When we first started our edited volume, Understanding Nonviolence: Contours andContexts, one of our biggest challenges was deciding what terms to use indefining the field of study. While “nonviolence” may be the most commonlyrecognized term in the general public, and some advocates of the approach adoptthe word proudly, it was our experience that many activists, practitioners, andeven scholars reject it, claiming that “nonviolence” implies passivity,pacifism, and weakness; they prefer terms such as “civil resistance,” “popularstruggle,” “unarmed actions,” and “people power.” Furthermore, some felt that“nonviolence” defined the field based on what it was not rather than what it was,and therefore opted for more positively-defined empowering terminology.
Rather than skirt around the “n-word,” we decided to embraceit, using it as a way of reaching a broader audience. Through the varied casestudies and analyses that make up the book, we seek to unpack the myths andmisconceptions surrounding this particular approach to activism and politicalchange. Some of our findings include:
1.Nonviolenceisn’t easily defined. While we often think of nonviolence and violence as either/orcategories, most struggles involve elements of both, and some tactics (such asproperty damage or using nonlethal weapons like stones), invite debates fromactivists regarding the extent to which they are nonviolent. In our book, wealso challenge the conventional dichotomy between those pursuing nonviolencefor principled v. strategic reasons, arguing that the distinction is actually quiteblurry when one begins examining cases in detail. Finally, our diverse casestudies illustrate the importance of context in nonviolent movements, showinghow successful movements adapt tactics to their own particular setting, drawingon local culture, political opportunities, and available human and materialresources.
2.Nonviolence includes more than protests. The common image of nonviolence may be massiveprotests, but evenmovements that employ large-scale demonstrations and civil disobedience dependon less visible forms of resistance, including developing parallel institutions,training and organizing participants, developing solidarity networks, andengaging in small acts of resistance (often utilizing arts, media, or humor) tobuild momentum and capacity. These “underground” activities also reflect theagency of activists, who seize, and evencreate, opportunities for change in whatmay appear to be structurally hostile environments.
3.Nonviolenceworks, as both a means and an end. As noted in many of the chapters,activists see a clear link between using nonviolent means and achievingpeaceful and just outcomes, with widespread movement participation helpingfacilitate the transition to democratic institutions and engaged civilsocieties. From Gandhi’s early campaigns to recent global justice movements,activists choose nonviolence not only for reasons of short-term strategy,religious belief, or attracting solidarity, but also because they believe themovement should reflect the sort of society they hope to build. The horizontal,participatory nature of many nonviolent movements contrasts with the typically morehierarchical and authoritarian nature of armed resistance.
Thefield of nonviolence will continue to develop and expand as the use of nonviolenttactics and strategies continues to be recognized and documented. We hope ourbook encourages scholars, students, and activists alike to think critically andcreatively about nonviolence in theory and practice as they pursue future studyand research on the topic.
Maia Carter Hallward is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Affairs at Kennesaw State University. Julie M Norman is Visiting Professor of Political Science at McGill University.