General Notions of Nonviolence
Nonviolence is an existing theory and a practice, which has affected the lives of many people in recent times. In a world assailed by violence, injustice, wars and hatred, hopelessness and lack of vision, the greatest and best thing to do is to make a choice in life. An author holds that with choice, “the doubt of personality is dispelled, and the creative self emerges… in it, there is infinite interest in one’s own existence… a form of Socratic goodness, integrity and self-knowledge”. 1
In other words, in the face of a chaotic world, there is need to choose to adopt a value oriented system- a system of nonviolence. Before delving into discussing nonviolence, we shall first briefly discuss violence.
What is Violence / Nonviolence?
Violence is defined as the exertion of any physical force so as to injure or abuse (as in warfare), or in effecting an entrance into a house. Violence is also defined as “injury in the form of revoking, repudiation, distortion, infringement or irreverence to a thing, notion or quality fitly valued or observed”. 2
The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy distinguishes two forms of violence: Physical and Psychological violence. “Physical violence is the use of force to cause harm or destruction. Psychological violence is the causing of severe mental or emotional harm, as through humiliation, deprivation or brainwashing whether using force or not”.3 Physical violence may be directed against persons, animals or property thereby causing harm, pain and suffering. Psychological violence applies mostly to persons. It may be understood as the violation of beings worthy of respect.
Violence is criminal, especially when intended. It is an act of injustice. It sows seeds of injustice among people. Violence generates violence. It can never be the best solution to the social, political, cultural, religious crises we may encounter. Violence is a means to an end. For example, the institution of apartheid in South Africa for decades was a form of violence, which generated hatred, injuries, evils, etc. Ipso facto, we generally condemn all forms of violence as immoral, illicit and inadmissible. For Socrates, violence is not the best way to solve problems, even if one is wronged. Violence is a sin against one’s parents and a far greater sin against one’s own country.
Faced with the violence around the world today, the best alternative is not to repay violence with violence, or go back to the Hobesian “Homo Homini Lupus”. In recent times, there has been a dramatic increase in people who have pursued nonviolence as a way of life. They organize symposia, conferences and even write books to help people abandon violence.
Nonviolence is an umbrella term for describing a range of methods
for dealing with conflict, which share the common principle, that physical
violence, at least against other people is not used. We shall distinguish
nonviolence from the following.
Peace action, aimed at the
abolition of war as an institution and the avoidance or termination of
specific wars. Peace movements are primarily reactive to specific threats
and disappear at war’s end; though some like WAR RESISTERS INTERNATIONAL
have survived since the First World War.
Social change activism. Not
everyone who professes nonviolence is interested in radical social
One of the so-called New Social
Movements (NSMs). The wave of transformative collective action in post war
Europe and the US. That has addressed new grievances with new sources.
According to Robert Holmes, Nonviolence is “the renunciation of violence in
personal social or international affairs. It often includes a commitment
(called active nonviolence on nonviolent direct action) actively opposed to
violence (and usually evil or injustice as well), by nonviolent means.”4
Nonviolence apart from being a method is also a pragmatic ideology of
bringing about change in the political, religious and personal sphere of
life without the usage of violence. It is the ideal or practice of
refraining from violence on grounds of principle. Nonviolence is also
defined as a “doctrine of rejecting violence in favour of peaceful tactics
as a means of gaining political or social objectives”5
According to Gene Sharp, who is the acclaimed best known writer on
nonviolent action, there are different types of nonviolence “Nonresistance,
Active reconciliation, Moral resistance, Selective Nonviolence, Passive
Resistance, Peaceful Resistance, Nonviolent Direction, Gandhian Nonviolence
(Satyagraha), Nonviolent Revolution.”6
Some Terms Associated With Nonviolence
are several terms, which have been used interchangeably with nonviolence.
The term nonviolence “did not come into use until the twentieth century...
There has been considerable growth in the methods that we now call
nonviolent” 7 Nonviolence has been around the world through the
centuries though coloured by certain terms, like Pacifism and Civil
defined as “opposition to the practice of war.”8 It is also “the
doctrine that all violence is injustifyable.”9 Pacifism opposes
not only war between nations but also violent revolution and coercive
violence. In the modern era, pacifism has more often been associated with
groups working for political ends and dedicated to nonviolent methods of
achieving them. It remains a belief that all wars and all forms of violence
are wrong. Pacifism therefore holds that war could be, and should be
is a central belief at the core of pacifism- a respect for a consequent
repugnance towards killing and the evitability of violence. Dovishness or
Dovism is an informal term used to describe people to the nonpredatory
nature of the dove. It is a form for pacifism. The opposite position is
hawkishness or militarism.
is the refusal to obey unjust laws or decrees. The refusal takes the form of
passive resistance. For Civil Disobedience to be valid, it must be
nonviolent. John Rawls defines Civil Disobedience as “A public, nonviolent,
conscientious, yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim
of bringing about a change in the law with policies of government.”10
practicing Civil Disobedience break a law because they consider the law
unjust and want to call attention to its injustices, hoping to bring about
its repeal or amendment. The people are also willing to accept any penalty
such as imprisonment for breaking the law. It means the refusal to obey laws
using nonviolent means to force concessions from government. It is mostly
taken by large number of people against government principles.
