Our Working Definition
Our working definition (in progress!):
Nonviolence is a compelling force that works in the social field to draw people together, often by courageously resisting injustice on one hand, but refusing to inflict suffering, on the other hand. This force, accessible to each one of us by virtue of our human being is engaged whenever we resist but do not repress a separating drive like fear or anger.
What is Nonviolence?
During the terrible riots of 1992 Gandhi’s home state of Gujarat a “Hindu” mob descended on a rural village. Almost all the village men were out in the fields. The women reacted quickly however, and took in their Muslim neighbors to hide them from the mob. As they lived mostly in one-room cottages, it often meant “hiding” them in plain sight, underneath their household altar. The mob stormed up to one home screaming, “Are you hiding a Muslim in there?!” “Yes,” the woman calmly replied. Somewhat nonplussed, the men barked out “We are coming in to get them!” Then the woman, said, just as calmly, “First kill me, then only you may enter.” This happened repeatedly, as though by some prearrangement. Virtually every Muslim in that village — and some others — was saved.
How can we explain the power of these supposedly powerless women to overcome the threat of armed men who have come to their door to kill?
Economist Kenneth Boulding, in his book The Three Faces of Power, would call the power wielded by those crazed men threat power, a coercive force that can be summarized as “you do something I want, or I will do something you don’t want.” Threat power can be effective in achieving a result for the one wielding it, but it damages the relationship and creates distance between the two parties. In the long run, it always makes things worse. The second kind of power, exchange power, is basically neutral: “if you give me something I want, I will give you something you want.” The parties make some kind of mutually agreeable trade, no one is coerced, and the two are not driven apart, nor are they brought much closer together. The third kind of power, which Boulding called integrative power, is what the women tapped into in the story above. This kind of power is a bit more subtle to summarize. Boulding formulates it this way: “I will be authentic, and it will bring us closer together.” This is Nonviolence.
There is a source of love and wisdom in every person. It operates in many ways, in all kinds of relationships. When it comes to life in the relationship of conflict we call it integrative power, or nonviolence, and it evokes a deep response (that may or may not come to the surface as well) in an onlooker or an opponent. In the last twenty years or so science has found more and more evidence both for its existence within us and its predictable effect on others.
Biologist Mary Clark identified three basic needs (beyond those physical needs of food, clothing, and shelter) common to all human individuals. Those needs are for bonding, autonomy, and meaning. The persuasive effect of the Hindu women’s willingness to die alongside their Muslim neighbors illustrates the deep power of appealing to the human need for bonding and integration with other human beings. This gives us another good definition of nonviolence, to add to the one at the top of this page:
Nonviolence arises from the conversion of a negative drive, such as anger or fear, into constructive action. It can be cultivated systematically, and in this sense we could say that nonviolence is the science of appealing to the human need for integration.
Michael Nagler gives this illustration in The Search for a Nonviolent Future:
“I am thinking of the anger Gandhi experienced that fateful night of May 31, 1893, when he was thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg a week after his arrival in South Africa. This was no minor irritation; according to his own testimony, Gandhi was furious. That, along with the fact that Gandhi is more than usually articulate about his inner experiences, is what makes this event (among millions of similar insults human beings endure at one another’s hands) such an important window into the dynamics of nonviolent conversion. The first clue as to how he finally succeeded, after a night of bitter reflection, to see the creative way out is that he didn’t take the insult personally; he saw in it the whole tragedy of man’s inhumanity to man, the whole outrage of racism. Not “they can’t do this to me,” but “how can we do this to one another?” The second clue is the state of his faith in human nature. Already at that period he believed that people could not stay blind to the truth forever. He did not yet know how to wake them up; he just knew they could not want to stay forever asleep. That is how he was able to find the third way between running home to India and suing the railroad company. Imagine the old-fashioned locomotive carrying this “coolie barrister” from Durban up the mountains to Pretoria, standing at the station in Pietermaritzburg with a good head of steam. You could shovel in more coal and just bottle up all that power and even pretend it wasn’t there, until finally it exploded, or you could just open the valves and scald everyone on the platform — but surely you would want to use it to drive the train. This is what Gandhiji was going through with all the emotional power built up in him by the accumulated insults he had met since his arrival at the Durban pier. He chose neither to “pocket the insult,” as he said, nor to lash out at the immediate source of the pain. He launched what was to become the greatest experiment in social change in the modern world.”
