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The Toronto Star

Non-Violent Protest Has Gone Online

Craig and Marc Kielburger

Their weapons were no match for the frail man draped in a simple white cloth.Often facing the barrel of British guns, it was the soft-spoken voice of Mahatma Gandhi that repeatedly encouraged Indian protesters to remain calm and, above all, to remain peaceful.

With defiant acts of civil disobedience, he led his nation out of the shackles of colonial rule and became a worldwide symbol of what can happen when people come together to march, armed with their convictions instead of weapons.

So it's very fitting that the UN has designated tomorrow - Gandhi's birthday - as the first-ever International Day of Non-Violence.

Few philosophies have had a greater impact on social change than non-violence. Under great leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and many more, entire generations have embraced peaceful protest and resistance - even in the face of hatred.

And while the movement has been around for thousands of years, its prominence and success peaked in the 20th century.

Inspired by Gandhi, millions of men and women have joined forces to win rights for the brutally oppressed, end wars, defeat communism and topple empires.

But the movement is changing. Technology has begun putting non-violence at our fingertips.

With a few mouse clicks, citizens can find out about human rights abuses around the world, connect with others to sign online petitions, write blogs and contact their local politicians.

That's made the movement more personal, convenient and accessible.

"People today would rather spend half an hour a day working on causes on the Internet than going out onto the streets," says Jonathon White, a sociology professor at Bridgewater State College in Maine and an expert on non-violence.

Technology has altered the act of protest, largely for the good but with some consequences.


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Non-violence traditionally succeeds when its stirs the masses with very public acts of defiance. They create powerful images - millions marching on Capitol Hill, innocent protesters being attacked by water cannons and police dogs - driving people to rise up against injustice.

But protesting online reduces reasons for people to physically come together, making it harder to find stirring images of solidarity.

"You can't have a non-violent movement solely on the Internet," White says. "There has to be something to ignite people to work for change."

He believes one reason Iraq War protests have had less impact than those in the Vietnam era is because they aren't regularly organized or centralized, making online protesters' voices seem less unified to politicians, the media and even each other.

But White believes the movement is evolving, not in danger.

"Young people will rediscover the power of non-violence and combine it with their new tools," he says. "I think this will happen soon."

In fact, in some places it's already begun. Last April, Nepal's King Gyanendra ordered cellphone service cut after pro-democracy advocates used text messages to assemble massive street protests.

With developments like this, non-violence is finding its place in the 21st century, and its influence is only getting stronger.

The Mahatma would be proud.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are children's rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world.

© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2007

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