by Amber FrenchOctober 02, 2020
When I first spotted the words “International Center on Nonviolent Conflict” on a job announcement in 2014, I admit, I was intrigued but confused. Conflict is violent by definition, I thought.
Through education and pop culture, I had heard about Gandhi and the Indian struggle for independence. Having grown up in the U.S. South, I of course knew about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement as well. But I hadn’t considered either of these cases as “conflicts.”
And yet, they absolutely were—a collision of ideas, of powers, of practices, of behaviors, but one side did not use violence. The people who entered into conflict used nonviolent action like sit-ins, boycotts, noncooperation, and marches as their means of struggle. I started thinking through all the possible reasons for such a choice—was it a strategic choice, or a moral one, or maybe both? Why didn’t they just pick up a gun? It turns out that ICNC’s work was entirely devoted to these very questions!
The first time the term “nonviolence” really caught my attention was during a conversation with ICNC founding chair, Peter Ackerman, one of the world’s leading civil resistance thinkers. As he later argued on ICNC’s blog: “The field of civil resistance [analyzes] who wins battles between tyrants and citizens—the term nonviolence should only refer to the principles of certain participants.” I understood that nonviolence referred to pacifism and rejection of any conflict, whereas ICNC’s work focused on how people actually wage conflict, just nonviolently.
Ackerman denounces the use of the term “nonviolence” to englobe strategic nonviolent action and nonviolent conflict, advancing that precise terminology is a necessary prerequisite for describing and understanding complex social scientific phenomenon. Having completed a master’s thesis in international relations, I could get behind that argument.
But was this not just some frivolous semantic debate? Wasn't advocating for precise use of terminology just some fussy academic soapbox? Gandhi himself would beg to differ.
Today, on the occasion of the International Day of Nonviolence, I think it’s important to recognize that Gandhi himself—most often attributed for and associated with the term nonviolence—actually embraced the exact English term civil resistance. He did so because other terms like civil disobedience did not capture “the full meaning of the struggle,” as Gandhi wrote in his 1935 letter, “Servants of Indian Society.”
Hundreds of alumni of ICNC courses and workshops would also agree that we must pay attention to the terminology we use in this field of practice and scholarship.
We know this because ICNC has conducted a multilingual exercise in civil resistance terminology with people from around the world. The exercise consists of asking participants to translate “nonviolent action” or “civil resistance” into their native languages, and then to translate it back literally into English. More so than the translations themselves, participant debriefings were absolute gems of insight.
One common observation was that using a vague or generic term to refer to civil resistance could have dangerous implications in the real world. For example, a Mexican participant noted that activists in his country too often used protesta, which was problematic because it left the door open to protesters thinking it was permissible to use violence.
Echoing this, a Nigerian participant shared that the use of the term “revolution” had landed activists in his country in jail with charges of treason. “So, to get the people and even the media to participate in any protest, you must consciously apply the word ‘peaceful’ to the protest. Even the police want to hear it as a re-assurance,” he concluded.
A second common theme in these debriefings often emerges around history and culture. A participant argued that in Bosnia, the general term protesti (protests) is most commonly used, because “we haven’t had much success with civil resistance in Bosnia post-war for several reasons: [ethnic divisions], apathy, loss of hope in change, distrust of foreign aid agencies.” This leads us to wonder whether countries that emphasize nonviolent history, for example in education, have more specific or nuanced terminology in their language(s) than countries where this is not the case.
“Civil resistance terminology reflects culture and social context, changing from place to place,” noted one Brazilian participant along these lines. Common in her local culture, marches are viewed as the “opportunity to protest against power through collective walking on town streets calling for other people’s attention against oppression and injustice. The march was my first contact with what civil resistance is in practice.” Thus in a way, “march” becomes a proprietary eponym for nonviolent action (an example of a proprietary eponym in the United States would be using the word “Kleenex,” a brand name, to refer to facial tissue in general).
A final thread that emerges is power dynamics. “In Mali,” one participant wrote, “the closest translation of civil resistance I can find in the local context is ‘the refusal’… [and] ‘the power of all,’ meaning the power belongs to all of us.” Similarly, a participant who speaks Catalan preferred poder de la gent (“people power”), because it connotes “empowerment of people and the need for massive participation.”
Drawing on feedback like this from about 700 participants from around the world during the past six years that we have led the exercise, ICNC has learned that carelessness with regard to terminology is counterproductive at best and dangerous at worst. This includes conflating nonviolence (a system of beliefs that denounce violence) with nonviolent conflict (contention characterized by ordinary people’s use of strikes, boycotts, and other nonviolent tactics to leverage pressure against unjust leaders or systems). Why does it matter?
It is lazy to dismiss such conversations as trivial. Conflating these terms can play into the hands of authoritarians who thrive on fuzzy concepts and confusion, because this demobilizes people power. Focusing on the strategic value of waging nonviolent conflict appeals to rationality. This can mobilize allies beyond just those who are committed to a certain set of moral beliefs—and the more the better!
And besides, don't we owe it to the activists on the front lines of nonviolent conflict to talk about their actions in a way that does them justice?