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We need nonviolent conflict, not niceness

The most effective actions exert power and engage conscience, argues Milan Rai

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The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a group against AIDS, protests in New York City against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda. PHOTO: riekhavoc via Wikimedia Commons

Someone rang up the other day and asked what PN thought about ‘peace education’. I said that there was a range of things going on, from super-fluffy let’s-just-be-nice-to-each-other talk which does more harm than good, through activist history and analysis, to training that helps people to gain skills and to become more powerful in their work for change. (We like the ‘direct education’ approach to activist training developed by George Lakey and others.)

Peace isn’t about ‘being nice to people’. Peace has to be built on justice and equality. That means confronting, undermining and overthrowing oppression.

The boycotts and the sit-ins and the defiant marches of the US civil rights movement were not about African-Americans ‘being nice’ to white people.

If we put ‘being nice’ ahead of ‘achieving justice’, we risk becoming collaborators with destructive and exploitative systems.

At the same time, it’s usually possible for campaigners – in western countries, in this time – to combine being firm and determined with showing respect to those who are standing in the way of progress as we see it.

Carl’s clasp

I think in this connection of Carl Kabat, one of the eight radical Catholics who went to the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, USA, on 9 September 1980. They carried out the first Ploughshares action, hammering on nose cones being produced for US nuclear warheads.

Carl (then 46) entered Building Nine first, in full clerical dress, with sister Anne Montgomery (53), in order to distract the security guard and to stop him interfering with the action.

While Carl and Anne tried to reassure him that they were nonviolent, Robert Cox (54) tried to phone for help as the other six disarmers entered the building. Anne held down the telephone hook, stopping the call. Carl took the guard in a bear hug, only releasing him after the others had got through to the nose cones and begun hammering on them.

Reasonable people can disagree about how justified morally and how sensible strategically Ploughshares actions are.

I’m talking here about a narrower point. While I’m sure a lot of lawyers would see Carl’s hug as an assault (and unlawful imprisonment), I think they’d agree it was not a damaging or injurious use of force.

I think it’s fair to see Carl’s bear hug as coercive but nonviolent, part of a militant, physical force, nonviolent action. He forced Robert Cox to stay in one place, but he did not harm him.

The two pressures

Long-time readers of PN will know that one of our guiding stars is Barbara Deming, the US revolutionary pacifist lesbian feminist. She wrote in her wonderful 1968 essay, ‘On Revolution and Equilibrium’:

‘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.”’

She went on (we’ve reversed the sexist language even feminists sometimes used in 1968):

‘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.’

This is a call to be both nonviolent and militant, to be willing to coerce as well as to value our antagonists. Barbara Deming went on:

‘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”.’

Not just harmony

What does all this mean for campaigners today in the UK, facing a destabilised government in a hung parliament, as terrorist attacks stoke Islamophobia and repression and climate change worsens the lives of millions around the world, as class divisions become every more painful, and as the state presses ahead with the next stage of the nuclear arms race just as the world bans nuclear weapons?

There are huge problems and huge opportunities. Weak government creates opportunities for citizens to have more of a democratic say in policy-making. The rise of anti-Muslim racism challenges non-Muslim groups to become more inclusive and to deepen their anti-racism. Growing economic and social inequality makes it even more vital for grassroots movements and for NGOs to become more skilful at communicating and working across class divisions, to build real cross-class coalitions.

In all of this work, Barbara Deming is calling on those of us who feel committed to nonviolence to become more militant, more disruptive, and more aggressive – while still engaging our opponents’ consciences and respecting their humanity.

We can join to this George Lakey’s contrast between what he calls ‘middle-class pacifism’ and ‘revolutionary nonviolence’:

‘Middle-class pacifism has a very strong interest in the common ground, in reconciliation. For example the Fellowship of Reconciliation, it’s built into the title. “Let’s find a way to come together”, that’s very strongly the concern. So that is hugely a value in the middle class, harmony and common ground.’

The trouble with this approach is that: ‘”Only harmony” is really insanity. “Only harmony” is death. So there also needs to be conflict. So the nonviolent revolutionary tradition is one in which the emphasis is not on harmony, it’s on conflict. Polarisation is the meat and drink – or for vegans the tofu – of life. We have to have polarisation.’





George Lakey is the author of Toward a Living Revolution: A Five-Stage Framework for Creating Radical Social Change (Peace News Press , 2012).

Milan Rai is PN editor.