by Maciej BartkowskiOctober 29, 2020
Discipline is the aspect of our daily lives that helps us get things done, both personally and professionally. It is needed to be a successful doctor, lawyer, soldier or, for that matter, an effective activist or a seemingly almighty dictator.
Dictatorships project unwavering discipline when they exercise—or aspire to exercise—enduring control over their societies. In response, movements must work on honing and harnessing their own discipline. Being more disciplined than their opponents gives movements an edge in winning.
Discipline is a behavior that is learned and perfected through practice and training. It has less to do with command and control structures through which orders are given or punitive sanctions are exercised. Instead, such discipline has everything to do with willingly internalizing norms and codes of conduct. This is important because in contrast to dictatorships, pro-democracy movements are voluntary endeavors, mostly or entirely unpaid, with informal structures and few resources for enforcement. They rely on the socialized behavior of their participants to instill discipline and apply it in their actions.
Dictators and aspiring autocrats fear disciplined civil resistance movements. They deploy mighty state resources and work hard to demoralize and disrupt the discipline of such movements. They want to make them violent, divided, and societally marginal. Despots want nothing more than to face an undisciplined challenger.
We must then ask, how can nonviolent pro-democracy movements achieve discipline?
Twelve types of discipline are listed below, and this is, by no means, an exhaustive list. For each type, this guide has curated actions that help create, instill, defend, and buttress the robust discipline required for movements to succeed.
...inculcated among movement members through the articulation of specific expectations for desired nonviolent behavior. This is done when movement members, well in advance of the emergence of resistance:
• Define and clearly communicate what are acceptable forms of actions, what falls under nonviolent actions and what does not, and specifically address “gray areas” of the tactical inventory—property destruction and stone throwing, physical harassment of opponents, hunger strikes, and acts of self-harm, among other actions—and determine whether they are an acceptable part of their nonviolent repertoire, particularly given the movement’s goals and what it stands for.
• Conduct pre-action training in nonviolent discipline, role plays and drills that, among other things, test and instill desired reactions by movement members when faced with violence.
• Promulgate guidelines and codes of conduct that emphasize why and how movement members must maintain nonviolent discipline and provide specific examples of actions that protesters should take when faced with violent repression.
• Expect—always—the presence of agents provocateurs and groups that are eager to use violence seemingly in support or defense of the movement. Be prepared to counter or marginalize such actors.
...which rejects anonymity and promotes movement openness. This is done when movement members:
• Insist on as little secrecy within the movement as possible and as advised given the security risks.
• Ask members not to cover their faces during actions unless necessary for health or other emergency reasons.
• Conduct movement actions in public while taking measures to protect the safety and security of the individuals involved.
...engrained in the movement’s resistance actions as they happen. This is done when designated and trained movement members:
• Form human buffers or deploy human chains to interpose their bodies to separate protesters from those who use violence.
• Have clearly identified marshals and security teams (e.g. with distinctly marked vests or armbands) that are on standby to de-escalate tense situations that may happen during mass public action.
• Direct people in the movement to use agreed-upon words or phrases (e.g. “sit down!” “hands up!” “de-escalate!” “hold hands!”), chants in unison while retreating in an orderly fashion, singing, signs, dress codes, flowers, and other nonverbal communication that carry a specific meaning resulting in or reinforcing a nonviolent behavior during mass public action.
...where movement members assist each other and rely on outside assistance. This is done when movement members:
• Build mutual-aid networks and offer legal, humanitarian, financial, non-monetary, and non-material support to other movement members—particularly to those who are prosecuted and their families.
• Set up solidarity funds using grassroots and international fundraising and distribute these funds to the repressed members.
• Invite and rely on third parties to provide nonviolent accompaniment during movement actions or for movement members.
...reflected in a Good Samaritan attitude toward people outside of the movement. This is done when movement members:
• Offer help and assistance to harmed or injured allies and defectors from the regime.
• Leave resistance sites neat and clean.
• Be courteous, humble, and benevolent in movement victories.
...promulgated through efforts to stop and rectify bad behavior. This is done when movement members:
• Disown in public anyone who does not adhere to nonviolent behavior.
• Deanonymize those whose actions break down nonviolent discipline. Use naming and shaming if needed.
• Expel movement members who break movement norms and codes of conduct.
• Physically intervene and isolate those who break nonviolent behavior during movement actions.
• Offer help and material and non-monetary assistance or reparation for personal damages or injuries to bystanders caused by other movement members or as a result of their actions.
• Call off further actions until specific measures are in place to prevent a breakdown in nonviolent behavior.
...which routinely considers past behavior and incorporates lessons learned. This is done when movement members:
• Conduct post-action debriefings focused on how nonviolent discipline during an action was or was not maintained and why.
• Incorporate lessons learned on why and how nonviolent behavior was not kept and adjust their planning for future nonviolent actions accordingly.
...which serves as an example to others. This is done when movement members:
• Magnify nonviolent behavior by supporting it verbally and by acting in the same manner.
• Adopt or imitate a variety of nonviolent actions used in the past and/or by others elsewhere with success.
...which allows for tactical innovation to nurture nonviolent behavior and provide a strategic advantage over the adversary. This is done when movement members:
• Come up with actions (such as sit-ins, boycotts, human chains) whose very nature reinforces nonviolent behavior among its participants.
• Deploy a combination of nonviolent actions that are strategically sequenced, unforeseen by the opponent, and challenge a fully armed adversary at its weakest point.
• Use humor and wit against an adversary who wishes to be taken seriously and respected.
...which takes a methodical and strategic approach to reducing exposure to an adversary’s violence. Such violence has been shown to increase the likelihood of breakdown in nonviolent behavior among movement participants. This is done when movement members:
• Choose resistance sites, times of day, and actions that enhance movement members’ protection and reduce the risk of repression even while significant pressure is being applied on the movement’s adversary.
• Communicate with the police to learn, among other things, when the police are going to use violence, and plan actions to avoid that violence.
• Reach out to sympathetic members and veterans of the security forces and share ideas on how their actions could help the movement.
...where a nonviolent stance is dictated by the strategic goal more so than by a moral or ethical commitment. This is done when movement members:
• Remind others about the movement’s goals of winning mass support, increasing participation, and soliciting defections from the opponent.
• Scrutinize specific actions from the perspective of whether such actions will help achieve the movement’s goals, and how such actions will be perceived by others.
...where today’s behavior models behavior for the future society that the movement wants to build. This is done when movement members:
• Emphasize that ends and means are inseparable. Bring up data showing that nonviolent resistance has a far greater likelihood of building democracy after the end of the struggle.
• Point out that the way people practice resistance today reflects the politics of tomorrow.
The above attributes and actions help movements to achieve discipline and also instill nonviolent discipline, a crucial ingredient to movement success. At various times, locales, and stages of struggle, movements have adopted various actions identified above to increase their chances of winning against brutal adversaries. Movements benefit strategically from doing what their opponents do not want them to do and not doing what the opponents want them to do.
No authoritarian regime wants to face a disciplined movement—and movements should recognize this in deciding where to place emphasis in their organizing.
Dr. Maciej Bartkowski is a Senior Advisor to ICNC. He works on academic programs to support teaching, research and study on civil resistance. He is a series editor of the ICNC Monographs and ICNC Special Reports, and book editor of Recovering Nonviolent History. You can follow him @macbartkow