by Tom HastingsNovember 08, 2022
Taking the moral high road as an activist often germinates as an internal commitment to a certain philosophy—the philosophy of nonviolence. Yet observing a certain set of ethics in our movement practice can also bring strategic advantages in asymmetrical conflict between oppressors and the oppressed. The two qualities are inseparable, moral nonviolence and strategic nonviolent conflict being two sides of the same coin.
Over the last half-century of being a front-line activist and nonviolent resister in North America, I have begun to discern some of the finer points of civil resistance in practice. This particular point—that there is strategic value in commitment to showing respect to movement opponents, journalists, police officers, and the general public—recently gave me pause in a moment of nostalgia, thinking back on my participation in a direct action years ago…
By 2006, the majority of the American people were clearly opposed to the ongoing occupation of Iraq. The U.S. military’s shock and awe tactics three years prior had been predicated on what now has been fully proven Big Lies: that, 1) Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and, 2) that he would give a nuclear weapon to Osama bin Laden.
By three years in, colleagues and I were holding vigils with candles for each American killed in Iraq, with sometimes up to 25 or 30 candles for soldiers being killed each week.
A group of us in Oregon decided to target Republican Senator Gordon Smith with a campaign to, 1) occupy his Portland office, politely, not interfering with constituents, but insisting that he publicly announce he would vote against any further supplemental bills to fund the occupation of Iraq, 2) write letters to editors of newspapers in his stronghold areas of eastern Oregon calling attention to Smith's ongoing votes for war funding, despite his public claims that he could no longer support the occupation.
Our message, delivered with respect, was, "Your man is not walking his talk. This is so serious that many of us are now being arrested for nonviolently entering his offices. That is how important we believe this is."
This campaign lasted four months leading up to the midterm elections and we were occupying his offices frequently; I was arrested a half dozen times and others were too. Our letters to the editor were being printed in that wonderful American institution, a free press, in many towns where his base lives.
Smith didn’t get re-elected; a staunchly anti-war candidate won his seat by a razor-slim margin. We can’t know for sure how our actions impacted this, but the outcome was favorable to our goals. We were convinced we weren't alienating his wavering supporters, but rather drawing a few toward the more peace-oriented candidate.
This, of course, was at the core of how Reverend James Lawson, Jr. trained nonviolent direct action participants in the Civil Rights movement, which is what inspired our approach years later.
My thesis is not merely violent protest vs nonviolent protest. The empirical research is dispositive on that score; nonviolence is at least twice as likely to prevail. My contention is that a spirit of care, compassion, and an offer of dignity to all is far more strategic than technically nonviolent but clearly raging, insulting, and scornful conduct. In other words, dig more deeply into the theories studied for 70 years in the field of Conflict Transformation, which names lack of dignity as a core driver of conflict.
When Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow conducted empirical research, published in 2020 in American Political Science Review, on what activists did to promote civil and human rights for African Americans, he found small but significant shifts toward voting for politicians who favored enshrining such rights in law. He also studied social movements that began to use arms or other forms of what the broader public would consider violent. Not only did the media framing change the basic messages of those uprisings away from civil rights, but the voter shift went correspondingly toward "law and order" candidates.
Similarly, Stanford University researchers found in a study with 800 participants that reading news reports (the reports were actually fabricated for experimental control) of anti-racist political violence in the streets actually caused a shift in opinion away from the anti-racist positions being advocated. This worked in the experiment to the advantage of the white nationalists' positions. Violent conduct was not merely unethical; it was an exceedingly poor strategy, by the findings of this research.
Wasow's study focused on how minority rights could best gain the sympathy and support of the dominant majority and thus support the policy changes necessary toward equity. We certainly saw that in northern Wisconsin in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Anishinaabe tribal members reasserted their treaty rights that had been abrogated for generations.
At the start of that struggle, the overwhelming majority of dominant-culture white citizens opposed those treaty rights. For three years citizens saw a sharp contrast between nonviolent tribal members exercising their fishing rights under the treaties, and their opponents. Screaming, overtly racist whites at the boat landings—in some instances blowing off shotgun blasts and planting pipe bombs—alienated the public.
Citizen opinion pivoted completely over those three years; the vast majority of the dominant culture supported the tribes and their treaty rights, even though it put all landowners in the northern 40 percent of the state under a legal cloud.
This “sympathy gap,” so-to-speak, for the tribes mirrored the sympathy gap for southern African Americans in the early 1960s, when the contrast in conduct by disciplined nonviolent civil rights activists and violent, racist southern whites couldn’t have been sharper.
Oftentimes, movement organizers focusing on a combination of the "inside game" (e.g., petitions, lobbying, ballot initiative and referendum, letters to the editor, messaging elected officials, supporting value-affinity candidates, lawsuits, rallies, permitted demonstrations) will reject any suggestions of nonviolent direct action, which are more confrontational in nature. They argue—often correctly—that it will turn public opinion against them.
But what if it could be an addition, a help, an amplification to the cause? Indeed, the struggle for an end to Jim Crow segregation was painfully slow in the decades following the terrible Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court ruling of 1896 that legalized segregation in the United States. Then, as soon as Rev. Lawson trained the initial nonviolent resisters who were highly disciplined and faced violent racist attacks, public opinion began to shift and gained momentum, resulting in vindication in court rulings, as well as legislation.
Rev. Lawson taught us that rigorous training, the moral authority of leadership laying down firm expectations, and unflappable respect and courtesy even for despicable opponents is how we can use the "outside game" of nonviolent resistance in conjunction with a campaign to play the “inside game.”