From this experience, Gandhi went on to develop active nonviolence as a form of resistance that he came to call Satyagraha (literally, “clinging to truth”, and sometimes translated as “truth force” or “soul force”). An excellent description of Satyagraha can be found in the David Attenborough film Gandhi, in the speech Gandhi gives to Hindu and Muslim Indians in the Empire Theatre in South Africa, after the British Raj passed repressive laws requiring, among other things, fingerprinting of all Indians (the actual speech in the film, though true in spirit to Gandhi, is not historically accurate, although the event is):
“In this cause I, too, am prepared to die, but my friends there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill. Whatever they do to us we will attack no one, kill no one, but we will not give our fingerprints not one of them. They will imprison us. They will fine us. They will seize our possessions. But they cannot take away our self respect if we do not give it to them. I am asking you to fight. To fight against their anger, not to provoke it. We will not strike a blow, but we will receive them. And through our pain we will make them see their injustice. And it will hurt, as all fighting hurts. But we cannot lose. We cannot. They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then, they will have my dead body, not my obedience.”
Gandhi’s Satyagraha was grounded in the ancient principle of Ahimsa, which is translated into English as nonviolence, but in the original Sanskrit implies “the power released when all desire to harm is overcome.” This is why, in the nonviolent approach to conflict, we try as far as possible to resist wrongs without resisting people; that is, without wishing them harm or doing anything to compromise their longterm well-being and fulfillment.
To further explore nonviolence we hope you’ll explore our site, check out the resources such as our glossary, FAQ, films section, the highly popular webcast courses of Dr. Michael Nagler, and the many other resources we hope to add in the future about what Gandhi called “The greatest power human kind has been endowed with.”
Five Principles of Nonviolence
- Respect everyone – including yourself. It is a cardinal principle in nonviolence not to confuse people with the things they are doing. In fact, the more you can respect a person the more effectively you can persuade her or him to change attitudes or behavior. Never use humiliation as a tool — or accept humiliation from others — as that degrades everyone. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (MLK, Jr.)
- “Means are ends in the making” – Nonviolent means always lead to positive, constructive results – though not always the ones we intended. Violent means never lead to constructive ends. We do not have, nor are we expected to have control over the final results of our actions. We have and must take responsibility for the means we use, including even our feelings and the state of our mind as we use them. It will be found that violence sometimes “works” (i.e., accomplishes an immediate, short-term goal) but it never works (i.e., makes things better or adds constructive energy to the system). By contrast, nonviolence sometimes “works” and always works. It will always produce a good result at some point down the road, even though we may not quite see the connection.
- Seek win/win solutions – Give priority to building relationships over short-term “victories.” Conflict makes us feel that in order for me to “win,” you have to lose. That is a delusion. In nonviolence we do not seek to be winners, or rise over others; we seek to learn and to make things better for all.
- Persuade, don’t coerce – Be prepared to take on suffering if there is no other way to awaken another’s conscience. It is good to petition for grievances, but nonviolence really does its work when our petitions have been ignored and it is necessary, as Gandhi said, to “not only speak to the head but move the heart.” And we can do this by accepting rather than inflicting the suffering inherent in the system. In the real world there is not always time to, for example, persuade a dictator to step down: coercion may be required by the simple economy of suffering. Nonetheless, we aim for persuasion whenever possible because those changes are permanent (and more respectful of the person).
- Use discrimination – Never sacrifice your principles, but be ready to change tactics or compromise on details. Don’t cling to symbols. Be constructive wherever possible and obstructive when necessary. Gandhi’s greatest discovery was the power of ‘constructive programme’ by which the Indians took charge of their own society and showed themselves and the British that the latter were not needed. Episodes of Satyagraha (in this case, active resistance), though much more dramatic, actually only punctuated the long, slow process of self-regeneration he lead. Moreover, all of constructive programme and Satyagraha dealt with concrete realities (real salt, for example) and only incidentally with signs and symbols.
As you can see, these principles arise from — and help to sustain — a belief that all life is an interconnected whole and that any problem can be solved once its real nature is understood. In other words, once we understand our real needs we will find that they are not in competition with any others’. In fact, as Martin Luther King said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”