The success of Mahatma Gandhi and non-violent protest or non-violent resistance is often cited as absolute proof that such non-violent methods can defeat oppression and stop bullies. That idea is often linked to the assertions that the world was a simpler place back when people came together face to face, a small group of committed people can change the world and there’s nothing we can’t accomplish. As much as I almost always try non-violent techniques first, I disagree strongly. You’re better off thinking of non-violent protest as a method, a strategy or a tactic; not as a philosophy.
Let’s examine non-violent protest as if its truth as a philosophy can be tested against history.
Gandhi-ji was successful against the British and I wouldn’t argue that any other tactic he could have employed would have succeeded. But his success only proves that in that particular circumstance, lead by that unique individual spirit, the tactic of non-violent protest was successful in getting the British to leave India. Do you think that non-violent resistance would have been effective in India in 1857? Or that it would help the Indian people now against Pakistan (or vice versa) or against the Muslim terrorists who recent launched their attacks in Mumbai?
I remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. I was actually in Chicago when he led the march and rally. Do you think he would have succeeded in leading a march in Chicago in 1920 or New York in the 1830’s (read about the mass atrocities and killings during the riots there)? Do you think the movement would have succeeded integrating schools in the South without the Federal troops willing to shoot?
Gandhi and Dr. King were in the right places at the right times for the methods they chose. Would either have even gotten obituaries in the newspapers if they tried non-violent protest in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur, or against the Ayatollah or Sadam Hussein, just to name a few?
The wisdom and lessons of history are clear, whether we like them or not. They’re found in the great literature of the world, as well as in the facts we know:
- The world was never a simpler place. Try living your life on a self-sufficient farm, especially when the locusts or drought or flood or fire comes. Or when a conquering horde comes over the hill to kill all the men and take the women and children into slavery. That was dealing with problems face to face. Remember in the Iliad what happened to mighty Hector’s wife and son. No unemployment insurance, retirement funds or welfare.
- A small group of people can change the world. Usually that’s what has happened, whether they start a Renaissance or a dictatorship or they’re called the Founding Fathers or Mothers.
- Although there are many things we’ve accomplished through science and technology in the physical, material world, there are many things we can’t accomplish in the organic, living world. We will never have world peace. We will never have a global society that encourages and makes possible everyone’s individual freedom. Power is a reality of human nature, not freedom (as much as we Americans value it). Protecting me and mine against you and yours, or people grabbing what they want is a reality of human nature.
- In response to a question about peaceful, non-violent protest being effective when facing Chinese soldiers with machine guns, the Dali Lama said, about two years ago, that had we stood there and prayed and chanted and reasoned, they simply would have shot us all. Similarly, the Quakers in Pennsylvania were barred from holding office because their peaceful methods did not protect the colonists they served from Indian attacks.
- History shows that, for the most part, those who succeed practicing non-violence live in caves, deserts, misty mountains or monasteries. Usually, they live on practically nothing or are supported and taken care of by people who brave the world in which violence is a probability. For example, Gandhi could live poor and politically active because, in part, he was supported by the efforts and money of one of the richest women in India.
To think that we can have sustainable world peace is to indulge in childhood, magical thinking – very 60’s and 70’s.
So what can we do? Keep working at it; be strong, skillful and resilient in your efforts; think strategically, being right isn’t enough.
Start with your personal world. Deal effectively and individually with the bullies you find, whether they be face to face or cyberbullies, bullies at work, home or school. Help make laws against those behaviors, but if you want society or the government to actively guarantee security, you will create Big Brother and you won’t like the consequences.
Think of non-violent protest and reasoning as initial tactics to employ. Sometimes they’ll be effective. Bullies will show you if non-violent protest enough to stop them. But if non-violent resistance doesn’t stop a bully, you have to be more clever and firm. History actually shows that usually the best way to prepare for peace is to be strong enough to wage war successfully, despite the seductively catchy bumper sticker to the contrary. Remember, no method succeeds everywhere and every when.
Prepare yourself to be ecstatic and joyful in the world the way it is, whether you decide to change it or not. That joy and ecstasy are signs of the saints. As much as the world is full of all the awful things we can think of, it’s also full of beauty, grace, love and nobility. Fill yourself with joy in the face of the full range of life.
If you can’t be happy until the world is totally peaceful and all the problems are solved, you’ll have a lousy life. That would be a waste of your potential for wonder, awe and joy, as well as for effecting change … even knowing that change won’t last beyond your life span.