AskDefine | Define nonviolent

Dictionary Definition

nonviolent adj
1 abstaining (on principle) from the use of violence [ant: violent]
2 achieved without bloodshed; "an unbloody transfer of power" [syn: unbloody]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Not violent; without violence; following a philosophy of nonviolence.

Extensive Definition

Nonviolence is a philosophy and strategy for social change that rejects the use of physical violence. As such, nonviolence is an alternative to passive acceptance of oppression and armed struggle against it. Practitioners of nonviolence may use diverse methods in their campaigns for social change, including critical forms of education and persuasion, civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action, and targeted communication via mass media.
Sometimes, the term "nonviolence" is often linked with or even used as a synonym for pacifism. However the two concepts are demonstrably different. Proponents of nonviolence may reject violence for purely practical reasons (e.g. "the other side has all the guns"), whereas a pacifist may reject the use of violence on moral or spiritual grounds.
In modern times, nonviolence has been a powerful tool for social protest. Mohandas Gandi led a long nonviolent struggle against British rule in India. This movement helped India win its independence in 1947. About 10 years later, Martin Luther King Jr. adopted Gandi's nonviolent methods in his struggle to win civil rights for African Americans. Then in the 1960's Cesar Chavez organized a campaign of nonviolence to protest the treatment of farms workers in California. These three leaders proved that people can bring about social change without using violence. As Chavez once explained, "Nonviolence is not inaction. It is not for the timid or the weak. It is hard work, It is the patience to win."

How it works

Advocates of nonviolence believe cooperation and consent are the roots of political power: all regimes depend on compliance from citizens, bureaucratic and financial institutions, and armed segments of society (such as the military and police) to implement their policies. On a national level, the strategy of nonviolence seeks to undermine the power of rulers by encouraging people to withdraw their consent and cooperation. If the military or police attacks the nonviolent resisters, the structural violence of society is exposed, thus making the oppressors, instead of the resistors (the oppressed), look bad. If the resisters are persistent, the military or police will be forced to accept the fact that they no longer have any power over the resisters. Often, the willingness of the resisters to suffer has a profound effect on the mind and emotions of the oppressor, leaving them unable to commit such a violent act again.
In his book, The Search For a Nonviolent Future, Michael Nagler explains how nonviolence works, how violence does not, gives many examples of nonviolence, describes how anyone can start nonviolence in their family and community, and much more.
Gene Sharp, in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, suggests that the absence of nonviolence from mainstream historical study is because elite interests are not served by the dissemination of techniques for social struggle that rely on the collective power of a mobilized citizenry rather than access to wealth or weaponry.
Most advocates of nonviolence draw their inspiration from religious or ethical beliefs, or from political analysis. Religious or ethically based nonviolence is sometimes referred to as principled, philosophical or ethical nonviolence, while nonviolence based on political analysis is often referred to as tactical, strategic, or pragmatic nonviolence. Commonly, both of these dimensions may be present within the thinking of particular movements or individuals.
Love of the "enemy", or the realization of the humanity of all people, is a fundamental concept of principled nonviolence. Thus, this kind of nonviolent actor does not so much seek to defeat the "enemy", as to win them over to create love and understanding between all.
By contrast, the fundamental concept of pragmatic nonviolence is to create a social dynamic or political movement that can effect social change without necessarily winning over those who wish to maintain the status quo.

Why nonviolence?

