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Steve Whiting continues our series on Nonviolence and Social Change, following on from Part 1: What is Nonviolence?

In Part 1 we explored what we mean by nonviolence and outlined our core principles. But of course it’s easy enough to list our principles in a blog post, but the reality of practicing nonviolence tends to raise more complex questions.

One of the tools we use in our workshops to explore common questions on nonviolence is the spectrum.  A rich discussion often opens up. We’ve learned that people have different understandings of nonviolence, different boundaries and assumptions. Over the years, we’ve identified several areas of dilemma. Here are the main ones, with some thoughts and examples as well as questions that invite us to go deeper:

Property Destruction

Violence to property is still violence. How can it be called nonviolence?

  • Context and motive are all important. We are talking here about carefully prepared and executed actions that focus on particular property.
  • Is “violence to property” more of an issue in affluent and property-conscious societies?
  • In 1980, US American activists (King of Prussia Plowshares) damaged nuclear weapons equipment. In their legal defence, they proposed the idea of “improper property”, which they argued was property that should not exist. For example, weapons of mass destruction that threaten humanity, and property like fences that support them.
  • Nonviolent actions that have damaged property include: destroying the Berlin Wall (1989), pulling down the fence at Greenham Common nuclear weapons base (1983), disabling a Hawk fighter aircraft bound for the repressive Indonesian government (1985), emptying a nuclear weapons floating laboratory (1999), disabling B52 bombers to prevent them bombing Iraq (2003), pulling up genetically modified crops from test fields (1999).
  • Some would not describe these actions as nonviolent. Others will ask: who was hurt? What you would do if you heard the cries of a distressed child behind a locked door? Would you break down the door to rescue the child?


Anger is a destructive emotion and does not support nonviolence. Surely the first thing is to deal with the violence in ourselves. How can we be serious nonviolent people with anger still in our hearts?

  • Anger often fuels hatred, and both can lead to destructive action. They encourage defensive or retaliatory behaviour in our opponents. They restrict dialogue and obstruct the way to positive change. Nonviolence requires us to separate the person from their actions, but hatred clouds thinking and makes this difficult.
  • But can anger and hatred be separated? Can you be angry at the act without hating the person? Can anger be channeled? Can it be used as a positive form of energy that leads us into creative action?
  • Many activists will say that the anger they feel when they see suffering or the natural world dying is directly related to their love and compassion. Their anger is a measure of their love. It’s the thing that led them to action in the first place. It powers their continued activism.


Seeing the suffering of others can be the trigger for our own actions. And our own suffering in the struggle is often a key part of the work of challenging injustice and oppression. It gives us connection to the hearts of others. But how far do we go with this?

  • Realistically, if you are challenging an inherently violent system, the violence is likely to come to the surface and show itself in a physical way. Strategically, nonviolent action has that very intention – to make the violence in the system more visible, to bring it out so it cannot be ignored or denied. And then it can get dealt with.
  • In the struggle for civil rights in the US, Birmingham Alabama was widely seen as the toughest on black people. And this was the reason that Martin Luther King Jnr in 1963 chose it for a mass nonviolent action. Police attacked  demonstrators with clubs and water hoses, and set their dogs on them. Pictures appeared in newspapers and TVs across the country, and people were shocked. This was a turning point for the entire campaign, when large numbers of white middle class US Americans woke up to what the protestors were saying. Many became supporters of the movement.
  • For Gandhi, suffering was core to the struggle, one that served to move the heart of the oppressor. Although this is a traditional part of nonviolence, could Gandhi’s fasts be regarded as violence to self?

Persuasion vs Coercion

Nonviolence is about winning the hearts and minds of our opponent. That’s about persuasion, right? How can coercive acts be described as nonviolent?

  • Nonviolent change is about persuading and converting our opponent, and many people are uncomfortable with coercive behaviour. Is there a difference between coercion and violence? Is there such a concept as nonviolent coercion?
  • Is coercion a more assertive form of persuasion? Think of how we bring up children; do we use coercion to stop them doing harm? Do we help force decisions in other parts of our lives? Is pulling someone out of the way to save them from injury a coercive act? Is it nonviolent?
  • When challenging entrenched vested interests, is persuasive argument sufficient even to gain their attention? We think of it as “speaking Truth to Power”. What if Power already knows the truth? What if Power doesn’t listen? Will persuasion alone change them? What if the issue is urgent?
  • Some argue that creative coercive actions can go a long way to changing a situation, and still be nonviolent. Can direct action coerce an opponent into stopping what they are doing without harming them?

Diversity of Tactics vs Dogmatic Nonviolence

Do we need to be dogmatic about our responses to injustice? Shouldn’t we all challenge and defeat it in whatever way is right for us? Surely, the wider our range of approaches, the more effective we shall be. Can violent and nonviolent approaches work together?

  • A core principle of nonviolent activism is to break the cycle of violence. This can mean taking the violence on ourself without giving it out. This is where those who adopt nonviolence as a useful tactic depart from those who see it as central. When protesters suffer violence from security forces, they may assert their right to defend themselves, violently if necessary. Or they may argue about proportional response: that the violence they use  is nothing compared to the violence of the injustice they are taking action against.
  • A counter argument is that activist violence can undermine and detract from the issue. It also provides easier entry points for agents provocateurs, who can (and do) infiltrate resistance groups and advocate violence to undermine them.
  • When activists use violence against a system that is massively more violent, the focus tends to be on the violence. The situation can become polarised and locked. And more people get hurt.
  • There is the danger that the conflict becomes another competition in violence. If we enter that cycle the most violent usually win.
  • Part of the strength of social change activism is its creativity and diversity. Some will argue for careful preparation, others for the freedom to express opposition one’s own way, perhaps spontaneously on the day.
  • Many argue that these disagreements divide the movement and that we are at our strongest when we all work together with our differences. Others maintain that acceptance of violence excludes them.

Secrecy vs Openness

Nonviolence is about building relationships of trust, including with your opponent. How does secrecy contribute to this?

  • Secrecy tends to breed suspicion. It’s inconsistent with the ethos of nonviolence, which favours openness and accountability. But would this work, say, in totalitarian societies? Or in societies that have high levels of mistrust and surveillance?
  • Even in more liberal societies some actions depend upon surprise for their effectiveness. For example, banner drops from well-known buildings, flashmobs, or impromptu speeches at corporate AGMs.
  • Integrity is fundamental to nonviolence, which Gandhi saw as a search for truth. In the Second World War, Dutch Quakers secretly hid Jewish friends in their homes. When questioned, they refused to reveal this to the Gestapo. Were they acting out of truth and integrity?

Read more in part 1 and part 3 this series on Nonviolence and Social Change.

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Graphic by Dai Owen www.dai-owen.co.uk