The Art of Non-Violence

13 January 2018

This week we're asking about the Art of Non-violence. And it is an art -- the trick is knowing when and where it will actually work. After all, it looks like it’s worked just about everywhere it’s been seriously tried: non-violence brought down apartheid in South Africa, Jim Crow in America, and British Colonialism in India. 

But of course it took violence to defeat the Nazis, to end slavery and to free the colonies from British tyranny. Does that mean non-violence has its limits? Not if you believe that violence just begets more violence. Only non-violence can break the cycle.

So what do we say to those poor students who were mowed down by the Chinese government in Tienaman Square? Where did non-violence get them? Well it got their cause in seared into our memories. Their courage and sacrifice helped opened up the eyes of the whole world to the true nature of the Chinese regime at that time. 

Of course it's not as if anybody needed to be told that. But suppose the Chinese students had opted for armed resistance instead. Clearly that would have been a nightmare -- a lot more people would have died, and the government would have been able to hide behind claims of needing to preserve and protect civil order.  

Which gets us to the real advantage of non-violence: moral clarity. Non-violence can achieve a degree of moral clarity that violence never can.  Think of those civil rights protestors, on that bridge in Selma, being beaten by racist cops, with the whole world watching. Under those circumstances, a person of good will had no choice but to stand with the protestors.  If those protestors had turned violent, the morality clarity of the moment would have been completely lost. 

Of course this assumes there will always be people of good will, standing on the sidelines, waiting to have their consciousness awakened. But what if that’s false? What if most people have made their peace with a system that is corrupt through and through? What if they're willing to do anything to defend it, to hold onto their power and privilege? What then? 

Then you take a page out of Gandhi’s book.  Make the system unworkable.  Put body and soul in its way. Disrupt its economy; tie up its police force; clog up its jails; overburden its courts.  But do it all NON-violently. 
Now you could argue that non-violence worked in India because in the end the Brits didn’t have the stomach for even more brutal oppression. Put body and soul in the path of oppressors who are made of sterner stuff, and you just get crushed -- non-violent resistance might not give a psychopathic tyrant the slightest pause. But it might still send a morally clarifying message to those who side with him out of nothing but feat and intimidation.

Effective resistance, you might say, isn’t about sending messages -- it’s about stopping bad things and  replacing them with good things, and sometimes that takes violence. But that's a false dichotomy. Bad things stop when people of good will stand their ground and make them stop. The moral clarity of non-violent resistance invites all people of good will to stand together. Violence almost always drives people apart – even people who might otherwise be allies. 

That said, it's entirely possible to believe that in some cases you won't get significant change without a little armed insurrection here and there to sweep away some bad actors along the way. That doesn't make one eager for more violence per se; it just speaks to the complexity of trying to bring about change through non-violent means. Our guest, Judith Butler, has certainly thought deeply about that complexity, so tune in to hear her thoughts and more about the art of non-violence. 

Comments (12)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, April 11, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Non-violence as a means of

Non-violence as a means of effecting change appears to depend upon the circumstances, as you have aptly summarized. In other words, one need not think he or she can kill an elephant with a fly swatter but, alternatively, a shotgun is unnecessary for dispatching a mosquito.

Or's picture


Saturday, April 11, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

In the world we live in, non

In the world we live in, non-violence seems to somehow be linked to weakness or inefficiency. Non-violence is still, for many, the quiet voice that can?t claim, has no right to claim, or doesn?t know how to claim; the soft approach that yields slow or no results. And yet, non-violence is the choice for many, their preferred communication method, but it is kept on the sidelines because our society ridicules the power that non-violence has to solve conflicts. Believers in non-violence will be asked: a speech versus a gun, you tell me, which one do you think is more powerful? Violence has immediacy, it hurts, it achieves rapid results, it coaxes and conquers. Non-violence caresses, it lingers in time, it opens up dialogue but not the kind that power or immediacy-driven people are interested in.
After all, what is the power of, say, Gandhi when a gun is pointed at my head? The only protection of self in that case will be the same quality of force. Or take the Pope: he asks for non-violence, yet he travels in top security. So, it seems that non-violence is okay to use for small, quasi-non-important causes, but non-violence will not solve all issues, especially not extreme threats.
Efficient non-violence has a role, but it only comes to play after the violence, after the fact, engulfed in a vicious cycle of sorts. As long as weapons exist, many will not place trust in non-violence. Many will think: I do not trust a bunch of soft and well-spoken ?hippies? to clear my neighborhood from enemies. And isn?t this the way we all think and educate in our society? Can aggression and violence be eradicated or controlled with silence and wisdom? 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, April 13, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Are we now in perplexity