In modern industrial democracies, nonviolence has been used extensively by political sectors without mainstream political power such labor, peace, environment and women's movements.
Less well known is the role that nonviolence has played and continues to play in undermining the power of repressive political regimes in the developing world and the former eastern bloc:
In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,000,000 people experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations ... If we add all the countries touched by major nonviolent actions in our century (the Philippines, South Africa ... the independence movement in India ...) the figure reaches 3,337,400,000, a staggering 65% of humanity! All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that nonviolence doesn't work in the 'real' world. — Walter Wink, as quoted by Susan Ives in a 2001 talk
As a technique for social struggle, nonviolence has been described as "the politics of ordinary people", reflecting its historically mass-based use by populations throughout the world and history. Struggles most often associated with nonviolence are the non co-operation campaign for Indian independence led by Mohandas Gandhi, the struggle to attain civil rights for African Americans, led by Martin Luther King Jr., and People Power in the Philippines.
Also of primary significance is the notion that just means are the most likely to lead to just ends. When Gandhi said that "the means may be likened to the seed, the end to a tree," he expressed the philosophical kernel of what some refer to as prefigurative politics. Martin Luther King, a student of Gandhian non-violent resistance, concurred with this tenet of the method, concluding that ". . . nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek." Proponents of nonviolence reason that the actions taken in the present inevitably re-shape the social order in like form. They would argue, for instance, that it is fundamentally irrational to use violence to achieve a peaceful society.
Some proponents of nonviolence advocate respect or love for opponents. It is this principle which is most closely associated with spiritual or religious justifications of nonviolence, as may be seen in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus urges his followers to "love thine enemy," in the Taoist concept of wu-wei, or effortless action, in the philosophy of the martial art Aikido, in the Buddhist principle of metta, or loving-kindness towards all beings, and in the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence toward any being, shared by Buddhism, Jainism and some forms of Hinduism. Respect or love for opponents also has a pragmatic justification, in that the technique of separating the deeds from the doers allows for the possibility of the doers changing their behaviour, and perhaps their beliefs. Martin Luther King said, "Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him." Focus on both nonviolence and forgiveness of sin can be found in the story of Abel in the Qur'an. Liberal movements within Islam have consequently used this story to promote Jewish ideals of nonviolence.
Finally, the notion of Satya, or truth, is central to the Gandhian conception of nonviolence. Gandhi saw truth as something that is multifaceted and unable to be grasped in its entirety by any one individual. All carry pieces of the truth, he believed, but all need the pieces of others’ truths in order to pursue the greater truth. This led him to believe in the inherent worth of dialogue with opponents, in order to understand motivations. On a practical level, willingness to listen to another's point of view is largely dependent on reciprocity. In order to be heard by one's opponents, one must also be prepared to listen.
The central tenets of nonviolent philosophy exist in each of the major Abrahamic religious traditions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) as well as in the major Dharmic religious traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism). It is also found in many pagan religious traditions. Nonviolent movements, leaders and advocates have at times referred to, drawn from and utilised many diverse religious basis for nonviolence within their respective struggles.
Likewise, secular political movements have utilised nonviolence, either as a tactical tool or as a strategic program on purely pragmatic and strategic levels, relying on its political effectiveness rather than a claim to any religious, moral or ethical worthiness.
People come to use nonviolent methods of struggle from a wide range of perspectives and traditions. A landless peasant in Brazil may nonviolently occupy a parcel of land for purely practical motivations. If they don't, the family will starve. A Buddhist monk in Thailand may "ordain" trees in a threatened forest, drawing on the teachings of Buddha to resist its destruction. A waterside worker in England may go on strike in socialist and union political traditions. All the above are using nonviolent methods but from different standpoints.
Nonviolence has even obtained a level of institutional recognition and endorsement at the global level. On November 10th, 1998, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the first decade of the 21st century and the third millennium, the years 2001 to 2010, as the International Decade for the Promotion of a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World.


Nonviolent action generally comprises three categories. The first, Acts of Protest and Persuasion, which include protest marches, vigils, public meetings and tools such as banners, placards, candles, flowers and the like; secondly, Noncooperation, the deliberate and strategic refusal to co-operate with an injustice; and thirdly, Nonviolent Intervention, the deliberate and often physical intervention into a perceived unjust event, such as blockades, occupations, sit-ins, tree sitting, truck cavalcades to name a few.
Hunger strikes, pickets, candlelight vigils, petitions, sit-ins, tax refusal, go-slows, blockades, draft refusal and public demonstrations are some of the specific techniques that have been deployed by nonviolent movements. Throughout history, these are some of the means used by ordinary people to counter injustice or reveal oppression or bring about progressive change.
Tactics must be carefully chosen, taking into account political and cultural circumstances, and form part of a larger plan or strategy.
A useful source of inspiration, for those seeking the best nonviolent tactics to deploy, is Gene Sharp’s list of 198 methods of nonviolent action, which includes symbolic, political, economic and physical actions. In early Greece, Aristophanes' Lysistrata gives the fictional example of women withholding sexual favours from their husbands until war was abandoned.
Activist/researcher George Lakey says there are three applications of nonviolent action, being for:
  • social defense (as in protection of a neighborhood or country from outside invaders);
  • social change (its most known form, for advocating either reform or revolutionary changes); and
  • third-party nonviolent intervention.
As a method of intervention across borders to deter attack and promote peaceful resolution of conflicts, the latter has met with several failures (at least on the level of deterring attack) such as the Human Shields in Iraq because it failed to ascertain the value of the goal compared with the value of human life in its context of war; but also many successes, such as the work of Project Accompaniment in Guatemala. Several non-governmental organizations are working in this area including, for example: Peace Brigades International, Christian Peacemaker Teams and the Nonviolent Peaceforce. The primary tactics are unarmed accompaniment and human rights observation and reporting.
There are also many other great nonviolence leaders and theorists who have thought deeply about the spiritual and practical aspects of nonviolence, including: Leo Tolstoy, Lech Wałęsa, Petra Kelly, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dorothy Day, Ammon Hennacy, Albert Einstein, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, David McReynolds, Johan Galtung, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Ida Ford, Daniel Berrigan, Bacha Khan, Mario Rodriguez Cobos (pen name Silo) and César Chávez, Leanne Perry.
Many leftist and socialist movements have hoped to mount a "peaceful revolution" by organizing enough strikers to completely paralyze it. With the state and corporate apparatus thus crippled, the workers would be able to re-organize society along radically different lines.

