Violence is rejected as a means of control and resolving disputes (Principles of nonviolence 2)

This is a part of series on principles of nonviolence. The ten principles are listed here.

A rejection of violence is central to a philosophy of nonviolence. One of the main foundations of Gandhi’s theory of nonviolence was ahimsa, which means literally “non-harming” (Ritchie, 2001, p. 56).

In its negative form it means not injuring any living being, whether by body or mind. I may not therefore hurt the person of any wrong-doer, or bear any ill will to him[or her]and so cause him[or her]mental suffering…. In its positive form, ahimsa means the largest love, the greatest charity. If I am a follower of ahimsa, I must love my enemy. I must apply the same rule to the wrongdoer who is my enemy or a stranger to me, as I would to my wrong-doing father or son (Gandhi, 1986, pp. 212-3).

Gandhi objected to violence not only because it was a barrier to a search for Truth (Ritchie, 2001) but also “because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary;[but]the evil it does is permanent” (Gandhi, 1958, p. 95). For Gandhi, violence included untruth, over-use of the world’s resources, eating meat, and injustice (Gandhi, 1986; Ritchie, 2001; Walz & Correia, 1989) all of which need to be rejected.

King (1958) argued it was “impractical and immoral” to use violence, and urged his followers “to love rather than hate” and “to be prepared to suffer violence if necessary but never to inflict it” (p. 87). For King, nonviolence “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his [or her] opponent but he also refuses to hate him [or her]” (King, 1958, p. 103). He believed that violence was “the antithesis of creativity and wholeness. It destroys community and makes brotherhood[sic]impossible” (King, 1967, p. 61). According to Moses (1997), King refused “to take up tools of oppression as means of liberation” (p. 49), and consistently rejected violence. In similar vein, Soulforce activists are encouraged to “reject violence (of the fist, tongue and heart) and to use only the methods of nonviolence” (M. White, 1999e, para. 14).

Although they might agree on the principle of rejecting violence, advocates of nonviolence do not necessarily agree on what this means in practice.

  1. Some nonviolent adherents refuse to use violence under any circumstance.
  2. Some reject organized violence, such as war or violent revolution, but might condone violent self-defense by an individual who is physically attacked.
  3. Some may allow violence against property, but not against people.
  4. Some do not oppose violence on principle, but believe that its use tends to bring bad results and that nonviolent alternatives hold better possibilities (Ryan, 1997, para. 12).

Advocates of principled nonviolence are more likely to reject violence but not necessarily totally.

The questions of which actions are nonviolent can become terribly theological and pointless. For instance, if I had a gun and saw someone with a machine gun about to shoot a room full of people, wouldn’t it be more nonviolent if I killed the person than let the room full of people be killed? (McReynolds, 2001, para. 1).

Even Gandhi believed there were occasions when violence was the morally right thing to do (Gandhi, 1958; 1986, p. 217). He believed, however, it was important in such situations to acknowledge the violence and not to pretend that it was nonviolence (Gandhi, 1986, p. 217).

Determining who has the right to use or prevent violence is a highly political issue (Indermaur, Atkinson, & Blagg, 1998, pp. 11-12). Distinctions are sometimes drawn between legitimate and illegitimate violence, which raises questions as to who defines acceptability and at what stage legitimate violence becomes illegitimate. Is it legitimate for parents or teachers to physically discipline children, and to what extent? Is there a difference between democratically elected leaders and dictators using the police to limit public protest? Legitimate violence generally includes attempts to prevent an individual or group from hurting themselves or others, and attempts to maintain formal authority (Harlow, 1996, pp. 61). According to Atkinson, Indermaur and Blagg (1998), illegitimate violence usually implies “unacceptable physical coercion” (p. 8). They also argue, “some forms of physical coercion (war, physical punishment of children in some times and places, police powers, capital punishment etc.) are defined as acceptable and are thus not labelled as violence” (p. 8). Adherents of principled nonviolence challenge these distinctions and believe that all violence, even if defined as legitimate, needs to be challenged.

