Globalising nonviolence: overcoming the obstacles

Published as "Globalisierung der gewaltfreiheit: überwindung der hindernisse. Gewaltfreiheit ist das ziel - und der weg" in Forum Pazifismus: Zeitschrift für Theorie und Praxis der Gewaltfreiheit, No. 10, II/2006, pp. 8-12, translated into German by Kai-Uwe Dosch.

Brian Martin

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Nonviolence has expanded tremendously in the past century. Many more movements use nonviolent action for campaigns. Local citizens are much more likely to use nonviolent action than in the past. There is much greater awareness of nonviolence, through networking, media coverage and writings.

Yet there is still a long way to go. Organised violence is solidly entrenched in the world's military establishments. Non-state terrorism provides the pretext for increasing repression. So it's worth looking at obstacles to greater awareness and use of nonviolence.

The struggle over visibility

The mass media seldom give proper recognition to nonviolence. Most nonviolent actions are just ignored. Instead, the mass media give prime coverage to violence.

Furthermore, the mass media commonly misrepresent nonviolent actions by focussing on trivial incidents. Often the only thing reported from a large rally is a minor scuffle or an arrest. Sometimes the media report on a "violent demonstration" when only the police were violent. Nonviolent action has not yet entered the vocabulary and mindset of many journalists and editors.

Activists, in their search for coverage, find creative ways to attract media attention. But the media focus is often on the spectacle, with little understanding of the purposes and dynamics of nonviolent action.

The media's neglect of nonviolence is reflected in academic writing, where the focus is on governments, political systems and policies. There are plenty of critiques of capitalism, patriarchy and hegemony but very little awareness of nonviolent action.

Most people who are not activists know about rallies, strikes and sit-ins, but they don't think of them as components of a mode of struggle. At school, they learn a lot about generals, politicians and wars but not nearly so much about people's direct action. If they hear about nonviolent action, it's often about Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. - something done by courageous leaders in some other place and time rather than what happens every day nearby.

Most people understand the basics of war: weapons are the tools, soldiers are the agents and warfare is the mode of struggle. But for nonviolence, only the tools, such as rallies and strikes, are well known. The agents - whether called civilians, citizens or people - are not so well recognised. Nonviolence as a mode of struggle is not well understood.

Activists and their supporters have been slowly chipping away at the invisibility of nonviolent action. But progress is slow.

It will take a long time for historians and social scientists to incorporate nonviolent action into scholarship and textbooks. The more immediate challenge is mass media (non)treatments of nonviolence. One way to change this may be to encourage journalists to understand nonviolence as a strategic encounter, like party politics or sports. There's no simple answer. Experimentation is needed.

How to make nonviolence more visible partly depends on the culture. Words, symbols and stories are important, and these depend on languages and cultural traditions. Learning how people can best understand nonviolence is vital to its globalisation.

The struggle over reputation

Opponents of nonviolence frequently try to discredit activists. Authorities label protesters in derogatory ways, for example as know-nothings, malcontents, rabble, lawbreakers, rent-a-crowd and terrorists.

This sort of labelling is most effective in media commentary and photos, when the protesters are remote from the audience. When people know activists personally, they are much more likely to respect them. So it's highly effective to introduce activists as ordinary people, and to bring people along to events so they can meet activists.

Another way to build a solid reputation is to pay attention to image. Abusive language, unconventional clothes and peculiar behaviour can alienate some people. When negative images are used to discredit a movement, then it is worth considering ways to counter stereotypes of protesters as disreputable louts. Protesters might wear formal dress, for example. There is no right way to dress and behave. The key is to treat reputation as a crucial factor in a struggle.

Nonviolent activists are also devalued by other activists, especially those who style themselves as militants or revolutionaries and who espouse provocation or violence. For them, nonviolence is weak and reformist. Violence is seen as macho, while nonviolence is treated as feminine and wussy. Nonviolent activists are usually happy to avoid the macho image, but there is a serious issue of reputation involved in this gendered imagery.

Today, quite a few people still call nonviolence "passive resistance", nearly a century after Gandhi rejected that expression as misleading. Nonviolence is often associated, in the public mind, with passivity, pacifism and appeasement. This is despite repeated emphasis on the word action in nonviolent action.

Continued attention is needed to words and their connotations. The expression "people power" is a useful addition to the vocabulary. Language and imagery are vitally important to the success of nonviolence. Along with the action, we need satyagraha semiotics.

The struggle over meaning

There's a huge rally against a meeting of the World Trade Organisation. Or there's a work-to-rule campaign in a workplace. Or a vigil against a local real estate development. It is easy for activists to see these as people's actions against forms of oppression or exploitation. But for others this meaning doesn't come automatically.

Critics might describe the anti-WTO rally as a well-meaning but misguided reaction against economic progress. They might describe the work-to-rule campaign as a bargaining tactic. And they might describe the vigil as a party. The meaning of events is up for grabs. Activists, whether they like it or not, are engaged in a struggle over meaning.

Popular understandings of nonviolence are hindered by the way actions are allocated to different topic areas and classified. In news reports, some actions are in world news, some in the business section, some in local news and quite a lot not covered at all.

The successes of nonviolent action are vulnerable to being explained away as due to some other cause. Commentators often attribute the collapse of Eastern European communist regimes to the US government's success in the Cold War, especially via forcing the Soviet government to spend too much on the military, without mentioning popular action. Indeed, governments almost never admit that their actions have been influenced by popular pressure.

In some cases it is impossible to ignore nonviolent action but its effectiveness is minimised. Gandhi is the most famous nonviolent activist. But the success of the Indian independence movement is often said to be due to the British being soft-hearted colonialists. A good retort is to refer to the British colonial actions in Kenya against the Mau Mau (who used violence), in which the British used concentration camps, torture, executions and massive killing.

