There is a profound respect for humanity (Principles of nonviolence 6)

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

A philosophy of nonviolence involves a profound respect for humanity. As Moyer (1999b) describes it, one of the basic assumptions of nonviolence is, “Human Nature has the innate qualities of love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility and harmony with all things” (p. 1). This is not to deny that people also have the “potential for evil” (King, 1958, p. 99) but rather it is an affirmation of “human beings as active agents with the potential to transform themselves and their communities on a local and global level” (Ritchie, 2001, p. 11). Gandhi believed that people were basically “gentle, cooperative and giving” and even when they acted differently, they could be assisted back to a path of “nobility and selflessness” (Sharma, 1989, p. 65).

In nonviolence literature, there is an emphasis on respecting the humanity of opponents in campaigns. The Australian Nonviolence Network, “strive to show respect for all life and to acknowledge the humanity of all people, including our opponents” (Ochre & Burrowes, 1995, para. 4). According to the American Peace Test (n.d.):

Nonviolence requires us to respect humanity and to value life. As we seek change nonviolently we approach our opponent with respect, openness and love. We know that each of us has a part of the truth and will benefit from our shared wisdom – opponent and nonviolent actionist alike (para. 4).

Based upon a respect for the humanity of its adversaries, Soulforce encourages the following beliefs:

  1. My adversary is also a child of the Creator; we are both members of the same human family; we are sisters and brothers in need of reconciliation.
  2. My adversary is not my enemy, but a victim of misinformation as I have been.
  3. My only task is to bring my adversary truth in love (nonviolence) relentlessly.
  4. My adversary’s motives are as pure as mine and of no relevance to our discussion.
  5. My worst adversary has an amazing potential for positive change.
  6. My adversary may have an insight into truth that I do not have.
  7. My adversary and I will understand each other and come to a new position that will satisfy us both, if we conduct our search for truth guided by the principles of love (M. White, 1999c, par. 17).

Respect does not necessarily involve the acceptance of people’s behaviour, actions or beliefs (Burgess & Burgess, 1994, p. 14) and an important aspect of respecting our opponents involves separating the act from the person. For Gandhi there was a distinction between people and their actions: nonviolence involved the “demonstration of love and respect even for one’s so-called enemies” and “doing good even to the evildoer” (Ritchie, 2001, p. 56). It was appropriate to resist injustice but to attack the people behind it was “tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself” (Gandhi, 1958, p. 88).

According to King (1958), nonviolent action “is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil. It is evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil” (p. 102). Moses (1997) argues, “if justice is not to be achieved by blaming the victims of exploitation, neither will it be achieved by blaming ‘evil men’ for their conspiracies” (p. 61). King believed it was important to distinguish between the individual’s actions and systemic systems of oppression (Moses, 1997, p. 51) and that nonviolence provided a means by which the civil rights movement could “oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system” (King, 1963, p. 15).

In discussing tactical nonviolence, Sharp (1973d, p. 634) argues that, while it is not necessary, nonviolence campaigns are more likely to be successful if activists are able to draw a distinction between the people and the issues involved because it increases the likelihood that opponents will support the campaign or, at least, not oppose it as strongly.

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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