Violence is also usually defined in personal terms and focuses on individual or collective violence (Cunningham, 2000, paras 5-6). Halstead (1992), for example, defines violence as “physical behaviour which results in physical, sexual and/or psychological damage, forced social isolation, or economic deprivation or behaviour which leaves another person in fear” (pp. 1-2). In broad terms, personal violence includes:

  • The capacity to inflict physical pain, harm or death.
  • The capacity to punish by restricting freedom and limiting choices.
  • The capacity to withhold vital resources or rewards.
  • The capacity to inflict emotional and psychological damage and to shame and humiliate (Starhawk, 2002, p. 1).

There are also structural definitions of violence (Bruyn, 1979; Burton, 1997; Corvo, 1997; Cunningham, 2000; Curle, 1995; Galtung, 1990; R. White, Underwood, & Omelczuk, 1991). Here violence is seen as “damaging deprivations caused by the nature of social institutions and policies” (Burton, 1997, p. 32), which occur “when people are harmed because of inequitable social arrangements rather than overt physical violence” (Cunningham, 2000, p. 3). Hence the Feminism and Nonviolence Study Group’s (1983) claim:

Many people do not recognise any forms of violence other than physical violence, whereas for us violence includes conditions which themselves kill. Poverty, hunger and racism degrade individuals and inflict suffering. Some massacres are considered newsworthy, but we also know that thousands die daily from starvation, neglect, lack of clean water or medical supplies. Yet when physical violence erupts in response to the built-in violence that perpetuates these conditions, the participants are depicted as less than human and without any motivation for their violence (p. 6).

Rather than seeing different forms of violence as separate from one another, Galtung (1990) proposes a violence triangle (see Figure 1) that emphasises the relationship between different forms of violence, which he labels direct, structural and cultural. Direct violence is the most visible form of violence. Structural violence is less visible and is based on the belief that social structures inflict violence on people when they cause, maintain or reinforce injustice. Cultural violence is seen as a means to legitimise other forms of violence. It makes “direct and structural violence look, even feel, right – or at least not wrong” (Galtung, 1990, p. 291). To demonstrate the interrelationship between these different forms of violence the triangle in Figure 1 can be rotated and inverted to illustrate different relationships.

(Source: Galtung, 1990)

Figure 1: Violence Triangle

Sercombe (1997) provides a definition of violence that helps form the basis of the definition underpinning this study. He defines violence as “the intent to harm” (p. 27). At times, however, the intent may not be to harm, but people are knowingly harmed. As he identifies:

[Violence]is also about the “dark sarcasm in the classroom” (Pink Floyd 1979), about the threats, about leaving the student ignored in the corner for months on end, about “getting rid of” a student, hounding them until they leave or are suspended, about insults, put-downs and spite, about classifying a young person as a “troublemaker” or a “no-hoper”, knowing that the student is being harmed (Sercombe, 2003, p. 28, emphasis in the original).

The intent of the teacher might not be to harm – it might be to maintain discipline, to provide a positive learning environment for the others – but, as Sercombe demonstrates, it is still violence.

At the same time, committing harm in itself may not be violence. At times people may be harmed in order to provide a direct benefit to them (for example some medical procedures may harm a person in some ways but provide other benefits) and so a willingness to commit harm is not adequate on its own. The definition of violence here thus the intent to commit harm or the willingness to commit harm where there are no direct benefits to the person being harmed.

Nonviolence rejects not only direct violence but also seeks to eradicate structural and cultural violence (McAllister, 1982; Moyer, 1999b; Ochre & Burrowes, 1995; Ryan, 1996, 1997; Starhawk, 1990; Woehrle, 1993). Many groups attempt to develop practices consistent with this broad understanding of violence by addressing issues such as sexism (Feminism and Nonviolence Study Group, 1983; Jones, 1999; McAllister, 1982; Moyer, 1995; Roodkowsky, 1979; Warnock, 1981), homophobia (M. White, 1999a), the overuse of resources (Burrowes, 1994; Gandhi, 1971; Walz & Canda, 1988; Walz & Correia, 1989), domination in personal relationships (Garver & Reitan, 1995; Jones, 1999; Moyer, 1999b), interpersonal conflict (Burrowes, 1995b; Woodrow, Terry, Lakey, Parker, & Moore, 1979), and exclusive decision making processes (Avery, Auvine, Streibel, & Weiss, 1981; Feminism and Nonviolence Study Group, 1983; Tasmanian Wilderness Society, 1982; Woodrow, et al., 1979).

The reference list will be available after principle 10.

About Graeme Stuart

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