Dr. Lee Smithey
Assistant Professor of Sociology
Dr. Smithey explains how nonviolent civil resistance movements that challenge autocratic governments must often deal with repression and intimidation. Regimes depend on the legitimacy they can cultivate. However, when faced with popular resistance, they are forced to weigh the costs and benefits of escalating their use of coercive security measures, and even outright violence, to chill dissent. Though such repression can successfully raise the cost of movement participation and thus undermine challenges, it can also “backfire” and enhance popular mobilization. We consider how the strategic application of nonviolent methods can take advantage of this paradox of repression and raise the likelihood that violence will trigger further mobilization. Much depends on the ability of civil resisters to maintain nonviolent discipline, frame repression, and choreograph actions that help ensure repression will be widely interpreted as reprehensible.
Mr. Greene describes how the effect of backfire can extend beyond civil society to include elements within security institutions that see repression as opposed to their professional ethos and institutional or personal interests. As nonviolent movements seek to shape the environment in ways that maximize the possibility for backfire, it is important that they consider the values, interests, mind-set, and working environment of those who serve within the security sector. These factors vary widely among different institutions (e.g. armed forces, police, and internal security) and elements within these institutions (e.g. conscripts, professional soldiers, and officers at various levels). Various elements also have differing levels of identification with the regime or dissonance in values with it. Nonviolent movements that are willing to take a nuanced view of security institutions, understanding them and relating to them as something other than a monolithic oppressor can use these divisions to reduce the effects of repression and undermine political support for a regime within its own institutions.
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