The following article was published by the Albert Einstein Institution, 50 Church Street, Cambridge, MA 02138. tel:(617)876 0311 fax:(617)876 0387, Email: einstein@igc.apc.org

CORRECTING COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT NONVIOLENT ACTION

What nonviolent action is

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.

The issue at stake will vary. Frequently it may be a political one -- between political groups, for or against a government, or on rare occasions, between governments (as in imposition of embargoes or resistance to occupation). It may also be economic or social or religious. The scale and level of the conflict will also vary. It may be limited to a neighborhood, a city, or a particular section of the society; it may at other times range over a large area of a country or convulse a whole nation. Less often, more than one country and government may be involved. Whatever the issue, however, and whatever the scale of the conflict, nonviolent action is a technique by which people who reject passivity and submission, and who see struggle as essential, can wage their conflict without violence. Nonviolent action is not an attempt to avoid or ignore conflict. It is one response to the problem of how to act in politics, especially how to wield power effectively.

What nonviolent action isn't

1) Nonviolent action has nothing to do with passivity, submissiveness, and cowardice; just as in violent action, these must first be rejected and overcome.

2) Nonviolent action is not be equated with verbal or purely psychological persuasion, although it may use action to induce psychological pressures for attitude change; non-violent action, instead of words, is a sanction and a technique of struggle involving the use of social, economic, and political power, and the matching of forces in conflict.

3) Nonviolent action does not depend on the assumption that people are inherently "good"; the potentialities of people for both "good" and "evil" are recognized, including the extremes of cruelty and inhumanity.

4) People using nonviolent action do not have to be pacifists or saints; nonviolent action has been predominantly and successfully practiced by "ordinary" people.

5) Success with nonviolent action does not require (thought it may be helped by) shared standards and principles, a high degree of community of interest, or a high degree of psychological closeness between the contending groups; this is because when efforts to produce voluntary change fail, coercive nonviolent measures may be employed.

6) Nonviolent action is at least as much of a Western phenomenon as an Eastern one; indeed, it is probably more Western, if one takes into account the widespread use of strikes and boycotts in the labor movement and the noncooperation struggles of subordinated nationalities.

7) In nonviolent action there is no assumption that the opponent will refrain from using violence against nonviolent actionists; the technique is designed to operate against violence when necessary.

8) There is nothing in nonviolent action to prevent it from being used for both "good" and "bad" causes although the social consequences of its use for a "bad" cause may differ considerably from the consequences of violence used for the same cause.

9) Nonviolent action is not limited to domestic conflicts within a democratic system; it has been widely used against dictatorial regimes, foreign occupations, and even against totalitarian systems.

10) Nonviolent action does not always take longer to produce victory than violent struggle would. In a variety of cases nonviolent struggle has won objectives in a very short time -- in as little as a few days. The time taken to achieve victory depends on diverse factors -- primarily on the strength of the nonviolent actionists.

Source: Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, (3 Vols..),

Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973.




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