Nonviolence, Coherence and Building Social Movements

Nonviolent action is more than a tactic, more than a strategy. It grows out of a way of seeing the world that is coherent with who we really are. It sees that at the heart of conflict are real people with goals and dreams and a desire to make a difference. It sees that the violence and oppression and subjugation and damage we do to each other, while very real, comes not from who we really are but from a conversation about ourselves or others rooted in worry or fear.

The power of nonviolence is that it calls us to be who we really are — to be compassionate, empowering, clear and respectful — that is, to act in “coherence” with who we are. Anger, frustration, desperation, cynicism — those are all absolutely real experiences for those of us involved in social change, but they are not who we are most deeply.

I remember vividly being at a massive Occupy Wall Street march within the first month of it starting, fifteen thousand of us marching through the streets, united by a common vision of the oppression by the 1% and the possibility for change by uniting as the 99%. As we drew closer to Zuccotti park, the police presence seemed to swell, and in one moment the police and protesters began to clash — the police were narrowing the pathway that protesters could march on, and the protesters pushed through the police barrier and began walking on the sidewalks. When forced back into the mainstream of the march, a group began chanting “fuck the cops! fuck the cops! fuck the cops!”

I wish they hadn’t, for more than one reason. As gratifying as that may have felt, it was a poor tactical choice. It was a poor choice because, as Gandhi, King and other nonviolent leaders knew, the police can actually be on our side, and if the objective is to change our economic system and bring justice to the 99%, we’re probably going to need them. And I’d be willing to bet that a working class, black New York City policewoman has had her share of marginalization by the 1%. The question is (for the #OWS of yore and the movement that is still at work): are we willing to include her and her colleagues and build a more powerful movement?

But there’s another reason the choice to chant “fuck the cops” was a poor one, and it lies beneath the more obvious question of “will our audience and onlookers be sympathetic to us if we choose this tactic?” A movement for social change will be more powerful when it calls people to be who they really are and demonstrate care, concern, respect and love for the other even in challenging situations. As much energy and exhilaration as there can be in angry and cruel or negative protest, when the protest is done and the energy has dissipated we’re likely to find (if we are willing to look) that it’s left us with more frustration, resignation or resentment than when we started. It’s like that final, biting comeback or passive-aggressive snub at the end of a fight. It might feel ok or even good at the time, but who really feels good about that later on?

Movements will grow in power and win major social change victories to the extent that they support and empower their leaders and members to act according to the good values and desires to contribute to others that define who they are. That includes how we choose to see others — that we see them compassionately, and as people with a desire to contribute who deserve our dignity and respect. Gandhi knew this in 1919 when he chose to suspend his nonviolence movement when his supporters, angered at his jailing by the British Government, resorted to violence. He saw that winning Indian Independence would require nothing less than the power of millions of people acting with moral clarity and treating even their oppressors with dignity and respect. So, too, will winning our independence from the fossil fuel industry and climate justice for all.

This kind of practice of nonviolence does something that draws many of us outside our comfort zones: it relinquishes the permission to create an enemy — a group of people who are fundamentally wrong, pitted against a group of people who are fundamentally right. Nonviolence suggests a different approach: that there are only those who acknowledge difference and say Yes to working together, and those who have not yet done so. It’s radical power lies in what is perhaps least comfortable for us: we can no longer rationalize away how the other side is wrong. Instead, we are compelled to see them for who they really are, and in the process we are summoned to a whole other kind of relationship with them — one rooted in compassion.

What this means for our modern movements is this: there is an untold power to strategic action that empowers people to act in coherence with who they really are. Not only are the consequences of incoherent action (action not inline with who we really are) frustration, resignation and cynicism, but incoherence over time will sap a movement’s power and ability to build.

So the question is: In what ways are we now supporting people to be coherent with who they really are — to honor the other, to bring as much kindness and love as passion and determination, to move through conflict with grace? In what ways are we doing that now, and in what ways might we do that more? When we do so, we will see a tide turning. The moral force of our movement will grow, and the spectrum of our allies will shift precipitously towards us. Because we all yearn to be coherent, and in that way, we all yearn to be on the just side of history.


2 responses to “Nonviolence, Coherence and Building Social Movements”

  1. So much wisdom here. I’m looking to see where I might be harboring adversarial intentions toward others. I know, even after nearly 40 years of intentionally seeking to live peace, that I still flare up when I feel frustrated, angry, afraid or irritated. And I know there are certain people or causes that are more likely to bring up these feelings than others. So my heartfelt appreciation, Justin, for the clarity of your thinking. It’s a call that I’m willing to step up to… and to be a stand for. And whenever I notice I’m not being or behaving in peace, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to bring myself to peace and compassion… without self condemnation.

  2. Justin, I’m glad you brought up Gandhi and what he did when his followers began to resort to violence. Movements are successful to the extent that they are inclusive and treat everyone…and that means everyone….with dignity and respect. Nelson Mandela knew this as well. They both knew that is takes courage to be compassionate.
    Thanks for being part of the team that will fundamentally transform how we exist together on this “shrinking” planet.
    Love to you,

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