On Nonviolence and Civil Disobedience
By Dr. Jane Hurst, Department of Philosophy and Religion
I want to clarify the terms nonviolence and civil disobedience. These terms refer to a specific approach to challenging power. Nonviolence is the idea that each person has the power to change things not by inflicting suffering on others but by being willing to undergo suffering for a cause. Hence there are nonviolent hunger strikes and marches and protests in which the protesters show their inner dignity by standing for a cause. Nonviolence never attacks other people, but rather attacks issues and power structures. As Martin Luther King stated, "Nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding."
According to this definition the current protest at Gallaudet has not been nonviolent. The threats to students who are trying to get an education (email, photographs taken if they attend classes, personal coercion), the threats to various members of the campus community (faculty, staff, board of trustees), and the personal retaliatory attacks on I. King Jordan and Jane Fernandes are all indications of the violent nature of this protest, whether or not anyone has actually been physically assaulted or not. The mood of this protest is not the way a nonviolent protest feels. In a nonviolent protest, the spirits of the protesters are uplifted. Their anger is transformed to hope. The feeling tone of the current protest is angry and vindictive. Emotions are running high, and spiritual dignity is lacking. This is NOT nonviolence.
Civil disobedience is a technique of breaking the law and being arrested to achieve a goal. As Wikipedia says: "In seeking an active form of civil disobedience, one may choose to deliberately break certain laws, such as by forming a peaceful blockade or occupying a facility illegally. Protesters practice this nonviolent form of civil disorder with the expectation that they will be arrested, or even attacked or beaten by the authorities. Protesters often undergo training in advance on how to react to arrest or to attack, so that they will do so in a manner that quietly or limply resists without threatening the authorities." Gandhi, who essentially developed the idea of civil disobedience, taught that civil resisters should harbour no anger against the opponent, but rather seek to transform the opponent through the justice of the resister's cause. Again, personal attacks are not acceptable.
The current protesters, faculty and students, can't have it both ways. If this is true nonviolent civil disobedience, the anger and attacks and threats must stop. The complaints about being arrested are ridiculous, since being arrested is the point of civil disobedience. "How could King do this to us?" He did not do anything that was not requested by the protesters wilfully breaking the law. He was acting his part in the drama of civil disobedience. The protesters were acting theirs. These are the rules of this kind of protest.
The continued complaints, anger, threats, and retaliation (which is how I read the shameful vote of no confidence in President Jordan at the faculty meeting yesterday) show that this protest is NOT civil disobedience and it is NOT nonviolent. There is no hiding behind these labels while disrespectful, angry and threatening behaviour and words as well as wilful lawbreaking continue. This shows disrespect for the protesters' opponents, and worse, disrespect by the protesters for themselves and their ability to achieve their goals peacefully.
For reference, below are listed the principles of nonviolence from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
I. Mahatma Gandhi's rules for civil disobedience (from Wikipedia)
- A civil resister (or satyagrahi) will harbour no anger.
- He will suffer the anger of the opponent.
- In so doing he will put up with assaults from the opponent, never retaliate; but he will not submit, out of fear of punishment or the like, to any order given in anger.
- When any person in authority seeks to arrest a civil resister, he will voluntarily submit to the arrest, and he will not resist the attachment or removal of his own property, if any, when it is sought to be confiscated by authorities.
- If a civil resister has any property in his possession as a trustee, he will refuse to surrender it, even though in defending it he might lose his life. He will, however, never retaliate.
- Retaliation includes swearing and cursing.
- Therefore a civil resister will never insult his opponent, and therefore also not take part in many of the newly coined cries which are contrary to the spirit of ahimsa.
- A civil resister will not salute the Union Jack, nor will he insult it or officials, English or Indian.
- In the course of the struggle if anyone insults an official or commits an assault upon him, a civil resister will protect such official or officials from the insult or attack even at the risk of his life.
II. The Principles of Nonviolence as Outlined by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. From the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia
- Nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards. It does resist. The nonviolent resister is just as strongly opposed to the evil against which he protests, as is the person who uses violence. His method is passive or non-aggressive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, but his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade the opponent that he is mistaken. This method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually; it is non-aggressive physically but dynamically aggressive spiritually.
- Nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through non-cooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that non-cooperation and boycotts are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent.
- The attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces. It is a struggle between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.
- Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform.
- Nonviolent resistance avoids not only external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.
- Nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. It is the deep faith in the future that allows a nonviolent resister to accept suffering without retaliation. The nonviolent resister knows that in his struggle for justice, he has a cosmic companionship.
The principles of nonviolence, based on a speech given at University of California, Berkeley, June 4, 1957, and an article published in Christian Century in early 1957.
Posted: 19 Oct 2006
Thursday, October 19, 2006
On Nonviolence and Civil Disobedience - by Dr. Jane Hurst
Dr. Jane Hurst is the chair of Gallaudet's department of philosophy and religion. She has this to say in a post on the Gallaudet website (http://news.gallaudet.edu/?id=9583) today about the current protest: