Does Nonviolence Even Work?

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Over the last week I found myself increasingly mindful about where I put my attention, time and money.

I’ve been more intentional than ever about what media I consume and about where I spend my money. I firmly believe that we "vote" for the world we want with our attention and spending habits.

Focusing on my circles of influence instead my circles of concern is deeply empowering and soothing. (Thank you Stephen Covey!)

In my practice groups last week ...

  • One participant expressed frustration and anger with “the impotent left” who are so busy being nice to everyone that they fail to engage in effective action.

  • Another person expressed a deep longing to develop more skill in empathizing with people who are significantly different to himself.

  • Another said she longed for more practical examples of how nonviolence actually “works” and whether or not it is even effective.

Big. Questions.

Perhaps you can relate?

Although I can hardly do them each justice, this week I’d like to provide some initial responses to these common concerns. (And, I'll sprinkle in more resources for your enrichment!)

1. Effective Action

The way I see it, effective action consists of a combination of the Protective Use of Force (more here) combined with Empathy.

Simply put, Set Boundaries and Be Kind.

What makes this so hard?

Unfortunately, most of us are too familiar with punitive, shaming, divisive and violent boundary setting or with people-pleasing, obsequious and impotent forms of so-called empathy.

Both of those actually harm more than help.

  • Nonviolent Boundaries are protective of all beings - including the oppressor, torturer, murder.

  • Empathy is authentic, grounded, powerful and present.

Also, often our own fear and pain prevents us from being able to either protect or empathize, and so, most likely we each have some personal growth work to do in our collective journeys towards being able to engage in effective action.

2. Empathizing with differences.

Marshall Rosenberg offers a simple, powerful example here illustrating the power of listening for underlying needs when working with people in conflict.

If you want strategies for engaging in politically charged conversations, I offer them in this recording.

And, generally speaking, here are some pointers:

1. Getting Ready: Internal Resourcing

  • Drop your enemy images and see the person's humanity and divinity. As Michael Nagler reminds us, “The more you respect the humanity of your opponent, the more effectively you can oppose his or her injustice.” One of the most important practices if you’d like to cross any divide, is to drop the enemy images that you have of the other side, and to insist on seeing the humanity inside of everyone.

  • Get the empathy you need first from others, before engaging with those who provoke you into polarizing

  • Open your heart: your body will tell you when you are ready

  • Once you are feeling open, curious, resourced and able to see this “other” as a human being like you, then move to the second stage.

2. Engage in Dialogue (not debate!)

Stage One: Building Relationship and Trust

Stage Two: Engaging in Problem Solving

  • Share how you feel, and what matters deeply to you

  • Highlight agreement whenever possible (we both value freedom, we both value safety and community, belonging)

  • Invite them to think creatively together with you: People are not the problem. It’s not me against you, but you and me against this problem

  • Demonstrate your underlying commitment to serve the wellbeing of all people, including the person you are talking to

  • Stay proactive and concrete, not theoretical. Propose possible solutions instead of analyzing wrongness and badness in each other’s positions. “What if we…”

  • Make it possible for the other person to shift, leave or disengage from their position without humiliation or shame.

  • Success is measured by your ability to stay loving, present and curious even under great provocation! Your ultimate goal is (re)building relationships, not being right.

Again, I say a lot more about this here.

3. Finally, the third concern: Does nonviolence even work?

I'll simply share this story told by Michael Nagler in The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide for Practical Action:

“Consider my friend David Hartsough, now a famous peace activist, then a 15 year old white person sitting in at a lunch counter in Virginia to break racial discrimination.

After a day and a half without food, he was suddenly pulled off his stool and throated by an enraged white man who held a huge knife to his chest and snarled, “Well, N— lover, you have one minute to get out before I run this into your heart.”

David stayed calm (he had been reciting the Lord’s Prayer to himself for hours on end.) Trying to meet the man’s eyes despite the hatred in them, he heard himself saying, “Brother, you do what you feel you have to, but I’m going to try to love you no matter what.”

After a long moment, the knife began to tremble. Then the man slowly dropped his hand and walked out the lunch room. Onlookers noticed he was in tears.”

The most powerful changes first happen in human hearts.

Theodore Roszack once said, “People try nonviolence for a week, and when it doesn’t “work” they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.”

There is no quick or easy way to promote loving, transformative social change. It takes constant effort and is a life-long challenge.

We don't just passively allow violence to be used against ourselves or others in the name of "empathy", and neither do we meet violence with violence. Both of these approaches actually increase violence.

Want to stop running away in fear, or attacking back in anger?

Reduce violence, hatred and oppression by embodying the powers of love and serving the protection of all beings on this planet.

It really does work.

In fact, it's the only thing I have found that does.