Our Working Definition

Our working definition (in progress!):

Nonviolence (also known as “love in action”)is a constructive power unleashed when potentially destructive drives like fear or anger are converted into creative equivalents like love and compassion.  Nonviolence, when harnessed systematically and in an experimental, scientific spirit, can be used as a force for realizing greater security, justice and social unity. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “nonviolence is the greatest power at the disposal of humankind.”


~Six Guiding Principles for Nonviolence (PDF document)~


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.”