Nonviolent Theory on Communication: The Implications for Theorizing a Nonviolent Rhetoric


Ellen W. Gorsevski | Academia – TRANSCEND Media Service

1999 – The interrelationship between nonviolence and rhetoric is examined. While we have studied the world of adversarial relationships, conflict, and difference of belief, rhetorical critics have not done as much to understand the practices of seeking mutual identification, cooperation, and learning how to live with diversity and adversity. Scholars and theorists of nonviolence (and peace and conflict studies) maintain that human beings can reach mutual understanding peacefully, through a process of nonviolent conversion that is accomplished through a wide range of linguistic and symbolic acts. Nonviolent theory shows rhetoricians that language and culture—our ways of creating and perpetuating our reality—can impose minimal aggression while maximizing the potential for peacemaking. Finally, the essay presents practical applications for a better understanding of the connection between rhetorical theory and nonviolence.

“Let us be clear regarding the language we use and the thoughts we nurture. For what is language but the expression of thought? Let your thought be accurate and truthful, and you will hasten the advent of swaraj even if the whole world is against you.”
— Mohandas Gandhi

The dismantling of Irish Republican Army weapons units; the Middle East peace process inching forward; the commitment of scores of countries around the world to ban the use of land mines; the publication of findings of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: what is the common denominator of all of these peace-oriented developments on the forefront of international politics? Tough negotiations, extended inquiries, complex, multiparty agreements, media pronouncements, yes, all of these things figure in—but there is something more. There is an unacknowledged and hidden star in all of these events. Who or what is this star? As we shall see in the following discussion, it is nonviolent rhetoric. Why does nonviolence as a concept and theory remain behind the scenes? In the analysis that follows, we will look at reasons why theories of nonviolence relate firmly to rhetoric. We will also examine some of the ways that theories of rhetoric largely ignore theories of nonviolence, positing that this gap exists to the detriment of rhetorical theory.

Language, persuasion, and the symbols that constitute the realm of rhetoric have long been regarded as the repository of our worldly facades. From the way we relate to people on an interpersonal basis to the way we perceive the public speeches of our politicians, we are trained to be wary, cynical, disbelievers. But this is just one side of the story. There exist and have always existed people who, like Mohandas K. Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have risked their lives to tell the truth, to use language and rhetoric for best interests of humankind. But the legacies of such people (and of historical figures such as Jesus or Socrates) have been skewed to fit an individualistic, facade-oriented view of language and rhetoric.

In our contemporary culture, rhetoric is frequently synonymous with hollow, empty discourse. In scholarly treatises and journals, rhetoric is reduced to the study of symbols, tropes, or styles, or is associated with twisting language to perpetuate unjust power over people. All the power for social change and glory of human potential found in King’s rhetoric is reduced to superficial labels, such as “Evangelical style.” There is, however, another side to rhetoric that can be recuperated through an understanding of nonviolence in theory and practice. Turning to the lesser-known texts of nonviolent theorists, we can dispel the fog of misperceptions and skepticism and recover a sense that communication can be used both idealistically and practically. From a nonviolent perspective, there is room for a renewed sense that rhetoric can be a force for hope and active social change; rhetoric can be a means to managing conflict without, or at least with minimal, violence.

In Thomas Merton’s brilliant introductory essay, “Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant,” a preface to Gandhi on Non-Violence, Merton draws a clear boundary around the interrelationship between nonviolent action and persuasion. Merton discusses the classical notions of selfless political action, noting the centrality of words in creating a space for social change. “It is in the public and political realm that [one] shares words and deeds, thus contributing [one’s] share of action and thought to the fabric of human affairs,” Merton writes. “Now, the public and political realm is that where issues are decided in a way worthy of free [people]: by persuasion and words, not by violence.” If we look to Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as a “faculty of observing [or discovering] in any given case [all] the available means of per-suasion,” or if we look to Kenneth Burke’s theories of rhetoric, in which humans are symbol using and abusing beings—beings who are characterized by traits such as cooperation, identification, and persuasion—we can recognize instantly that rhetoric figures into Merton’s definition of the ideal non-violent political actor and action. For Merton, an agent of nonviolent change is someone who opts to use “persuasion and words” rather than “violence” to accomplish goals in society.

