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What is nonviolence?

Michael Nagler, classics professor emeritus | November 25, 2011

Having taught nonviolence at Berkeley for over a quarter of a century, I feel called to respond to the judgment of Chancellor Birgenau and UC police Capt. Margo Bennett that the students who linked arms to keep police from dismantling a tent outside Sproul Hall on November 9th were, as Chancellor Birgenau put it, “not nonviolent.”  Apparently Captain Bennet went further and said that resistance of that type is, “in itself an act of violence.”

On the basis of my long experience as an activist in and scholar of nonviolence, I want to declare, with all due respect, that these statements are wrong.

First of all, one cannot categorically deem any physical action violent or nonviolent.  That distinction — and I agree that it is critical to make — can only be made, or must be made first and foremost, not in the domain of action at all, but in what we might call the disposition of the heart.  Did the students hate the police officers?  Then they were violent.  Were they doing what they felt was right, and as far as in them lay resisting the temptation to be become bitter, self-pitying, and angry?  Then they were nonviolent.  (Even etymology is of some help here, as the Sanskrit word ahiṃsā that we translate ‘nonviolence’ seems to have meant, ‘a condition where there is no intention or desire to harm’).

On the basis of what I have seen and heard (including my interviewing two of the participants) I can categorically state that the students were being nonviolent, as far as humanly possible.  One thinks of no parallel more readily than the “raid” on the Dharsana salt pans in Gujarat, India, on May, 21, 1930 when police beat back Indians who were purposing to take (take back, one might say) salt from the British-owned monopoly, sending 320 of the would-be “occupiers” to hospital, and two to death.  That event, you may remember, marked the end of British control in India — arguably the end of colonialism in its primitive, overt form.  As parliamentarian Vithalbhai Patel, witnessing the event, said, “I cannot understand how any government that calls itself civilized could deal as savagely and brutally with non-violent, unresisting men as the British have this morning.”

We cannot, of course, compare the two events in scope (the Salt March was twenty-four years in the making and the climax of Gandhi’s brilliant campaign), nor am I trying to compare it in the level of brutality.  But I can and do praise the courage of our students, who like their Indian predecessors did not retaliate under extreme provocation and have not, to my knowledge, succumbed to self-pity or bitterness.  We can be extremely proud of them.  And we can hope that their nonviolence sets a tone for the current spreading protest movements, so that those movements, too, write a great chapter in the saga of human freedom.

Michael N. Nagler

Prof. emer.

Comments to “What is nonviolence?

  1. Prof. Nagler:

    What solutions does history provide us to solve the problems we have in 2011, especially in this new age of globalization when Washington is in a failure mode refusing to compromise for the good of We The People, signing pledges of indentured servitude to special interests instead?

    And/Or, What can university scholars do today to educate voters to elect a leadership in 2012 with qualities of Solon, Cleisthenes, Jefferson, Washington et al. who produced democracy to solve similar problems in ancient Greece and American colonies?

  2. Freedom fighters or patriots of american represent occupy cal. the british suppressors are these chancellors at davis and cal, and elsewhere– the use of violence to silence the majority.

    i back this column. 100%

  3. People can debate back and forth about this but watch one video and your gut/soul will tell you who is in the right (and who is not). It is as plain as a summer’s day.

    Simple clues:
    Q: Who has the most to lose?
    A: Follow the money
    Q: Which side uses ‘might makes right’ policy?
    A: Cowards trying to hang onto unjustly earned gain. (They usually use hired goons – in this case, sadly, our formerly respectable ‘mean’ in blue.
    Q: What will be the outcome?
    A: Revolution if underlying issues are not addressed. This is a fact. And revolution is painful for everyone; it is always the inferior method to progress (preferred method being evolution). But when cornered and hungry, the villagers will riot.
    The outcome will be a re-establishment of what America was founded on. The only real question is how much barbarism and self-immolation will our society subject itself to before we get there. I pray people with power see the light – or it will be a cold night for all of us.

  4. Thanks for the historical perspective Michael. Of course there were also the successes of the Free Speech and Civil Rights Movements in the 50s, 60s and 70s in California and throughout America that must also be given respect.

    The greatest institutional threats today are that UC and university scholars around the world have failed to protect and perpetuate the legacies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, along with failures by Washington politicians to protect and perpetuate the legacies of Solon, Cleisthenes, Pericles, Jefferson, Washington and Franklin.

    If we don’t learn to be proactive again like the Athenians noted above, and compromise once again like our Founding Fathers who produced the United States of America we shall most certainly fail like they have in Greece so many times when they failed to meet the challenges of change, for the same reasons.

  5. Thank you posting this. Our opposition always seeks to place us in a reactive position … like by saying all resistance is, by definition, violent … hogwash!

    Reading this got me thinking a lot about how taking the high road can give you the upper hand. Nonviolent protest is inspirational; it clearly faces ugly injustice with beautiful action.

    I collected my thoughts in my own blog post:

  6. While I appreciate the intent of the author’s post on nonviolence, I am also troubled by its implication and the white racial frame informing it enacts and embodies (see Joe Feagin for a definition of this concept): the post as it is constructed, and despite its best intentions, leaves open the door for multiple forms of symbolic, epistemic, and structural violence (especially as Jacqui Alexander discusses symbolic violence in her Pedagogies of Crossing).

    Particularly given the author’s use of the terms ‘bitter’ and ‘angry’ to determine which forms of peaceful resistance and dissent constitute nonviolence proper, one has to ask what normative
    assumptions and perspectives will come to bear in determining who is ‘bitter’ and ‘angry’, especially given extant racial stereotypes (as discussed in Melissa Harris-Perry’s recently-published Sister Outsider, among many others doing race-critical scholarship)?

    I worry, especially in light of copious research coming out of social psychology (and frequently discussed on this very site by Berkeley professor Roberto Mendoza-Denton) on implicit bias and aversive racism, that the determination of who is ‘bitter’ and ‘angry’ will conform to historically-sedimented, racially stereotypical patterns– however unintentionally. It is too easy to discount entirely legitimate forms of protest which should absolutely be considered nonviolent, simply because those protesting are all too easily seen as always already ‘bitter’ and ‘angry’. And this kind of biased determination is it’s own form of violence.

    • hello, as an historian from cal, all cultures and colors of skin have delt with issues such as the 1% in society taking more than their fare share. i my opinion, color has no issue. Goerge washington had black soldiers, he called his best, before the southern states threatened him to not join the effort at revolution. so there is not truth of 100% white as evil and 0000% black as good. this is a fallacy, and does not warrent historical truths, throughout all of history.

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