Does nonviolent resistance work? Part 2b

Libyans In Dublin March In Protest Against Gadaffi

Libyans In Dublin March In Protest Against Gadaffi
Photo by William Murphy, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

This is the second of three posts comprising Part II of a series of posts in which Dr. Ian Hansen shares his thoughts on nonviolence.

See also Part 1aPart 1bPart 1cPart 2a and Part2c.

To achieve freedom from dictatorial oppression, what’s the prognosis for just enduring it until it goes out of style from the top?  This does sometimes happen, as it did in Taiwan under Chiang Ching-Kuo; however, Taiwan’s relatively grass-rootless transition to political liberty and democracy is a rare and exceptional case.

In the wake of Syria’s violence, the questions all nonviolent revolutionaries should be prepared to address are

  • how to start a nonviolent mass movement that is unlikely to devolve into a catastrophic civil war far worse than the dictatorship inspiring popular resistance, and
  • how best to deal with intrusions by great powers hoping to bleed one’s country into greater fealty by turning popular unrest to their strategic advantage.

The disaster in Syria suggests that sometimes it might be morally defensible to endure or work gently with an abominable, illegitimate, and oppressive government rather than mobilizing mass resistance to it—nonviolent or otherwise.

This is a gloomy and dispiriting thought, and feels like an invitation to moral cowardice, and I think it is a thought for rare circumstances only.  My impression is that usually, once nonviolent revolutions get to the point of massive police and military defections (as occurred in Syria and Libya), the dictator targeted by them is inclined to surrender or flee.

Assad and Gaddafi made it clear, however, that sometimes dictators prefer to be “suicide mass murderers”—viciously dispatching as many of their own citizens as possible until they are finally killed, potentially destroying or deeply wounding their nation in the process.  This possibility puts a much heavier moral weight on the decision-makers of would-be nonviolent movements (and on those who cheer them from afar).  Still, this ugly possibility is not sufficient grounds for never again standing up against autocracy and injustice.

Ian Hansen, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at York College, City University of New York. His research focuses in part on how witness for human rights and peace can transcend explicit political ideology. He is also on the Steering Committee for Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

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7 Responses to Does nonviolent resistance work? Part 2b

  1. golddust twin says:

    It does seem as if the old moral advice to turn the other cheek is preferable to extracting an eye for an eye, but how many of us can bring ourselves to do this when faced with an outrageous injustice? and how can we learn to handle things better when we see an injustice so as not to get caught up in an endless cycle of violence where each side keeps wanting to punish the other side?

  2. Ian Hansen says:

    I don’t think there’s an easy answer. You can try to rigorously train people for the moment when police and/or soldiers start shooting live ammunition into crowds of nonviolent protestors, and have them commit early on to remaining nonviolent through that moment.

    Badshah Khan accomplished this training quite well with the Khudai Khidmatgar back in the 1930 and 40s in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, and the work of the Khudai Khidmatgar was instrumental to getting the British out of India in spite of the ruthless brutality of the former.

    Ironically, some military discipline and willingness to obey orders and protocol can be tremendously helpful when employed in the service of a nonviolent movement. A well-trained, uniform-wearing, code-adhering nonviolent army is much more likely to keep its nonviolent discipline in the face of imprisonment, torture and mass murder than a collection of people just trying out popular protest, and who aren’t expecting massacres in response.

    A worldview that makes life meaningful enough that you don’t fear death or pain can also go a long way.

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