Nonviolence: Negative vs. Positive
EDITORIAL, 27 Jun 2011
There is much talk about nonviolence these days. Politicians and journalists get serious about the power that played a key role in ending colonialism (India) and the Cold War (Gdansk, Leipzig); unmentioned by Obama in his belligerent Nobel Peace Prize speech 2009. He would not have been president without the nonviolence of, say, the Freedom Riders[i] against Anglo-Saxon brutality in the US South. But, there is nonviolence and nonviolence, as with most things, and the difference matters in theory and in practice.
Both are forms of power. Negative nonviolence tries to stop the other side’s direct or structural violence whereas positive nonviolence tries to make the antagonist start being peaceful. Thus, negative nonviolence demands acts of omission–no more violence–and positive nonviolence invites acts of commission, for peace.
Negative nonviolence includes all forms of action against, short of physical violence, like non-cooperation, civil disobedience, breaking laws, declaring and practicing autonomy. And positive nonviolence includes clearing the past through conciliation, the present through mediation of dangerous conflicts, and building a future through equitable participation in positive projects. They are not exclusive; a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King did both.
Obviously the two forms have abstention from direct physical violence in common. But whereas negative nonviolence includes violence like “rude gestures, taunting, haunting officials”[ii], the positive nonviolence insists on nonviolent speech and thought; beyond the psychological capacity of many. How can I be against them and for them at the same time? By seeing them as ambiguous.
However, there are deeper differences in philosophy.
Imagine a state using violence, war, external or internal, “civil”. There are five very different ways of responding.
The first is to respond in kind and enter a war with three outcomes: A wins, B wins, stalemate (ceasefire, armistice, whether preparing for renewed hostilities or not). Second: guerrilla or terrorism, continuation of the war by less formal means. Third: negotiation, continuation of the war by verbal means. They all have something in common: a winner, a loser, or stalemate.
And that also applies to the fourth, negative nonviolence.
Everything is done to leave the powers that be with only one option: capitulation; whether in exile, in court, or as killed. Restricting social space to only one point is violence, under the guise of nonviolence. And behind that lurks the idea of the other side as intrinsically evil, to be incapacitated; not human.
Enters, as fifth, Gandhi (and Frontier Gandhi.[iii]) The other side is not evil, but the conflict is. Do not fight, to coerce, but dialogue, to convert. Arne Næss and this author identified gandhian norms for negative and positive nonviolence, like[iv]:
N12 Define the conflict well!
N121 State your own goal clearly!
N122 Try to understand your opponent’s goal!
N123 Emphasize common and compatible goals!
N13 Have a positive approach to conflict!
N132 See conflict as opportunity to meet the opponent!
N133 See conflict as opportunity to transform society!
N134 See conflict as opportunity to transform yourself!
N25 Do not polarize!
N251 Distinguish between antagonism and antagonist!
N252 Distinguish between person and status!
N253 Maintain contact!
N254 Empathize with your opponent’s position!
N255 Be flexible in defining parties and positions!
N31 Solve conflict!
N311 Do not continue conflict struggle forever!
N312 Always seek negotiation with the opponent!
N313 Seek positive social transformations!
N314 Seek human transformation of self and opponent!
N35 Conversion, not coercion!
N351 Seek solutions acceptable to self and opponent!
N352 Never coerce your opponent!
N353 Convert your opponent into a believer of the cause!
Gandhian nonviolence covers negative and positive aspects. Self-immolation (Tunis), massive protests and demos, walking or not (Tahrir), belong; but seeing the opponent as somebody simply to be removed, by own will or not, is not gandhian. The gandhian approach is to remove autocracy and cleptocracy in favor of rule by the people, economy for the people by converting the autocrat-cleptocrat, not by coercing him. Readiness for dialogue is almost built into the word “gandhian”. When dialogue offers from a Gaddafi, an Assad, are rejected by the opposition demanding regime -person change, there is sloppy conflict analysis at work. It smacks of a deep culture ever ready to issue certificates of evil.
Eliminating a demonized leader is counted as victory, and to violent logic it is. But gandhian victory would be to arrive, through dialogue, at an acceptable outcome, not confusing persons with issues. An autocrat knows much about power, not only for himself, and a cleptocrat knows much about wealth, not only for himself. Make them work for a solution. If crimes have been committed, then the rule of law should prevail; but exchanging clemency for contrition, when possible, might be a wiser policy.
Getting rid of the autocrat and-or cleptocrat may also create martyrs and harden their supporters. A vacancy at the top may be filled by equally violent people, also from the nonviolent side. And a new constitution may change institutions, not structures; like the imperial structures torturing the Arab-Muslim world.
Just as the good aspects of Gaddafi(ism) and Assad(ism) should be retained, so also for Saddam Hussein and bin Laden. Killing them is no substitute for understanding something not paid attention to. Negative nonviolence is indispensable, but like violence, silences that other voice. Positive nonviolence is never afraid of dialogue and mutual learning. Use them both, hand in hand.
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[ii]. Nos. 30-32 of 198 Weapons of Transformation, distributed by Anwar Fazal (firstname.lastname@example.org), from Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Gene Sharp deserves credit for outstanding work to make such techniques well known, but is it nonviolence?
[iii]. See Michael Shank, “Islam’s Nonviolent Tradition; History is replete with peaceful role models like the Frontier Gandhi of colonial India”, The Nation, May 16, 2011. His name was Abdul Ghaffar Khan; this author actually met him, a giant. For an excellent review of a books on nonviolence–even if the distinction between negative and positive could have been more clear–see Brian Urquhart, “Revolution Without Violence”, NYRB, March 10 , 2011 – the book being Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash, Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Nonviolent Action from Gandhi to the Present, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 Jun 2011.
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