Disobedience has brought about important changes in Law and government
policies and those who undertake this disobedience do not break the law
simply for personal gain. They work with the conviction that “the society
governs with laws and decrees promulgated by the ruling government. Some of
these laws may disregard the rights of individuals who may feel aggrieved by
such obnoxious laws” 11 Individuals who are so affected and moved
by conscience have the common good in mind and work with the dictum that “lex
injustas non est lex”- “An unjust law is not law.”
disobedience makes a distinction between unjust laws, which only apply to a
portion of the population, and a just law, which applies, to everyone. Thus
Gandhi fought against laws in South Africa that only applied to Indians and
Martin Luther King Jr. fought against racist laws that only applied to
blacks. Despite this affirmation, we still affirm
vehemently that a law can apply to all and still be unjust.
Historical Development of the Philosophy of Nonviolence
The activities of great figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who used nonviolence, have stirred up the quest to trace the history of nonviolence. It is not however easy to have a comprehensive history of the Philosophy of Nonviolence. This does not negate the fact that nonviolence ideologies have been around the world for a very long time.
Gene Sharp dates back nonviolence ideology to c. 2050 BC when King Bilalama formulated the Eshnunna law code. David McReynolds traces the History of no violence to an expression of the gospel or a variant of the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. This history can be grouped thus;
Nonviolence in Ancient Oriental Philosophy
Ancient Oriental Philosophy (this
phrase is no longer widely used since there is a world of difference between
Chinese and Indian thought) has furnished us with a good background of
nonviolence. McReynolds attests that Buddhism is a “totally nonviolent
philosophy, which despite hardships and persecution spread throughout Asia,
finally subduing the Mongols who had so savaged Europe and China.”12
Buddhism like other religions is supposed to be a "totally nonviolent
philosophy", this does not deny in any way some odds: Sri Lanka was in the
midst of a brutal civil war for over 30 years, and the Sinhalese elites who
are Buddhist waged a brutal and violent war upon their equally brutal
adversaries, the Tamil Tigers (Hindus). In 700BC,
Parshva taught nonviolence in India. Confucius also taught Humanistic
Nonviolence in Ancient Western Philosophy
the ancient philosophers, Socrates distinguished himself as a Nonviolence
activist. Scanning through Plato’s Dialogues, we read that Socrates had the
qualities of a nonviolence activist. His Crito, Euthrypho, Apology,
Phaedo, and other Plato’s Dialogues trace Socrates’ concepts of Justice,
approaches to violence, attitude to the truth and Law. These qualify
Socrates as a nonviolence activist.
Socratic way of accepting imprisonment and death showed a great sign of
Civil Disobedience. Socrates refused to condone with the evil of the
Democratic regime in 406BC and the Oligarchy regime in 404BC. Socrates felt
it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could
rise from the bondage of Myths and half myths to the unaffected realm of
creative analysis and objective appraisal.
Scanning through the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, some traces of
nonviolence can be deduced. The emperor when teaching compassion for
infirmity said in his Meditations.
When anyone does you a wrong, set yourself at once to consider what was the
point of view, good or bad, that led him wrong. As soon as you perceive it,
you will be sorry for him, not surprised or angry. For your own view of good
is either the same as his or something like in kind, and you will make
allowance. Or supposing your own view of good and bad has altered, you will
find charity for his mistake comes easier.13
attitude of Aurelius presents a basic principle of nonviolence which Gandhi
will later expand. That of seeing the good in the other person and treating
the person with love.
Early Christian/ Medieval Views
Nonviolence and pacifist elements can be found among early Christians. The
Christian gospel with such exhortations as “love thine enemies” and “Blessed
are the peacemakers, they shall be called children of God” and other
preaching portray nonviolence. Christians, using these, failed to fight
during the persecutions of Diocletian- showing a nonviolent spirit. In the
medieval era, ‘the Anabaptists’14 formed a nonviolent church and
a nonviolent Hutterite.
