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Published on Tuesday, March 28, 2000 in the Cape Cod Times
Non-Violent Action: The Other Side Of Politics
by Sean Gonsalves
Most of the history I learned in school taught me one thing: Violence and coercion are what powerful people use to get whatever they want.

I'm not mad at my teachers, though. They didn't design the system or write the books that dispense such a distorted view on the nature of power. Maybe "view" isn't the right word. What it is, really, is a narrow ideology that serves the ruling class, who need the rabble to think that state-sanctioned violence on behalf of the rich is inevitable and - if done under the pretense of "the national interest" - good for everyone.

What else can a student think when power is shown as the ability to coerce a "weaker" opponent to do what the "stronger" desires; and that war and violence are simply natural? Gandhi warned of the fallacious reasoning that confuses what is natural with what is habitual. There's a difference.

And if we want to make a difference on behalf of true peace, then I think it would be a good idea to incorporate into our schools' curriculum a more reasonable and accurate view of power and violence. How? By offering classes on the history of nonviolent political action. I know it sounds like feely-touchy, do-goodism. But that's only because we've been indoctrinated with irrational philosophies.

First of all, power is not the ability to coerce the weaker to do what the strong want. Power is the ability to achieve purpose. So the question becomes: What is the most effective way to achieve our purpose?

There's a common misconception about nonviolence in circulation today that stems from the notion that nonviolent social action is the same thing as pacifism or non-resistance. It is not.

"Nonviolent action is a generic term covering dozens of specific methods of protest, noncooperation, and intervention, in all of which the actionists conduct the conflict by doing - or refusing to do - certain things without using physical violence. As a technique, therefore, nonviolent action is not passive. It is not inaction. It is action that is nonviolent," says Gene Sharp, the guru of nonviolent political theory and director of the Albert Einstein Institution in Cambridge.

Sharp's observation is obvious enough. But it's amazing how many letters I get, arguing that "we need to do something in (fill in the blank - Iraq or Kosovo)" because of the injustice or atrocity that we are confronted with in our newspapers and on our television news screens. Pundits use the same argument.

Well, of course, we need to do "something." But why doesn't nonviolent political action count as doing something? I suspect it's because a.) most of us don't know how nonviolent social action works and b.) think such an approach, while it might be a nice ideal, is impractical, or even worse, cowardice.

How does nonviolent social action work? By undermining the source of an opponent's power. Government power ultimately hinges on the consent and cooperation of its citizens. Government rulers are not omnipotent and, Sharp adds, they do not possess "self-generating power."

"If the population rejects the ruler's right to rule...this loss of authority sets in motion the disintegration of the ruler's power," Sharp points out.

"Nonviolent action has nothing to do with passivity, submissiveness, and cowardice; just as in violent action, these must first be rejected and overcome." Why? Because when nonviolent action presents a serious challenge to the powers that be, the ruling elite usually (and predictably) respond with repression; oftentimes physical violence.

As to the effectiveness of nonviolent action, there's a number of examples. And I'm of the mind of Kenneth Boulding and the Greek philosopher who said: "that which exists is possible."

Historical examples of nonviolent action: Between 1765 and 1775, American colonists waged three major nonviolent resistance campaigns against the Brits - the Stamp Acts; the Townshend Acts and the Coercive Acts, which put in place de facto independence for nine colonies by 1775. Even though there was the Revolutionary War, there were tangible results from the nonviolent protests.

Between 1850 and 1867, Hungarian nationalists, under the leadership of Francis Deak, embarked on a nonviolent struggle against Austrian rule, regaining sovereignty for Hungary as part of an Austro-Hungarian federation. In 1920, there was an attempted coup d'etat, led by Wolfgang Kapp against the Weimar Republic of Germany. It failed because the population went on a general strike, refusing to give its consent to the new government.

In 1944, two Central American dictatorships - the El Salvadoran regime of Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez and the Guatemalan regime of Jorge Ubico - were toppled within days because of nonviolent civilian insurrection.

The problem of violence is a complex one. But the teaching of nonviolent action in our schools is a crucial step toward better understanding and true peace.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columinist. He can be reached via email:

Copyright 2000 Cape Cod Times


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