Still, it bears asking, can persuasion and motivated words as rhetoric escape the negative connotations that rhetoric deserves? An obvious example would be to acknowledge that Hitler’s rhetoric was part of a systematic program of violence. With regard to land mines, what are we to make of the military rhetoric that blandly calls them “antipersonnel devices”? Such rhetoric unethically obscures the violent reality of explosives that kill and maim thou-sands of innocent civilians (many of whom are children) every year all over the world. In contrast, we have the likes of popular figures such as the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh, best-selling writers and jet-setting lecturers, whose nonviolent rhetoric advises us to incorporate nonviolent modes of behavior into our everyday lives in order to further world peace. What criteria enable us to distinguish rhetoric that aids violence from rhetoric that aids nonviolence? The question is vexing because we lack clear criteria for evaluating rhetoric in terms of nonviolence and an orientation toward peacemaking.

Much has been written in the field of rhetoric about violence, but precious little has been written about rhetoric vis à vis nonviolence. Indeed, rhetorical scholars such as Stephen Browne note that rhetoric itself has long been synonymous with brute violence. The opposition of violence and non-violence is, admittedly, an imperfect pairing. Since this is, however, only one of a handful of pieces of extant research in which rhetorical theory has ever been examined in light of nonviolent theory and, to some extent, vice versa, this odd couple may nonetheless serve as a good place to start an inquiry that troubles our conventional ways of understanding rhetoric. Even if we were to oppose rhetorics of violence to rhetorics of peace, the comparison remains unsatisfactory. All such comparisons are inherently lopsided, because only a tiny fraction of rhetorical theory is written on peace rhetoric whereas vast volumes of writing have been devoted to the topic of war rhetoric. Let us begin, then, to tip the scales, ever so slightly, back in the other direction—in the direction of peace and nonviolence.

The purpose of this essay is to investigate what scholars, activists, and thinkers in the social sciences have, under the rubric of nonviolent theory and action, said about language, communication, persuasion, symbolic action— in short, about rhetoric. I make no claims to furthering theory with grand and bold strokes. My aim is simply to open up a fruitful discussion that may, indeed, eventually lead to such theoretical advances. The main point of this essay is to survey the literature and examine what key theorists of nonviolence in particular, but also scholars of rhetorical theory, have to say about rhetoric as a form of communication and as evidence of a fundamentally nonviolent humanity.

Clearly, an important component of nonviolent theory and activism, of the satyagraha (roughly translated as soul-force, Truth-force, and love-force) of Gandhi’s practice, is persuasion. Thus the focus here will be the interrelationship between nonviolence and rhetoric. First, we will briefly look at what forms nonviolent persuasion takes. Next, we will look at the peace studies and nonviolent theorists’ views on how and why persuasion, or rhetoric, can be nonviolent and peaceful when such rhetoric is performed in the spirit and context of true nonviolent action. Third, we will look at ways that a better understanding of the connection between rhetorical theory and the nonviolence and peace theories can be put to practical applications.

Forms of Nonviolent Rhetoric

In her important book, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict, Joan Bondurant cites as a fundamental rule of satyagraha in action the “propagation of the objectives. . . . Propaganda must be made an integral part of the movement. Education of the opponent, the public, and participants must continue apace.”  Normally one might take issue with the use of propaganda as a coercive or violent form of persuasion, yet Bondurant is adamant that this form of persuasion is for the “education of the opponent, the public, and participants.” The rhetorical intent of nonviolent propaganda is to promote awareness and understanding of the issues at hand, the problems that the activists have with the given opponent, and the strategies that the nonviolent activists will undertake to overturn the perceived injustices. In this context, propaganda can be seen as synonymous with softer terms, such as public relations, and even with classical notion of agon (debate in the public sphere), or critical thinking. Likewise, Rex Ambler states that “the opponent has to be helped to read our actions by generous explanation and by the general tone of the campaign.” Thus the nonviolent text as written, spoken, or enacted, is reflexive; the opponent, as audience, is also a participant, and must be instructed as to how to engage; the opponent must be trained, in a sense, to read the text, the discourse, or the actions as rhetoric.

A fine example of such a “propaganda” text, which trains its audience in the principles of love, peace, and nonviolence, is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Addressing the misconceptions and misgivings that his adversaries hold regarding the progress of the civil rights movement, King educates them and the public about the strategies of nonviolent action (which often seem mysterious to the uninitiated). King boldly states his objectives: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” King clears the smoke away from the nonviolent tactics, informing his detractors, who refused to remove symbols and laws perpetuating racism from the city, that “we had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the con-science of the local and the national community.”  King draws up ethics and morals firmly on his side, invoking the democratic ideal of “human rights” while reminding his opponents that even the “Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation” has yet to have been fulfilled. Thus, through truth, through myriad examples of the courage of nonviolent activists in the face of intimidation and suffering, King reveals the injustices of those who opposed him, especially the members of the clergy whom he specifically addresses. In short, King’s rhetoric trains and educates his audience how to read anew the events of recent history; it is a rhetorical lesson in nonviolence. It is propaganda in a campaign of nonviolence that exudes love and a fervent desire for mutual understanding.

