Unpacking Nonviolence

The Commonweal Collection is one of the UK’s leading resources on nonviolence, but what does that mean and why does it matter?

Asking ‘what is nonviolence?’ is a great starting point for thinking about Commonweal Collection because many of the resources it contains are about, and come from, the nonviolent movements and actions that have shaped the way we think about campaigning, rights and protest.

But nonviolence is more than a method of doing protest. The use of nonviolence within campaigns and protest works because nonviolence is about confronting power and recognising the power you have yourself. It’s about recognising the humanity in everyone and there being no ‘other’. It’s realising that everyone holds a part of the truth and becoming aware of the true complexity of understanding our world.

There is a wonderfully powerful, visual way to think about nonviolence, given to us by a woman called ‘Barbara Demming’. It is an image of two outstretched hands. One hand is held up in a stop sign and is us staying ‘stop’ to violence, corruption, abuse and destruction, but the other is reaching out in friendship, acknowledging the humanity in every person. In nonviolence you can oppose the behaviour and actions of a person and still recognise and welcome them as a person.

This is not easy to do. Try it when you listen to the radio or read the news: Can you welcome the humanity of those who you do not agree with?

Nonviolence is powerful. It is all about power. It challenges the way we think about power because rather than the fixed ‘win-lose’ approach of militarism, nonviolence shares the concept that power is fluid and always moving between groups. An elite/government cannot rule without the consent of the people – people may consent through fear or apathy, but if they refused to work, pay taxes or serve in the military, the elite/government could not maintain control. This is known as the ‘Consent theory of power’ and shows how people have power and can use it nonviolently.

How do we learn and share about nonviolence? There isn’t a section of our libraries and bookshops dedicated to textbooks and strategies on nonviolence, so we have to search and seek out the resources. Here are some places to start:

  • The Commonweal Collection is helping to host a wonderful website on civil resistance. As well as having some crucial ebooks (for example ‘Civil Resistance’ by Commonweal Trustee Michael Randle, the first chapter of which is one of the best introductions to nonviolent civil resistance around), it holds the online version of the wonderful nonviolent action bibliography. In the bibliography you can find information about written work from different parts of the world, different historical times and with different campaigning themes. It has to be a starting point for learning about nonviolence!
  • If you want to learn more about campaigns using nonviolence, then you need to log onto the Global Nonviolent Action Database based at Swarthmore. This collection holds data on thousands of campaigns, including the type of methods they used and linked to the famous ‘198 methods’ of nonviolent action put together by Gene Sharpe. You can search by many criteria and start to see the extent to which nonviolent action has been used.
  • You can continue your study of issues, examples and challenges of nonviolence by visiting the International Centre for Nonviolent Conflict website. They have films, ebooks, and organise events or online training on nonviolence and are a comprehensive site through which to learn. They host an Online Academic Course that you can register for, and then work through the readings, lectures and questions to draw on all their rich material.
  • If you’re still wanting more, or wanting a bit more creativity, try the sites of Beautiful Trouble or Artivism, where people share projects they are doing that are engaging people, changing minds and developing new solutions. Gandhi was very clear when he said that nonviolence is not only about protest against the activities we oppose, but also taking the time to create the institutions and systems that we want. Creating gardens, new eco power systems and using art is all part of nonviolence.

This is all about inspiring and educating ourselves about a different approach to the world. Militarism is built on fear, isolating others, fixed ideas of power and the concept that violence achieves goals. Nonviolence is also employed by people in the world to fix their communities and speak truth to power, but it is largely dismissed as irrelevant. By learning, reading and sharing news and information about nonviolence, we are already creating the world we want.

If you have worked your way through all of these, some other sites full of information are Einstein Institute, Meta Peace Centre, Nonviolence International…To keep up with news, subscribe to ‘Waging Nonviolence’.

We can all learn about nonviolence! Once you’ve begun, book your visit to the Commonweal Collection so you can read the books, flick through pamphlets and let your imagination grow.

Rachel Julian

Rachel is a Trustee of Commonweal Collection and Professor of Peace Studies at Leeds Beckett University. She’s spent all her life in nonviolent campaigns and movements.