Nonviolence in the 17th, 18th and 19th Century
Within this period, there began a more noticeable institutionalization of nonviolence in the form of religious organizations that survived to the present day. The Quakers in the 17th century fought a painful campaign against English law, forbidding dissenters to meet publicly. Many of them died in the pestilential prisons. They provide one of the early examples of a successful Nonviolence campaign.
Between 1760 and 1775, America faced the nonviolent phase of her revolution. By 1815, peace societies were founded. A prominent figure, David Henry, Thoreau wrote classical works on Civil disobedience and suffered imprisonment. His masterpieces “Resistance to Civil Government” and “Essay on civil Disobedience” remained a sine qua non to any nonviolent activist. . Gandhi read it later, after forming his own model of Civil Disobedience.
Nonviolence in the 20th and 21st Century
centuries record a climax in nonviolence. From 1893-1910, Tolstoy who
influenced Gandhi a great deal wrote extensive about love and nonviolence.
In 1894, Gandhi helped Indians in South Africa to organize the Natal Indian
Congress. From 1901-1917, Russia faced some traces of nonviolent
resistance. Gandhi also carried out many campaigns to be explained in
Chapter Two. By 1918, Bertrand Russell was imprisoned for pacifist writing.
Albert Einstein also took active part in Nonviolence. He was a great admirer
of Gandhi and exchanged letters with him. He advised people to refuse
military service. The period also witnessed the advent of A. J. Muste and
Martin Luther King Jr., great nonviolence activists. Nonviolence movements
grew around a number of religious organizations like the Catholic Worker,
Pax Christi, etc.
Women also in this period played great roles. Ira Chernus puts it thus;
“Women have made huge contributions to the history of nonviolence...
throughout most of the history... women were actively organizing, supporting
and encouraging nonviolent movements and groups in all sorts of ways”
Prominent among the women were Dorothy Day and Barbara Deming. Back here in
Nigeria, the Aba Women’s riot of October 1929 is a good example of the role
of women in nonviolence. Ten thousand women rioted and the demonstrations
swept through the Owerri-Calabar districts.
(The term riot should not be understood in this case to mean ‘violent’, they
exhibited nonviolence characteristics.)
Mrs. Margaret Ekpo
has distinguished herself as the doyen of women emancipation. She fought
nonviolently for the rights of women in Nigeria. We can also mention the
WOZA or Women of Zimbabwe Arise. It is a civic movement in Zimbabwe which
was formed in 2002 by Jenni Williams. Here are the objectives of the group:
Provide women, from all walks of life, with a united voice to
speak out on issues affecting their day-to-day lives.
Empower female leadership that will lead community involvement
in pressing for solutions to the current crisis.
Encourage women to stand up for their rights and freedoms.
also Lobby and advocate on those issues affecting women and their families.
WOZA is supported by Amnesty International. This group is a Ndebele word
meaning ‘Come forward’. They have so far received many awards. In 2008, WOZA
was awarded the Amnesty International Menschenrechtspreis (human rights
award) of 2008 by the German chapter of Amnesty International. On November
23, 2009, prominent WOZA member Magodonga Mahlangu and founder Jenni
Williams received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. The award was
presented by US president Barack Obama.
many countries around the world, we now hear of peaceful demonstrations,
peaceful protest and boycotts. These are all forms of nonviolence action.
One of the most recent accounts of nonviolence can be found at the protest
by some people in the recent Iraqi-USA war.
The Basic Characteristics and Rules of Nonviolence
definitions have been proffered to make the philosophy of Nonviolence well
understood. The history has served to give highlights of how nonviolence has
been used consciously or unconsciously. We shall now look at the basis of
nonviolent action generally and examine the basic rules of a nonviolent
Nonviolent action according to Gene Sharp is
A technique by
which people who reject passivity and submission, and who see struggle as
essential can wage their conflict without violence. Nonviolent action is not
an attempt to avoid or ignore conflict. It is one response to the problem of
how to act effectively in politics especially how to wield power
Sharp talks of “Conflict without Violence”, it should not be concluded that
anything without violence is nonviolence. It remains an undeniable fact that
the first basic characteristic of nonviolence is the eradication of
violence. This is because
In an age when
threat to violence is as common as the air we breathe, the prospect of an
alternative keeps receding into the archives of by-gone history. In such an
age, opting for nonviolence may be considered to be not only foolish and
scandalous, but untimely suicidal. 17
one must understand that nonviolence does not just mean “no violence”. This
is elaborately described by Bob Irwin and Gordon Faison that:
action is not simply any method of action which is not violent. Broadly
speaking, it means taking action that goes beyond normal institutionalized,
political methods (voting, lobbying, letter writing, verbal expressions)
without injuring opponents. It requires a willingness to take risks and bear
suffering without retaliation. 18
accepting suffering, we can reach the religious stage of Kierkegaard, which
has its focal point simply in suffering. This helps us put an emphasis on
are generally three main acts of nonviolent action.
Nonviolent protest and persuasion.
This is a class of methods, which are mainly symbolic acts of peaceful
opposition or of attempted persuasion, extending beyond verbal expressions.
These methods include marches, vigils, pickets, the use of posters, street
theatre, painting, and protest meetings.
This is the most common form of nonviolent action and involves deliberate
withdrawal of cooperation with the person, activity, institution or regime
with which the activists have become engaged in conflict. Political
noncooperation includes acts of civil disobedience,- the deliberate, open
and peaceful violation of particular laws, decrees, regulations and the
like, which are believed to be illegitimate for some reasons. Those who
undertake this are faced with this question; must the law be obeyed? These
feel that law portrays a great deal of normative personalism, in other
words, if a law is unjust, it should not be obeyed. Noncooperation is an
effective, noble and valuable means to bring change. Ravindra Kumar insists
that this has been used by great men to end atrocities, inhumanities and
injustices. It has been used to fight against wrongdoers, tyrants,
oppressors, exploiters and unjust persons. One reads the following line from
Kumar: “some ancient times great men, leaders of societies, philosophers and
reformers have taken the path of non-cooperation to remove obstacles from
the way of mutual cooperation. For them, it has been a method of
strengthening the process of cooperation”19. These great men,
before proposing it to the world, tried it themselves and discovered its
strength in according justice and freedom.
which is the active insertion and
disruptive presence of people in the usual processes of social institutions.
It includes sit-ins, occupations, and obstructions of business as usual, in
offices, the streets and elsewhere. This method poses a direct and immediate
challenge than the others.
are many other characteristics of nonviolent action outlined by Gene Sharp,
but these ones outlined satisfy our needs.
are some basic rules, which a person must possess to carry out a successful
nonviolence campaign. These are;
The person using nonviolence
will seek to be absolutely open, honest ad truthful.
The person using nonviolence
will seek to overcome fear so as to act not out of weakness but from
The person using nonviolence
will never defame the character of the opponent, but always seek to find
what the Quakers call “That of God” in those whom we struggle.
We shall do our best to love
those with whom we are in conflict.
feel that ‘noninvolvement’ is a basic characteristic of nonviolence.
Contrary to this, ‘noninvolvement’ means living in the aesthetic level of
existence where one is strictly an observer- a non participant and the whole
life is one of the cynical noninvolvement. He who possesses nonviolence has
made a choice of life. This is eminent in Mahatma Gandhi’s Philosophy of
1. P. A. OGBONNA, The Chosen Life, Enugu, Asomog Press, 1989, 24.
2. Third New International Dictionary, Soringfield Mass; G.E. Merian
and Co; 1963, 298.
3. R. L. HOLMES, “Violence”, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy,
Robert Audi (ed.),Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, 829.
5. “Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand” Microsoft Encarta R 98, Encyclopedia C,
1993-1997, Microsoft Corporation.
6. G. SHARP “A Study of the Meaning of Nonviolence”, in G. Ramachandran and
T.K. Mahadesan (eds.) Gandhi, His Relevance for our Time, Berkeley,
World Without War, 1971, 29-54.
7. B. IRWIN and G. FAISON, Why Nonviolence? Introduction to Nonviolence
Theory and Strategy, N. Town, New Society Publishers, 1984, p. 3.
8. “Pacifism”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/pacifism.
9. “Pacifism”, http://www.hyperdictionary.com.
10. J. RAWLS, “A Theory of Civil Disobedience” The Philosophy of Law,
R. Dworking (ed.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977, 81.
11. O. ECHEKWUBE, Contemporary Ethics: History, Theories and Issues,
Lagos, Spero Books Ltd, 1999, 302.
12. D. MC REYNOLDS, The Philosophy of Nonviolence, nonviolence.org,
2000, Part 5.
13. MARCUS AURELIUS, Meditations,
14. Anabaptist: Member of a radical movement of the 16th-century Protestant
Reformation characterized by adult baptism. Most Anabaptists were pacifists
and refused to swear civil oaths. They were expelled from one city after
another, and many were martyred.
15. IRA CHERNUS, American Nonviolence; The History of an Idea,
16. G. SHARP. The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Boston; Porter
Sagent, 1973, 64.
17. J. O. ODEY, Mahatma Gandhi, A profile in Love Peace and Nonviolence,
Enugu; Snaap Press, 1996, 236.
18. B. IRWIN and G. FAISON, Why Nonviolence? 7.
19. R. KUMAR, Non-Cooperation, Meerut, World Peace Movement Trust,