Are we now in perplexity about what once we were certain? Is ambiguity THE mortal sin of philosophy? We certainly act as though it were, conducting our arguments as a hunt for ambiguity to rub the noses of our adversaries in. But isn't there an important sense in which ambiguity is peace? And disambiguation war, or violence?
Which one of us is 'us'? Which one, in a friendship, is the friend? Which subject is what is predicated of it? Isn't it precisely ambiguity in these, an active ambiguity which asserts neither one or not this one, that constitutes the venue or jurisdiction of the quality of our being 'us' or of being assigned the predicate?
Gandhi employed committed non-violence in his activism in South Africa. In the movie, Ben Kingsley, portraying him, performs a scene in which Gandhi explains that followers will receive blows, not deliver them. And that this will hurt the regime he was trying to influence. Later in the film he makes a wonderful statement encouraging non-violent activism: ?First they ignore us, then they laugh at us, then they fight us, then...., we win.?
But Mandela faced a different situation. For Gandhi, there had been ambiguity between the White regime and the partial Apartheid it had imposed upon the immigrant community. For Black South Africans there was no such ambiguity. The strategy Mandela struck upon was to refrain from violence but to refuse to repudiate it. The movie Endgame does a credible job of portraying this.
But if citizenship is a kind of ambiguity whose law it is we recognize, then where there is no such ambiguity there can be no effect peaceful civil disobedience can have upon what divides us. If jurisdiction of law is community, community clearly and actively indeterminate whose law it is, then dissent should be as welcome as welcoming, not the enemy. That is, unambiguous division in the jurisdiction of our laws means the community under one venue has no obligation to obey the law of the other. I'm reminded of Taney's Dred Scott decision.
What strategies will effect the political life of a community, especially in so stark a choice as between violent or peaceful protest, may seem a matter of reading minds, which would be philosophically inadmissible. But there is a difference between reading minds and reading character. Character is a dynamic, not an unambiguous state of being. It is not a question of whether it changes, but of the manner of change peculiar to it. We know each by the character or person of the act of differing. If we belong to the same jurisdiction, of language or law, we literally learn who we are from each other through the determinacy each one of us is of how each one is not who 'we' are. That is, not possessed the power legitimacy or character of the community of which each of us is a part. We can read that character because the act of its being ambiguous which one of 'us' it is we are intimate participants to who 'we' are through each other. Community is a kind of ambiguity each one of us constitutes fully precisely through abstaining from any disambiguation of it. Violence is that disambiguation. It cannot result in understanding, let alone influencing, each other. If violence, or the implicit but unused threat of it, is required to get the attention of the dominant part of the community it must somehow be restrained in its effect such that it is as welcome as welcoming dissent. Is there something in our character that awakens community through aggressive protest? It's a dangerous strategy. The only hope for it I can see is if it holds a mirror to violence from the other side that goes otherwise unacknowledged and unredressed. But the irony of it is, this is not possible unless we are able to read this in our character as a unified community. And this means that violence hurts us too.

MJA's picture


Tuesday, April 14, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Violence is for the weak,

Violence is for the weak, peace is for the strong. Which One are you? =

Charles Osborne's picture

Charles Osborne

Tuesday, April 14, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

We have the Congressional

We have the Congressional Medal of Honor for violence above and beyond the call of duty--or that is one way of putting it. Medics can get medals, but not that one. It is for the heroic warrior with valor, courage, and superpowers in fighting the enemy. Once they gave one to a nurse, but later took it back because she did not kill anybody on purpose. Saints are also greatly honored and respected, but there isn't any Medal of Honor for nonviolence.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, April 16, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I suppose those who only

I suppose those who only stand and wait deserve no recognition at all, though I seem to have heard otherwise. In the movie Troy, a child accosts Achilles in wonder that he would face the giant he was about to meet in battle. Achilles answers "That's why nobody will remember your name." Death in battle is an ancient notion of the only path to paradise. A kind of sainthood, in fact, the kind of sainthood from which the later notion derives. It's a sort of human sacrifice. It's hard otherwise to explain the religious zeal of the remembrance of those who, in peacetime, would be treated as social detritus. But this only means the medals and monuments are more a symbol of how fine a people we are than of the worth of the dead. But I thought the question was about the use of violence as a mode of persuasion, not coercion.

