Saturday, May 22, 2010

Principled and Pragmatic Nonviolence

I just finished co-facilitating the Active Nonviolence (ANV) course here at Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute (MPI). ANV is a course I have helped teach here since 2005 and every year I understand the role of ANV in peacebuilding better thanks to the Mindanaoan and international participants.

This year while presenting Mahatma Gandhi’s and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of nonviolence it struck me that there have been many successful nonviolent movements that have not articulated the individual worth of each ‘opponent’ like Gandhi and King. Some of the foundational values evident in the Indian struggle for autonomy and the US civil rights movement include:

o There is divine in all beings
o Humans can’t be reduced to the evil they perpetuate (Gandhi)
o Actively loving our adversaries while identifying our own blind spots (Gandhi)
o Seeking to win friendship and understanding (King)
o Defeat of injustice not people (King)
o Chooses love instead of hate (King)

The above values were insisted upon by their leaders.

But some successful nonviolent movements have embraced a much more pragmatic approach like the simple removal of a dictator or righting an injustice. In these movements physical violence to infrastructure, sabotage to economic systems or character assassination were encouraged. While these movements would go so far as non-lethal coercion of political leaders and lampooning individuals, they rejected violence toward humans be they occupying soldiers or corrupt leaders.

My insights crystallized as I realized that Gandhi and King invoked principles that were internalized in their nonviolent followers while in more pragmatic situations external limits were what held the movement in check. In the long run I wonder which starting point, principled or pragmatic, will bring the most sustainable change.


  1. What happens after they have achieved their immediate goals: of independence (Gandhi) and equality (King)? Both did not live to see the vision to its fullest (or must I say closer to reality) because both were assasinated. The idea of reconciliation was left for their followers to chart. And it seems to be a divisive issue. While some never stop fighting and exporting the ideas of ANV, as a social change agent, or must I say "pick a fight" or, to be more nasty, find an excuse so they can practice their skills, there were others who seek do not mistake the means for the vision of a reconciled community.

    Of course many activist would say, "the struggle never stops" but at the same time, can it be said that some are stuck in their own paradigm and refuse to move on as realities evolve? Perhaps that is why India and Pakistan continue to wage brutal wars on each other sporadically. Or for the US to find hate figures to justify its military spending, choosing violence, imposing brute force over those who do not aggree with the way it views things, waging war on terror instead of dialogue and putting its feet in the other other peoples' shoes.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts...

    Perhaps that can be said of all ANV actions. All the examples I use in class, if you look at the long term, have not achieved Heaven/Narvana. So perhaps ANV as a social change agent needs to be harnessed with something else to bring about perfect peace?