by Peter AckermanSeptember 21, 2017
When developing a new field of study in the social sciences, the selection of terms for key concepts can be crucial. Certain words may evoke multiple meanings because they are filtered through a reader’s cultural experiences and personal imagination. Failure to account for this possibility can diminish the clarity of research and even create unintended confusion. Moreover, vague and imprecise terminology can lead to the dismissal of important insights by those who may benefit most from them.
Such is the case with using the term “nonviolence” (and its recent modification: “strategic nonviolence”) as a synonym for: civil resistance, nonviolent conflict, nonviolent resistance, and nonviolent struggle.
Here are illuminating excerpts from Adam Roberts’ definition of civil resistance:
“(It) is a type of political action that relies on the use of nonviolent methods… (and)…involves a range of widespread and sustained activities that challenge a particular power, force, policy, or regime hence the term ‘resistance.’ The adjective ‘civil’ in this context denotes that which pertains to a citizen or society, implying that a movement’s goals are ‘civil’ in the sense of being widely shared in a society; and it denotes that the action concerned is non-military or non-violent in character.”¹
Here is the Merriam-Webster’s multi-faceted definition of nonviolence:
b: nonviolent demonstrations for the purpose of securing political ends
The perennial problem for the field is people shape their definition of the term “nonviolence” to fit their own purposes or prior beliefs.
Over the last decade, there has been an amazing explosion of research and analytical focus on nonviolent conflict. The sheer quantity and quality of data have validated earlier conclusions based on a limited set of cases. For example, my doctoral thesis in 1976, “Strategic Aspects of Nonviolent Resistance Movements” involved two cases. My first book, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict published in 1994 used six cases. My second book, A Force More Powerful published in 2000 analyzed 14 cases. Now the field is reviewing many hundreds of cases in great detail yielding ground-breaking knowledge. Indeed I have no doubt that these academic achievements will over many years reduce deadly violence in conflicts and accelerate the world-wide advancement of human rights and the rule of law.
Yet let us recognize what all this valuable research has in common: The units of analysis for which data is organized are conflicts of the most acute kind. In virtually every case, what hangs in the balance is whether oppressed citizens or their tyrants will retain the power to govern in the future.
Over 50 years ago Tom Schelling — the renowned game theorist and winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences — predicted the current direction for the study of nonviolent resistance: “The Tyrant and his subjects are in somewhat symmetrical positions. They can deny him most of what he wants — they can, that is, if they have the disciplined organization to refuse collaboration. And he can deny them just about everything they want — he can deny it by using the force at his command… They can confront him with chaos, starvation, idleness and social breakdown, but he confronts them with the same thing and, indeed, most of what they deny him they deny themselves. It is a bargaining situation in which either side, if adequately disciplined and organized, can deny most of what the other wants; and it remains to see who wins.”²
Schelling predicted that the principal design of current research will be to advance our understanding of who wins a competition between protagonists (with sharply divergent interests) when one of them is relying on a strategy of civil resistance.
Here is the key point: Nonviolence is generally understood to be a principle guiding human behavior. No protagonists are involved in its formulation. Some recognize this conceptual problem and try to cure it with “strategic” as a modifier: Unfortunately the juxtaposition of these two words only adds to the cognitive dissonance.
This is why I am urging researchers of civil resistance to stop using this term as a synonym for civil resistance or nonviolent conflict. I expect some colleagues will be unhappy with this request. They may wonder whether the exclusion of certain words will only re-open past ideological chasms.
It is worth noting that I am not the first to redline terminology. In Gandhi’s 1935 letter “Servants of Indian Society” he wrote the following:
“The statement that I had derived my idea of civil disobedience from the writings of Thoreau is wrong. The resistance to authority in South Africa was well advanced before I got the essay of Thoreau on civil disobedience. But the movement was then known as passive resistance. As it was incomplete, I had coined the word satyagraha for the Gujarati readers. When I saw the title of Thoreau’s great essay, I began the use of his phrase to explain our struggle to the English readers. But I found that even civil disobedience failed to convey the full meaning of the struggle. I therefore adopted the phrase civil resistance.”³
Perhaps it would also be helpful to add that I am not suggesting that we ignore the role of those committed to nonviolence in a nonviolent resistance. I am specifically interested in comparing the effectiveness of leaders of civil resistance campaigns who are or are not pacifists. Another important area to research is the circumstances surrounding loyalty shifts away from tyrants based on ethical conversion. We know that adversaries who benefit most from oppression must often be coerced into changing their behavior. However, less senior adversaries — on whom those at the top depend — may very well feel acute disgust and a shift in their moral perspective. So there is much about nonviolence to study in the context of civil resistance to increase our understanding of who wins.
Finally, let us consider the negative effects of continuing to conflate nonviolence with nonviolent resistance. First we have contemporary Frantz Fanon acolytes arguing that only violence is effective and that those who favor nonviolence surrender their right to self-defense and are really working for the oppressor. Next we have the realist foreign policy experts wondering how the ethics of nonviolence can pressure autocrats such as Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kim Jong-un, or Nicolas Maduro. Then we have the media who cannot understand why the individual adoption of a personal code of nonviolent behavior is more newsworthy than people clashing violently in the street.
To argue effectively, back-tracking becomes essential through comments such as: “Well by nonviolence we really mean civil resistance which is…” We can avoid this confusion altogether by using more precise and consistent terminology at the outset.
In my 40+ years of trying to advance humankind’s appreciation of civil resistance as a strategy of conflict, in no instance has reference to nonviolence been helpful. In fact just the opposite. Even today for those newly interested in the field of civil resistance — as a way of analyzing who wins battles between tyrants and citizens — the term nonviolence should only refer to the principles of certain participants. Otherwise interest will quickly evaporate.
Why do we need to complicate our work?
1. Adam Roberts & Timothy Garton Ash, Civil Resistance & Power Politics, (Oxford, UK; Oxford University, 2009), pp.2.
2. Thomas C. Schelling, “Some Questions on Civilian Defense,” in Adam Roberts, ed., Civilian Resistance as a National Defence: Nonviolent Action against Aggression (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 1967), pp. 351-52.
3. Mahatma Gandhi. “Servants of Indian Society.” Received by P.K. Rao, 10 Sept. 1935.
Dr. Peter Ackerman is the Founding Chair of ICNC, and one of the world’s leading authorities on nonviolent conflict. He holds a Ph.D. from The Fletcher School, Tufts University, where he presently is the Chairman of the Board, and he is co-author of two seminal books on nonviolent resistance, A Force More Powerful and Strategic Nonviolent Conflict.Read More