Principles of nonviolence

After my last post, I’ve been inspired to publish some work I did a few years back on nonviolence. Between 1999 and 2003 I undertook a PhD exploring the implications of nonviolence for youth work practice. Over the next week or so, I’m going to discuss 10 principles of nonviolence I identified through my reading and reflection:

  1. Nonviolence is a way of life
  2. Violence is rejected as a means of control and resolving disputes
  3. There is an active commitment to peace and social justice
  4. The means are consistent with the ends
  5. Power is understood as arising out of relationships
  6. There is a profound respect for humanity
  7. Actions are based on love
  8. There is a commitment to truth and openness
  9. Spiritual beliefs and qualities are valued
  10. There is a willingness to accept suffering in order to create change.

There are two broad approaches to nonviolence: tactical nonviolence and principled nonviolence. Tactical nonviolence is based on the belief that nonviolence is one tactic or strategy among a range of choices (Bond, 1994; Sharp, 1973a; Zunes, Kurtz, & Asher, 1999). From this perspective:

Nonviolent action is a generic term covering dozens of specific methods of protest, noncooperation and intervention, in all of which the actionists conduct the conflict by doing – or refusing to do – certain things without using physical violence. As a technique, therefore, nonviolent action is not passive. It is not inaction. It is action that is nonviolent (Sharp, 1973b, p. 64, emphasis in original).

Principled nonviolence is built on a commitment to nonviolence as a philosophy or a way of life, and the belief that nonviolence is morally superior to violence (Burgess & Burgess, 1994; Burrowes, 1994; Moyer, 1999b). Those who adopt a principled approach to nonviolence argue that it “is not simply a matter of abstinence from physical or verbal violence, it is an attitude of mind, an emotional orientation towards loving care and concern” (Curle, 1995, p. 17). From this perspective nonviolence is:

A means of breaking the cycle of violence; it is a moral method of social change which is not passive nor violent; it requires human commitment but not military might; and it seeks to change but not to completely destroy relationships. Employing nonviolence entails breaking from our traditional patterns of resolving conflicts; patterns which distribute power to the strongest and the most violent (Woehrle, 1993, p. 209).

For advocates of principled nonviolence, the issue is not whether or not nonviolence is more effective than violence but rather that, regardless of what other people do, nonviolence is the morally right thing to do (Burgess & Burgess, 1994, pp. 13-14). According to the Feminism and Nonviolence Study Group (1983), nonviolence is “a principle and a technique, a set of ideas about how life should be lived and a strategy for social change” (p. 26).

Here I concentrate on literature discussing principled nonviolence. Due to the broad focus of principled nonviolence, there are problems with the word nonviolence itself since it implies that “we are still thinking in terms of violence” (Starhawk, 2001, p. 2). Mahatma Gandhi was dissatisfied with nonviolence and associated terms (Gandhi, 1987, p. 63) and so, following a search to find a more appropriate description, he decided on satyagraha as an alternative (Gandhi, 1987, p. 35). Its literal meaning is “holding on to Truth and it means, therefore, Truth-force [where] Truth is soul or spirit. It is, therefore, known as soul-force” (Gandhi, 1951, p. 3). Reid (in McAllister, 1982) argues that soul-force “implies a more assertive, positive stand than does nonviolence – that we rely on the strength of truth rather than on physical force” (p. vi). Satyagraha relates particularly to the practice of nonviolent action; the philosophy of nonviolence is more closely related to ahimsa, which is discussed in greater depth below. Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King initially did not describe his guiding principle as nonviolence but as Christian love (King, 1958, p. 84). Later, he spoke more frequently of nonviolence, which he described as “the persistent and determined application of peaceable power to offenses against the community” (King, 1967, p. 184).

Although an alternative is needed that embodies the idea of it being more than the absence of violence, the term nonviolence has a rich tradition, is widely used and, at present, remains the best alternative. Although satyagraha has greater depth of meaning, it has not been adopted in this study because it is strongly linked to nonviolence in the Gandhian tradition and the term has not been widely used in the West. For some writers and activists, the hyphenated non-violence emphasises the absence of violence (Cumming, 1985, p. 9), whereas nonviolence, without the hyphen, refers to the broader philosophy of social change and human relationship (Boulding, 1999; Cumming, 1985; McAllister, 1982). This thesis follows this convention by using nonviolence for the latter broad meaning but non-violence when discussing the absence of violence (for example in discussion of the survey and in-depth interviews) or when using quotes from other sources which retain the hyphen.

Adapted from
Stuart, G. (2003). Nonviolence and youth work practice in Australia. Unpublished PhD, University of Newcastle, Newcastle.

The reference list will be available after principle 10.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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One Response to Principles of nonviolence

  1. It is wonderful to see a fellow human being spouting the beauty of nonviolence. There is so little faith in it nowadays…yet, i see it flowering all over. I motivate groups towards nonviolence and changing the world all the time – thank you for promoting it!

    Liked by 1 person

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