonviolence should be to work outside these institutions to build parallel institutions (constructive program) to eventually replace the flawed system. IF those in the system have been dealt with nonviolently throughout the transition, the move over to the parallel institutions will be smoother.