Rhetoricians have, thus far, focused upon King’s manifest stylistic elements; we have even trailed off into side discussions of whether or not, or how much, King plagiarized some of his messages of peace and love. These sidebars miss the point of nonviolence and rhetoric together. By focusing on such peripheral issues, we have diminished our ability to understand rhetoric and nonviolence as a cohesive whole. More than a masterpiece of style or superior argumentation, King’s rhetoric in general, and this letter in particular, constitute the educational “propaganda” of Bondurant’s nonviolent schema. Moreover, as we shall see, King’s texts remain free from any of the pejorative connotations that the word “propaganda” normally carries in the context of rhetoric as supporting the ends of war and violence.

Written texts can provide powerful nonviolent rhetoric. As part of the “agitation” step in the satyagraha campaign, Bondurant cites “an active propaganda campaign together with such demonstrations as mass-meetings, parades, slogan-shouting.”  Again, we see that this rhetoric is firmly contextualized in the nonviolent escalation of the conflict through public awareness and public relations gambits. In other instances, nonviolent activists are not the sole authors of the educational text written for the public. Cooperation with news-papers and other media figures importantly in educating the public about key issues of contention. This method of joining with members of the media to foster an environment of critical thinking and debate is crucial to the success of a nonviolent social movement. At the same time, relying upon the media to announce the message supports the notion that nonviolence requires certain preconditions for it to succeed. An open and relatively free media is one of those preconditions.

Recent examples of such a media-oriented form of agitation include the “Million Man March” and the “Million Woman March,” which were covered by articles in major newspapers explaining the purposes of the marches to the public and quoting the speeches that were given at the culmination of the marches. Another kind of dramatic “text” is the symbolic act of marching peacefully under the watchful eye of the public and the authorities. This kind of symbolic action spurs media coverage, public policy debate, and, in the best of cases, legislation and other proactive social work to initiate positive changes redressing the grievances of those who are marching or enacting the other forms of nonviolent symbolic action.

Looking more closely at the various kinds of rhetoric that fall under Bondurant’s general label of propaganda, we see that nonviolent action relies heavily upon texts purveyed publicly. Gene Sharp, one of the foremost scholars on nonviolent action today, lists these forms of nonviolent texts among “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action” Sharp cites, for example, “formal statements,” “communications with a wider audience,” “group representations,” “symbolic public acts,” “processions,” and “drama and music.” Any rhetorical theorist would have to agree that these forms of nonviolent action all fall within the range of the rhetorical critic’s research focus. Table 1 lists examples of each of the types of texts that lend themselves to nonviolent interpretation and rhetorical analysis.

From this representative selection of Sharp’s examples of nonviolent action, we see that nonviolent theory and action are firmly planted in the realm of rhetoric. Rhetoricians tend to focus upon ways that humans use communication and persuasion to resist oppression, yet they routinely ignore the fact that nonviolent engagement in conflict is a special mode of persuasion with a distinct history of success. Critics are stuck in a rut of invoking social theories and theories of rhetoric that are heavily based in our understanding of violent representations of communication and human existence. When rhetoricians do examine nonviolent rhetorical acts, such as those of King, we may miss their meaning and foundation. Simply put, nonviolent action and rhetoric stems from a universal tradition and discourse of love that spans the globe and encompasses all major religious and philosophical traditions through time.

Much of rhetorical theory follows the skeptic’s tradition and discourses, which tend to take the perspective of que sera, sera. In other words, our theory is unduly influenced by the negative stereotype of humans as essentially aggressive and violent, à la Freud. Since people have always been at war, this reasoning goes, we always will be at war. Therefore, we may sometimes apply incommensurate or overly strict standards to measure the “logic” or “effectiveness” of a form of discourse that may operate on different planes of socially constructed reality. For instance, nonviolent rhetoric often operates on emotional, moral, or ethical levels of reasoning; indeed, it may, at times, exist beyond the bounds of traditional scientific conceptions of order and logic. We may dismiss nonviolence too hastily because nonviolence does not always fulfill the scientific requirement for perfect replicability in order to prove its success.