Another familiar argument is that nonviolence wouldn't have worked against the Nazis. Anyone who gives talks about nonviolence needs to develop good responses, such as that nonviolence was used and was successful against the Nazis, for example the public protests in Berlin in 1943 that led to the release of Jewish prisoners. These sorts of debates are crucial to people's understandings of nonviolence.

Then there are the failures of nonviolence. Most well known is the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in China in 1989. This wasn't nearly as great a failure as normally seen, because it seriously damaged the reputation of the Chinese regime for a long time afterwards. Even so, there's a serious double standard. Since when did losing a war lead to the conclusion that "violence doesn't work"? After the US military withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, the conclusion of hawks wasn't that violence doesn't work but rather that "we didn't use enough force".

Nonviolent activists often say the same sort of thing about their less-than-successful campaigns: "we need to be stronger, wiser and more persistent in our use of nonviolence". But few other people see things this way. Changing their viewpoint is the essence of the struggle over the meaning of nonviolence.

Institutionalising nonviolence

By definition, nonviolent action goes beyond conventional political action. Methods like voting and lobbying are conventional and do not count as nonviolent action. But as nonviolent action is used more widely, it can become conventional: it becomes a political institution.

In many countries, rallies have become conventional. Back in the 1960s, rallies on some issues - such as against the Vietnam war - were often seen as a threat to the status quo. Police were on high alert and the risk of arrests and beatings was high. Today, though, in the same countries, a rally is nothing special. Governments grant permits and police ensure that everything runs smoothly, sometimes protecting protesters from attacks by bystanders.

This scenario applies only in some places. There are still plenty of repressive regimes in which a rally or petition is treated as subversion, with organisers subject to severe penalties.

Institutionalisation of nonviolence is a sign of success. It means that the repertoire of legitimate action has been expanded.

Institutionalisation can also be a straitjacket, restricting action at the whim of powerholders. The labour movement, after a long struggle, won the right to strike. But in some countries, strikes are now tightly regulated. Some unions sign no-strike agreements. Other unions can only strike in narrowly defined conditions, otherwise the union becomes subject to severe penalties. A typical result is that union officials become cautious. Unauthorised strikes - wildcat strikes - become a way to push the boundaries of workers' direct action.

There is an ongoing struggle over the legitimacy of nonviolent action, with laws and regulations the overt markers of the struggle. On the one hand, simple things like passing out leaflets may be restricted by codes in shopping centres and become the basis for a struggle over free speech. On the other hand, ploughshares activists who damage nuclear missiles seek legitimacy through the courts on the basis that they are acting to prevent genocide.

In general, greater legitimacy is a good thing for nonviolent action, especially in enabling methods to be used against repressive governments. But there is a risk in legitimacy if it is accompanied by excessive regulation and control by authorities.

Constraints on nonviolent action can be good or bad. It depends a lot on who decides on and implements the constraints. When the constraints are imposed by unsympathetic authorities, they often serve to contain the full power of nonviolence. When the constraints are decided upon by activists and local communities, they are more likely to make nonviolent action a powerful tool to build a better society.

Nonviolent action has proved so successful against dictatorships that some movements - such as in Serbia and the Ukraine - have received funding from a branch of the U.S. government. This is another sign that nonviolence is being institutionalised. There have been some heated debates about whether such funding is a good thing. These debates reflect the advantages and risks of institutionalisation. Government funding means that nonviolent action has much greater legitimacy, but at the same time it raises the possibility of controls over the action, either directly as conditions of funding or indirectly by encouraging activists to avoid doing things that will jeopardise funding.

As nonviolence becomes more successful, more accepted, more institutionalised and more global, these issues will become more prominent. Continued debate is needed.


One of the biggest obstacles to globalising nonviolence is fear - the fear people have of stepping out of line and the fear of reprisals, either during the action or afterwards. Nonviolent action can require courage, especially if there is a risk of arrest or injury. Preparation for nonviolent action involves learning how to handle this fear. Being part of a group makes a big difference.

But there is another fear that is just as important: the fear of doing something different from the crowd, of being conspicuous or deviant. When nonviolent action becomes conventional, the fear disappears. Signing a petition for world peace is seldom threatening to anyone. But signing a petition complaining about the boss can be very risky.

The more people who are involved in action, the safer it becomes for everyone. When participation passes a certain critical point, it can grow dramatically. The rapid expansion in protests in East Germany in 1989 is an example. So is the worldwide protest, on 15 February 2003, against invading Iraq.

Opponents of nonviolent action try to increase the fear factor, for example by passing harsh laws, even if they are hardly ever used. Many employees fear they could be harassed or dismissed if they speak out or join a protest movement, so they keep a low profile. Governments may try to increase fear by prosecuting a few individuals as an example of what might happen to others.

Activists try to address the problem of fear by working in groups, by careful planning for contingencies such as arrests, and by role plays so that activists become familiar with how to respond to threatening situations. They also choose and designs actions to allow more people to be involved without so much fear. A petition is safer to sign if 100 people have already signed it. A direct action is safer if the choice to break the law and risk arrest is up to the individual.

Military forces have harnessed the work of psychologists to develop ways to keep soldiers fighting in stressful situations. Nonviolent activists have drawn on psychological research, too, but need to do more.


There is still a long way to go before violence is eliminated as a method of struggle. There are various obstacles to nonviolence, each of which can be challenged by activists. I've looked at five areas of struggle over nonviolence: visibility, reputation, meaning, institutionalisation and fear. Each of these offers important challenges.

The spreading of nonviolence globally is one of the most important tools for dealing with each of these five areas. By experimenting with different approaches and sharing our insights, we can learn rapidly. Globalising nonviolence is both the method and the goal.