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.
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.