As science itself changes, however, so must our understanding of nonviolence. Harold Pepinsky believes that a nonviolent worldview may be more closely identified with formulations of chaos theory, which allow for, even call for, the “strange attractors” of unpredictable events, as opposed to logical or rational strictures that our worldview, as descended from the Enlightenment, relies upon to judge texts and events. Pepinsky goes so far as to assert that “the fruit of our own peacemaking efforts lies beyond our power of empirical veri-fication.” It is clear that rhetoric has traditionally been bound in tight strictures of logic and empiricism, starting from Aristotle himself, the originator of much of our tradition of rhetorical theory. As Pepinsky perceives, we need to acknowledge new perspectives that may not always fit our past methods of observing rhetorical situations.

Let us return to the examples with which we began this discussion. The peace processes in Northern Ireland or between the Israelis and Palestinians more closely resemble chaos theory. Two steps forward, one step back, to the side, or out altogether are moves that characterize the bumpy ride of these negotiations for peace settlements in highly volatile and historically violent regions of the world. Yet the operative peace and conflict theories that under-pin the hard-hitting, complex negotiations have produced concrete results, which leave both the peoples and their leaders optimistic. At the same time, the worldview of the glum inevitability of human violence is challenged. The nonviolent rhetoric surrounding these events confirms that human beings, against the grain of the que sera, sera worldview, will not always be at war. At the forefront of all such talks is a propaganda of peace; the media receive hopeful statements and pronouncements from the participants of the negotiations; nonviolent rhetoric abounds. At the same time, the stratified process of communication in community becomes less ordered, and more fluid, like chaos theory.  In nonviolent theory, the rhetoric of a negotiator for peace can be seen as revealing a truth, the truth that the opponents with whom one is negotiating are just human beings like the rest of us. Rhetoric that obfuscates this fundamentally nonviolent perspective can, then, be seen to fall on the violent side of this crooked and imperfect conceptual divide between violence and nonviolence.

Gandhi believed that secrets were an evil in society. “Truth,” he said, “never damages a cause that is just.” In this way, we see that negotiations that expose oppressions such as ethnocentrism, violent ultranationalism, or racism, sexism, and homophobia not only confirm our “community” as human beings but also expose the secrets of the social order and the violent structures that are perpetuated within that order. The recent media exposés on the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and the nationwide outpouring of sup-port for his family and friends confront the squeamish with the so-called “ugly truth” that a portion of the public is homosexual; by exposing this “secret” and celebrating it, the media forces right-wing opponents of homosexuality to face this fact and come to grips with it. The fundamental rehumanization, through rhetoric, of a “fag” or a “bloody IRA soldier” or a “murderous Israeli” into human beings who have lives, histories, families, is part of the process of love and nonviolence. In Kenneth Burke’s terms, it is rhetorical consubstantiation par excellence.

Moreover, the fact that negotiations for peace and concomitant long-term media coverage occur shows the patience and long view that characterize the nonviolent perspectivist’s will to change the situation gradually yet steadily, and to reject any justification of violence in the name of expediency. Expediency and efficiency are typical and universal modern measures of effectiveness and success. Yet the nonviolentist’s perspective is more open to taking a long-range approach to problem solving and conflict resolution. As Pepinsky observes, “peacemaking takes a long, long time.” Pepinsky aptly remarks that “those who respond to violence with compassion may—as in the story of the life of Christ—appear to open themselves to further victimization.”  For the modern rhetorical theorist who applies traditional rules of style, logic, or effectiveness to speeches and symbolic action, the vulnerability of the subject and the painstaking slowness of the process expressed in non-violent rhetoric appear counterproductive and, at times, illogical. Certainly, too, whereas King’s rhetoric is often analyzed solely for its style and the critic all but ignores its nonviolent message, it is just as common to find, as in some criticism of the Dalai Lama’s rhetoric, that nonviolent rhetoric is sometimes disparaged for being unstylized and too plain. These critical problems are easily surmounted if we begin to take a longer, more patient view, if we start to apply different measures of effectiveness, and if we look beyond stylistic tropes or a lack of them. By looking at rhetoric from a fresh perspective, non-violent rhetoric and, perhaps, rhetorical theory as a whole can be expanded, better understood, and appreciated anew.

In the first part of this discussion we have looked at some examples of nonviolent action and its attendant rhetoric. We have highlighted the differences between how traditional, theory-oriented rhetorical scholars have viewed such action and rhetoric, and how we might view it differently in light of nonviolent theory. Let us next investigate the possibility for defining rhetoric anew as a legitimate form of nonviolent action and communication.

Rhetoric as True Nonviolent Action


Nonviolent Theory on Communication–The Implications for Theorizing a Nonviolent Rhetoric


Ellen Gorsevski – Communication Faculty, Bowling Green State University




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