Marc Bellario's picture

Marc Bellario

Saturday, April 18, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I think non-violence as a

I think non-violence as a word is similar to the United States ( as a word ).  It's two words really, and it
suggests some kind of compromise, in other ( words ) - there is a better way of expressing the idea or
concept or reality of the thing/experience.
>>> so to take one of those hard - ( to the left, turn ) - Consider light.  Light is an experience or reality
- and I am talking strictly physical light - a part of physical reality - which has pre-occupied the thoughts
of some of the greatest minds on this planet for several thousand years.  You can immediately
perform an experiment - which goes like this - try and grab a handful of light.  ( Try it and see if you
can!!! ) This is disturbing because - light being physical does not behave in the same way that
most physical things do.  At any rate, after several thousand years of thought on the subject,
there is still more to think, and understand, and finally - to know on this subject to which we are
exposed at least on a daily basis.
Back to non-violence - and you almost automatically must include violence, there is a similar idea related to
light - which is dark.  But dark is not actually something, it is in fact the absence of something.  However,
in the case of violence and non-violence - I think, more often than not - the violence is the absence
of something - and specifically what that absence is - is - respect.  Respect for yourself as well as
respect for the " other ".   I believe ( ) that non-violence has little meaning or relevance without that
basis, and I also believe that violence has little basis with it.  But like the physical reality of light -
there is more to the story, I am sure, because the ideas light and non-violence are comparable in
complexity or subtlety.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, April 19, 2015 -- 5:00 PM


Try seeing your way around in the darkest night in which you can manage to actually see something. You will find that what you do see is clearly there and visible, but "grainy". And "grainy" in a kind of scintillation. This is the effect of seeing individual photons. Well, the rods of the eye (cones see in color and take more light to respond, so never appear "grainy") need several photons to sense light, but even so, one photon more or less can shimmer the effect. That is, these are not mysterious ethereal things, light does have real physical properties. Feel the heat of the summer sun. The science of it is called quantum electro-dynamics. Richard Feynman wrote a brilliant book by that name (actually, it's title is simply QED).

N. Bogdanov's picture

N. Bogdanov

Sunday, April 26, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

As someone who lives in a Co

As someone who lives in a Co-Op themed around social justice through non-violent action, I find the topic of non-violence as a means to change to be very topical?and even more so recently in light of current political debate about race relations, police use of force, divestment, and the like.
I really liked what you said about moral clarity as being the real advantage of non-violent action over violent action. On first examination, this seems an accurate assessment, especially when we consider what our moral reactions to non-violent and violent protestors might be for the same cause or event. However, I think that non-violence is not as morally clear as may come out from the above thought experiment. Consider, for example, a non-violent protest that blocks a major thoroughfare for the sake of raising awareness around a cause or one that causes disruption in the status quo. This is morally clean in some sense, but at the same time shows a disrespect in one form or another for the law as well as for others? rights, causes, and personal projects, a disrespect that might just be as morally dirty as is violence.
Several people have commented about the efficacy of non-violent action. Non-violence, it seems, takes greatest hold when supported by moral bystanders. But what are we to do when such bystanders are lacking in number? Violence, it seems is the only sure way to gain results in such a circumstance. Yet, we might wonder whether such a circumstance has or even can exist, and whether, if it did, it would even be worth fighting against or within. A fine line to walk, no doubt.

Mathew Inder's picture

Mathew Inder

Wednesday, July 15, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

This art will surely work in

This art will surely work in a family where you won't let any chance to leave peace an start fighting.This art will surely work in a family where you won't let any chance to leave peace an start fighting.

adrianmn1110's picture


Sunday, September 1, 2019 -- 3:27 PM

"But of course it took

"But of course it took violence to defeat the Nazis, to end slavery and to free the colonies from British tyranny. Does that mean non-violence has its limits?"

Yes,... yes, it does. The threat and willingness to use violence is what keeps law and order in society. If cops weren't willing to use violence. they wouldn't be able to arrest violent criminals. Anyone who says otherwise is just trying to win an Olympic gold medal in mental gymnastics.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, January 17, 2022 -- 6:55 AM

Today is Martin Luther King

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Congratulations to all who have benefited from his life and work. As for the rest, try harder, think better and do the best you can with what you have and know.

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