There is a willingness to accept suffering in order to create change (Principles of nonviolence 10)

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

Once again, the willingness to accept suffering in order to create change was particularly important to Gandhi, although it still influences much of the more recent practice of nonviolence (Beck, 1991; McReynolds, 1998c; Sharp, 1973a; M. White, 1999d, 1999e). Gandhi believed “satyagraha means fighting oppression through voluntary suffering. There can be no question here of making anyone else suffer” (Gandhi, 1987, p. 55). Gandhi claimed that suffering works because “real suffering bravely borne melts even a heart of stone” (quoted in Ritchie, 2001, p. 53), and he thus argued that satyagraha requires:

More heroism than does fighting a battle. The soldier has weapons in his[or her]hand; his[or her]aim is to strike the enemy. The satyagraha, on the contrary, fights by suffering himself[or herself]. Surely, this is not for the weak and the diffident (Quoted in Ritchie, 2001, pp. 53-4).

King believed that suffering was inevitable when fighting evil or attempting to remove structural violence (Moses, 1997, pp. 157-8), and that nonviolence was characterised by a willingness to suffer without retaliation (King, 1958, p. 103). Quoting Gandhi, King (1958) suggested, “rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood” (p. 103), and he argued that unearned suffering is redemptive and has “tremendous educational and transforming possibilities” (p. 103). White (1999d) differentiates between voluntary and involuntary suffering.

Accepting suffering without retaliation or complaint does not mean we accept the involuntary suffering that comes from discrimination and intolerance. Soulforce is a call to suffer voluntarily that involuntary suffering might end (para. 29).

The Feminism and Nonviolence Study Group (1983) criticises the importance placed on “seeking out suffering” (p. 35, their emphasis). They argue:

The total number of person hours of suffering does not lead “automatically” to an equivalent amount of success.KampucheaandChilewould be heaven on earth by now if that were so. These men[who, like Gandhi and King, advocate suffering]are talking about voluntary suffering, with the assumption that its value lies in its being sought – resulting in an extra, shocking and visible impact (p. 35-36).

They go on to argue that, for many women, suffering is rarely sought but is very much part of their lives. “Thus women’s suffering carries less of the visibility and moral virtue” (p. 36). They are, however, “prepared to suffer but we don’t seek it out as something valuable in itself” (p. 36).

Sharp (1973d, p. 552) demonstrates that suffering is likely, if not inevitable, but that suffering is also a feature of violent campaigns. When nonviolent discipline is maintained, he argues that death or physical harm (on both sides) is actually less likely than if violence were used. McReynolds (1998c) suggests that when activists were willing to suffer without retaliation, their opponents were more likely to see them as human and to begin to question their own actions, thereby reducing the level of violence.

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

The reference list will be available in the next post.

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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