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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
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
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.