Living nonviolence

The violence embedded in most of the world's societies causes many to consider it an inherent part of human nature, but others (Riane Eisler, Walter Wink, Daniel Quinn) have suggested that violence - or at least the arsenal of violent strategies we take for granted - is a phenomenon of the last five to ten thousand years, and was not present in pre-domestication and early post-domestication human societies. This view shares several characteristics with the Victorian ideal of the Noble Savage.
For many, practicing nonviolence goes deeper than withholding from violent behavior or words. It means caring in one's heart for everyone, even those one strongly disagrees with, that is who are antithetical or opposed. By extrapolation comes the necessity of caring for those who are not practicing nonviolence, who are violent. Of course no one can simply will themselves to have such care, and this is one of the great personal challenges posed by nonviolence - once one believes in nonviolence in theory, how can the person live it?

Green politics and nonviolence

Nonviolence has been a central concept in green political philosophy. It is included in the Global Greens Charter. Greens believe that society should reject the current patterns of violence and embrace nonviolence. Green Philosophy draws heavily on both Gandhi and the Quaker traditions, which advocate measures by which the escalation of violence can be avoided, while not cooperating with those who commit violence. These greens believe that the current patterns of violence are incompatible with a sustainable society because it uses up limited resources and many forms of violence, especially nuclear weapons, are damaging for the environment. Violence also diminishes one and the group.
Some green political parties, like the Dutch GroenLinks, evolved out of the cooperation of the peace movement with the environmental movement in their resistance to nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.
As Green Parties have moved from the fringes of society towards becoming more and more influential in government circles, this commitment to nonviolence has had to be more clearly defined. In many cases, this has meant that the party has had to articulate a position on non-violence that differentiates itself from classic pacifism. The leader of the German Greens, for example, was instrumental in the NATO intervention in the Kosovo, arguing that being in favour of non-violence should never lead to passive acceptance of genocide. Similarly, Elizabeth May of the Green Party of Canada has stated that the Canadian intervention in Afganistan is justified as a means of supporting women's rights.
This movement by Green leadership has caused some internal dissension, as the traditional pacifist position is that there is no justification ever for committing violence.

Revolution and nonviolence

Certain individuals (Barbara Deming, Danilo Dolci, Devere Allen etc.) and party groups (eg. Socialist Party USA, Socialist Resistance or War Resisters League) have advocated nonviolent revolution as an alternative to violence as well as elitist reformism. This perspective is usually connected to militant anti-capitalism.


Leon Trotsky, Frantz Fanon, Reinhold Niebuhr, Subhash Chandra Bose and Malcolm X were fervent critics of nonviolence, arguing variously that nonviolence and pacifism are an attempt to impose the morals of the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat, that violence is a necessary accompaniment to revolutionary change, or that the right to self-defense is fundamental.
In the midst of violent repression of radical African Americans in the United States during the 1960s, Black Panther member George Jackson said of the nonviolent tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one's adversary. When this adversary has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, his reaction can only be negative."
Malcolm X also clashed with civil rights leaders over the issue of nonviolence, arguing that violence should not be ruled out where no option remained:
"I believe it's a crime for anyone being brutalized to continue to accept that brutality without doing something to defend himself."
Lance Hill criticises nonviolence as a failed strategy and argues that black armed self-defense and civil violence motivated civil rights reforms more than peaceful appeals to morality and reason (see Lance Hill's "Deacons for Defense")
The efficacy of nonviolence was also challenged by anti-capitalist protesters advocating a "diversity of tactics" during street demonstrations across Europe and the US following the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, Washington in 1999. American feminist writer D. A. Clarke, in her essay "A Woman With A Sword," suggests that for nonviolence to be effective, it must be "practiced by those who could easily resort to force if they chose." This argument reasons that nonviolent tactics will be of little or no use to groups that are traditionally considered incapable of violence, since nonviolence will be in keeping with people's expectations for them and thus go unnoticed. Such is the principle of dunamis (from the Greek: δύνάμις or, restrained power).
Niebuhr's criticism of nonviolence, expressed most clearly in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) is based on his view of human nature as innately selfish, an updated version of the Christian doctrine of original sin. Advocates of nonviolence generally do not accept the doctrine of original sin (though Martin Luther King, Jr., did accept a modified version of Niebuhr's teachings on the subject).

