December 15, 2014

Why Nonviolent Movements are Successful.


Palestinians are challenged with something Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. never had to face.

Since Israelis look a lot like Palestinians, they can easily infiltrate nonviolent demonstrations and start throwing stones, thereby giving the Israeli Defense Forces an excuse to intervene violently.

There is even a special Israeli brigade that specializes in disguising themselves as Palestinians to infiltrate protests and to carry out assassinations. Kafka was a Jew after all, and it seems his ghost is still haunting the occupied territories.

Pro-Palestinian activists often say no people in history has ever been successful without the use of violence, but the results of a recent study on the effectiveness of nonviolent and violent resistance movements demonstrates just the opposite.

Erica Chenowith, at the University of Denver, studied every major resistance movement going back to 1900. She found that violent movements achieved their goals only 26 percent of the time, whereas nonviolent movements did so 53 percent of the time, making the nonviolent movements about twice as effective. And interestingly, they have been becoming ever more effective over time.

She notes that a commitment to nonviolence enhances a campaign’s domestic and international legitimacy. And it encourages more broad based participation, which translates into greater pressure being placed on the regime. Attacks on violent movements are also easier to justify, whereas attacks on nonviolent movements are more likely to backfire.

Similarly, members of the public tend to perceive violent movements as having maximalist goals, whereas they perceive nonviolent movements as being more moderate in their aims. There are many more controlled psychological studies, which back up these findings, demonstrating the greater receptivity of participants to the aims of nonviolent movements, so this one study does not stand alone.

When most people think of nonviolent resistance, they tend think mass demonstrations, yet nonviolent resistance involves a whole toolkit of strategies and tactics. You can boycott, divest and sanction, of course. But you can also hold sit-ins and die-ins. You can creatively name and shame the perpetrators of oppression. You can stand on the rooftops at night and beat on pots and pans. And you can use satire and humor to draw out the absurd claims of those in power.

The creativity employed in nonviolent resistance campaigns is sometimes ingenious. Just before Serbian protesters overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, they set up garbage cans in public parks to which they attached his photo and a baseball bat. Anyone who wished could drop in a small coin and then beat on his image. Not having a law under which they might prosecute the garbage can beaters, the episode ended when the police arrested the garbage cans themselves to the delight of the Serbian people.

This sort of creativity can galvanize the attention of the press while protecting protesters from violence. In another instance Serbian protesters knew they needed to demonstrate how brutal the regime could be, but they did not want to get people needlessly hurt. So they sent protesters down a street where they knew the police would attack, and they put young women in the front so they could get a picture of the abuse. But right when the police launched into beating them, they took their numerous photos, and then each woman was surrounded by several men who spirited them to the back of the line, after which the biggest and burliest men went to the frontlines to take a beating.

Nonviolent resistance can be academic, diplomatic, and philosophical. It can be artistic, musical and dramatic. And in its most well-known form, it can be ethical and spiritual. The various means through which nonviolent resistance is expressed can foster development in both the human spirit and culture alike. Many supporters of violent Palestinian resistance claim it gives the people dignity, and this may be true. But the dignity provided to the small percentage of the population that participates in violent resistance may pale in comparison to the flourishing of the human spirit afforded through nonviolent resistance.

Perhaps one of the most overlooked forms of resistance is the simple use of reason on social media. Through debating with opponents, Palestinians, Turks and Iranians of all ages can offer up an endless resistance through which they might grow and develop in intelligence, patience and the ability to think clearly. And they can garner the support of other thinkers the world over.

Nonviolent resistance also develops civil society for it challenges people to come together in new and creative ways. Since much nonviolent resistance is creative, expressive, and intellectual, it challenges people to organize themselves around human expression. This means that nonviolent organizers will tend to focus on inclusion of differences, both within and without the group. Nonviolent movements are usually safer, but even when they are not, they tend to be possessed of a calm that can be more inviting to women and the old. For this reason, Chenoweth found that nonviolent movements were usually about four times as large as violent movements.

The kind of well-developed civil society that nonviolent movements contribute to can also serve as the foundation for a healthy democracy. Upon attaining power, resistance movements will bring their own leaders to power. Violent movements tend to bring to power authoritarians, like Fidel Castro and Mao-Tse-tung. Conversely, nonviolent movements tend to bring to power leaders who possess the flexibility of mind necessary for democracy to flourish, people like Nehru and Vaclav Havel. Nonviolent leaders are more likely to rely on persuasion and reason, for they are only able to rise to power insofar as they can convince people of the rightness of their cause. Thus, how a people resists will often determine the nature of the government they get when they come to power.

Palestinians have a right to resist the occupation violently, as do so many other oppressed peoples. And it is up to themselves to choose their own means of resistance. But the sort of traumas inflicted by the occupation and other forms of oppression will tend to make violent resistance a mesmerizing option. Once it starts it is hard to stop. And the forceful power of violence can sometimes make it seem like the only game in town. But this is largely an illusion, because it invites such strong resistance, because so few can participate, because it turns off passive supporters, because it brings all the wrong people to power, and because it is so closed to creative possibilities. As the violence once more heats up in Jerusalem, we would all do well to think strategically about the sorts of actions that are most likely to end the occupation once and for all.



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Author: Theo Horesh

Editor: Travis May

Image: Wikipedia, Wikipedia

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