Barbara Deming

IssueAugust - September 2023
Comment by Barbara Deming

The most effective action both resorts to power and engages conscience. Nonviolence does not have to beg others to ‘be nice’. It can in effect force them to consult their consciences - or to pretend to have them.

Nor does it petition those in power to do something about a situation. It can face the authorities with a new fact and say: Accept this new situation which we have created.

If greater gains have not been won by nonviolent action it is because most of those trying it have, quite as the critics charge, expected too much from ‘the powerful’; and so, I would add, they have stopped short of really exercising their peculiar powers – those powers one discovers when one refuses any longer simply to do another’s will.

They have stopped far too short not only of widespread nonviolent disruption but of that form of non cooperation which is assertive, constructive – that confronts those who are ‘running everything’ with independent activity, particularly independent economic activity.

“The challenge to those who believe in nonviolent struggle is to learn to be aggressive enough”

This is the heart of my argument: We can put more pressure on the antagonist for whom we show human concern.

It is precisely solicitude for her person in combination with a stubborn interference with her actions that can give us a very special degree of control (precisely in our acting both with love, if you will – in the sense that we respect her human rights – and truthfulness, in the sense that we act out fully our objections to her violating our rights).

We put upon her two pressures – the pressure of our defiance of her and the pressure of our respect for her life – and it happens that in combination these two pressures are uniquely effective.

Be bold

It is true enough, however, that one of the chief difficulties those who believe in nonviolence must face is how to recruit others to trust themselves to this way.

My own conviction is that one can recruit to this form of battle only by setting the very boldest kind of example.

Those of us who believe in nonviolent action should listen closely to the words of those who mock it. For if the portrait the latter draws of it is a caricature, and reveals their own ignorance of what such action can be, it reveals, too, a great deal about our own failure to carry experiments with it far enough.

We had better look hard at what it is men and women seek when they turn away from us.

Yes, the challenge to those who believe in nonviolent struggle is to learn to be aggressive enough. Nonviolence has for too long been connected in people’s minds with the notion of passivity. I would substitute another word here – and rename ‘aggression’ ‘self-assertion’.

May those who say that they believe in nonviolence learn to challenge more boldly those institutions of violence that constrict and cripple our humanity.

And may those who have questioned nonviolence come to see that one’s rights to life and happiness can only be claimed as inalienable if one grants, in action, that they belong to all men and women.


I think there is clearly a kind of anger that is healthy. It is the concentration of one’s whole being in the determination: this must change.

This kind of anger is not in itself violent, even when raising its voice, which it sometimes does; when it brings about agitation, and confrontation, which it always does. It contains both respect for oneself and respect for the other.

To oneself it says: ‘I must change for I have been playing the part of the slave.’ To the other it says: ‘You must change for you have been playing the part of the tyrant.’

It contains the conviction that change is possible for both sides; and it is capable of transmitting this conviction to others, touching them with the energy of it, even one’s antagonist....

Why do we who believe in nonviolence shy away from the word? Because there is another kind of anger, very familiar to us, that is not healthy, that is an affliction....

This anger asserts to another not: ‘you must change and you can change’ but: ‘your very existence is a threat to my very existence.’

It speaks not hope but fear. The fear is: ‘you can’t change, and I can’t change if you are still there.’ It asserts not: ‘change!’ but: ‘drop dead!’

The one anger is healthy, concentrates all one’s energies; the other leaves one trembling, because it is murderous. Because we dream of a new society in which murder has no place, and it disturbs that dream.

Our task, of course, is to transform the anger that is affliction into the anger that is determination to bring about change. I think, in fact, that this transmutation might serve as a definition of revolution.