Property or people?

One minor, but commonly debated issue is whether the destruction of or damage to non-living objects, as opposed to people is actual "violence". In much nonviolence literature, including Sharp, various forms of sabotage and damage to property are included within the scope of nonviolent action, while other authors consider destruction or destructive acts of any kind as potentially or actually a form of violence in that it might generate fear or hardship upon the owner or person dependent on that object.
Other authors or activists argue that property destruction can be strategically ineffective if the act provides a pretext for further repression or reinforces state power. Lakey, for instance, argues that the burning of cars during the Paris uprising of 1968 only served to undermine the growing working and middle-class support for the uprising and undermined its political potential.
Sabotage of machinery used in war, either during its production or after, complicates the issue further. Is saving a life by destroying property that will later be used for violence a violent act, or is passively allowing weapons to be used later the violent act (i.e. non-violence that leads to violence)? At a less abstract level, if someone is being beaten with a stick, it is usually not considered an act of violence to take the stick away, but if the stick falls to the ground and you break it, is that still considered a violent action?
In all of these debates it is relevant to consider the question of whether the perpetrator or victim of violence determines what is "violent." Also, relative power of parties and the type of "weapon" being applied is relevant to the issue. Palestinian children throwing rocks at Israeli tanks as an example cited. Force itself here becomes a relative measure of power and petty violence by the disenfranchised may be violence, but ultimately is not the same as overarching "power" to destroy.

Defining nonviolence

As alluded to in the previous section, the term nonviolence is sometimes used to define different sets of limitations or features, as different actions are considered violent or not violent. In a Wikipedia article on the 2008 Tibetan unrest, a quotation from Dawa Tsering, an Additional Secretary in the Department of Information and International Relations of the Tibetan government-in-exile claims that actions of beating people and setting fire to a building with people holed up inside who end up being burnt to death are both scenarios of nonviolence; though, some Western definitions would clearly clash with their definition of nonviolence which appears to include everything but intentional causing of fatal harm. In an interview with Radio France International Tsering said :


Organizations promoting nonviolence

Further reading

  • ISBN 0-87558-070-X Power and Struggle (Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part 1) by Gene Sharp
  • ISBN 0-87558-071-8 Methods of Nonviolent Action (Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part 2) by Gene Sharp
  • ISBN 0-87558-072-6 Dynamics of Nonviolent Action (Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part 3) by Gene Sharp
  • ISBN 0-87558-162-5 Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice And 21st Century Potential by Gene Sharp with collaboration of Joshua Paulson and the assistance of Christopher A. Miller and Hardy Merriman
  • ISBN 0-8166-4193-5 Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Non-Democracies by Kurt Schock
  • ISBN 0-8006-3609-0 Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Facets) by Walter Wink
  • ISBN 1-57075-315-6 Peace Is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation by Fellowship of Reconciliation (U. S.)
  • ISBN 1-57075-547-7 American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea by Ira Chernus
  • ISBN 0-679-64335-4 Nonviolence: 25 Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Kurlansky
  • OCLC 03859761 The Kingdom of God is within You by Leo Tolstoy
  • ISBN 1-9307-2235-4 Is There No Other Way? The Search for a Nonviolent Future by Michael Nagler
  • ISBN 0-8156-3003-4 Radical Pacifism: The War Resisters League and Gandhian Nonviolence in America, 1915-1963, by Scott H. Bennett, Syracuse Univ. Press, 2003.
  • Nazaretyan, A.P. (2007). Violence and Non-Violence at Different Stages of World History: A view from the hypothesis of techno-humanitarian balance. In: History & Mathematics. Moscow: KomKniga/URSS. P.127-148. ISBN 9785484010011.
nonviolent in Arabic: لاعنف
nonviolent in German: Gewaltlosigkeit
nonviolent in Spanish: No violencia
nonviolent in Esperanto: Senperforto
nonviolent in French: Non-violence
nonviolent in Korean: 비폭력주의
nonviolent in Italian: Nonviolenza
nonviolent in Hebrew: אי-אלימות
nonviolent in Hungarian: Erőszakmentesség
nonviolent in Dutch: Geweldloosheid
nonviolent in Japanese: 非暴力
nonviolent in Neapolitan: Nunviulenza
nonviolent in Norwegian: Ikkevold
nonviolent in Portuguese: Não-violência
nonviolent in Russian: Ненасилие (хартия Зелёных)
nonviolent in Serbian: Ненасиље
nonviolent in Serbo-Croatian: Nenasilje
nonviolent in Swedish: Ickevåld
nonviolent in Chinese: 非暴力

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1