Democracy, said Winston Churchill, is the worst form of government — except for all the rest.
This is also true for nonviolence. When people are victims of injustice, especially a violent injustice, a violent response is easy to justify. “I’m not going to sit still while someone attacks me,” is quite reasonable.
But the consequences of our actions are worth considering. If our violent self-defense or defense of others actually makes the outcomes worse, we should think it through. Almost invariably, nonviolence is the worst response—except for all the rest.
It is most instructive when analyzing this question to ask, “What is the goal? How did we fail to achieve it? How did we succeed in achieving it?” When we follow the trail to the eventual outcome, we learn that nonviolence is, by far, the superior and sustainable path.
Often it’s helpful to ask the counterfactual. What if Rosa Parks had punched the bus driver in the nose? She may have gotten a few others to also get physical and violent, but she never, ever would have generated nationwide sympathy and the public policy changes that ensued.
What if Cesar Chavez had approved when his migrant farmworkers fought back with fists after they were attacked by white members of the Teamsters union? They might have beaten down some bullies — and never generated the widespread direct support of mainstream Americans that enabled their victories.
One must wonder about the counterfactual operating in the other direction. What if Muslims opposed to US military aid to Egypt and to the Saudi royal family — two regimes who may be Muslim but who use US military aid to oppress their own people — had devised and conducted a purely nonviolent campaign to challenge that policy? Instead we saw Osama bin Laden declaring all through the 1990s and beyond that US support for corrupt Middle East regimes made him and his followers enemies of the US. We saw what they did on September 11, 2001.
And what if Hamas were completely nonviolent, staging peaceful demonstrations in opposition to Israeli domination and oppression? What if they made a special appeal to US citizens based upon their nonviolent suffering and resistance to Israeli injustice? What if they demonstrated the same fierce nonviolent discipline that African Americans did during the Civil Rights movement and asked the US citizens to oppose US military aid to Israel?
The research is clear, insofar as it goes. We have barely begun to perform massive, empirical studies of conflicts and the methods chosen to wage them, but again and again, researchers are finding that the record is clear. By the numbers, nonviolence is the best chance to achieve stated goals. It is also faster, and involves much lower costs. Much.
When we hear someone say that guns helped the Civil Rights movement to succeed, or that violent self-defense is justified, or that burning down buildings in riots is the best way to finally get attention, let us bear in mind the outcomes. The US Civil Rights movement achieved gain after gain for about 10 years, from Rosa Parks to the Voting Rights Act, 1955-1965. Then riots and armed black power self-defense began and the gains all screeched to a halt and stayed halted to this day.
Nonviolence is lousy for those whose emotional needs for bloody revenge and catharsis are higher than care for actual results. This is understandable. This is even justifiable in many cases in many philosophies. But it fails, generally speaking, again and again.
The best way to move our human rights, civil rights, justice and freedom desires forward is for good people to get involved, be both nonviolent and disciplined, and to insist on the public policy changes that will fix our various and serious problems, from racism to militarism. Is this easy? Nope. If it were, I would be reporting that it had all been worked out and solved. But is it possible? Yes. That is proven again and again in our US history. Our best hope is to reward nonviolence and to participate in it.
Dr. Tom H. Hastings is core faculty in the Conflict Resolution Department at Portland State University and is Founding Director of PeaceVoice.