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Beautiful Trouble: On the difference between Gandhian, Strategic, and Revolutionary Nonviolence

By now, you’ve probably seen this viral video, where young Pakistani Malala Yousufzai professes a radical commitment to nonviolence when considering the possibility that the Taliban would again try to kill her for daring to demand education for girls.

I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do Malala?’ then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’  But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’ Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that ‘I even want education for your children as well.’ And I will tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.’

Folks in Buddhist circles seem particularly inspired by Malala’s personal commitment to nonviolence – when faced with a threat to herself, she intends to respond with love. Like the overly simplistic story of Rosa Parks just deciding not to give up her seat on the bus one day, we connect with the possibility that we might someday have our own moment to stand up for justice, to confront power with firm refusal to bow to its unjust demands. We are in awe of Malala in part because for many of us, our lives are privileged in such a way that we are unlikely to be staring down the barrel of a gun. We might also check ourselves to see whether we’re buying into the favorite Western colonizer’s “story of an innocent brown child that was shot by savages for demanding an education and along comes the knight in shining armour to save her.” As Omid Safi says, “Malala is not ‘ours’ to adopt.”

I pause when examples of personal courage are held up as the ideal way to be nonviolent. While inspiring, they can erase a more collective version of nonviolence – the joining together with others committed to using nonviolent tactics to expose injustice. We tell stories about a tired Rosa Parks, but not a 381-day bus boycott where the Montgomery Black community organized rides and stayed strong together to stand up to systemic injustice.

If we’re going to get real about nonviolence, we need to tell not only Malala’s story, but the stories of collective nonviolent direct action. As part of our latest campaign to continue our study together, I’m excited that we’re offering as a perk the book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. It’s an important book, chock full of theory, strategy, creative tactics, and case studies of what works to create the change we want to see in the world.

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For example in Beautiful Trouble, Matt Meyer helps distinguish between at least 3 forms of nonviolence. All nonviolent direct action is not the same – when you are talking with other activists, do you know whether you are talking about the same nonviolence?

Gandhian nonviolence is a combination of constructive, base-building programs and satyagraha, often interpreted in the Global North as a form of spiritual direct action.

Strategic nonviolence takes a more tactical tack and focuses on the tactics enumerated by Gene Sharp.

Revolutionary nonviolence suggests that it is better to engage in violence than to do nothing in the face of oppression, and that any popular movement must push beyond mere reformist change that leaves structures of oppression intact, even though this requires active confrontation.

According to Meyer, “The theory of revolutionary nonviolence demands a nuanced view of struggle, one that … neither celebrates passivity nor fetishizes confrontation.” Can we stay open to conversation not only with people who adhere to Gandhian or strategic nonviolence, but also those who advocate more active and potentially violent confrontations?

The oft-cited spiritual activist icon Mahatma Gandhi himself advocates an openness to revolutionary nonviolence :  “It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts,” Gandhi said, “than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.” (as stated by Mahadev Desai in Day-to-Day with Gandhi (Secretary’s Diary) Vol. ll, p. 175).

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Comments (4)

  • Murray Reiss

    Is it really true that “If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib”? Is it helpful to look at violence/non-violence in such black and white all or nothing terms? Or does it serve to needlessly incapacitate ourselves? Are there no meaningful distinctions to be made between hitting someone with a shoe (and I doubt that Malala’s at the time would even have had a spike heel) and killing them? Or throwing acid in their face?

  • Dzung Vo

    Where would the nonviolence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Thich Nhat Hanh, fit in to this model? These two teachers to me, embody the kind of awake spiritual nonviolence that I strive for and admire. The kind of nonviolence that arises from a deep insight of interbeing and non-self.

  • John Suarez

    2 out of 3 revolutionary nonviolence as described above reads like violence. Nothing beautiful about that.

  • Jacob Bauer

    I try to avoid using the “better to use violence” quote by Gandhi, because it is easily misunderstood, and is commonly abused. Gandhi did not advocate violence, and he abhorred violent revolution. What he was attempting to emphasize was that cowardice is antithetical to nonviolence. To Gandhi, nonviolence and violence are primarily a mental activities, so as odd as it sounds, physically violent resistance to evil is less violent than cowardice (though both are morally reprehensible).

    This quote by Gandhi I think elucidates the point:
    “Above all I have never permitted violence. I have simply stated two grades of bravery and cowardice. The only thing lawful is non-violence. Violence can never
    be lawful in the sense meant here, i. e., not according to man-made law but according to the law made by Nature for man. Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defence or for the defence of the defenceless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission.The latter befits neither man nor woman. Under violence, there are many stages and varieties of bravery.”
    (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 92:348)

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