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Violence and Civil Disobedience

Thoughts on the effectiveness of nonviolent disobedience and campaigns.

Published onSep 05, 2016
Violence and Civil Disobedience

First draft. Comments, criticism, further readings and discussion welcome. Part of an ongoing conversation.

Inspired by The Politics of Nonviolent Action by Gene Sharp

In March, I wrote a blog post about disobedience and its importance. In July, we held a conference called Forbidden Research at the Media Lab. (m ss ng p eces made a video about Civil Disobedience for the conference inspired by Gene Sharp’s Politics of Nonviolent Action.) One of the topics we discussed was disobedience and what “good” disobedience was. At the conference, we announced the formation of a $250,000 disobedience prize funded by Reid Hoffman. Our question was “How can we most effectively harness responsible, ethical disobedience aimed at challenging the norms, rules, or laws that sustain society’s injustices?”

When I contacted Anonymous [1] (to the extent that you can “contact” them) about the disobedience prize, they (or someone from Anonymous) made the following edits (in italics) to a message that I sent to them:

The American civil rights movement would not have happened without King’s call to nonviolent civil disobedience, backed by Malcolm X and the threat of armed revolution. India would not have achieved independence without the peaceful but firm disobedience of Gandhi and his people, combined with the militant protest of B.R. Ambedkar (


And the Boston tea party would not have been the opening act of the American Revolution, consolidating settler colonialism with a display of property destruction in redface. OK, maybe that last example isn’t the most awesome, but you get where we’re going with this.

While I might disagree with some of the details, I think that they bring up a valid point and question about the effectiveness of nonviolence without the threat of violence from the “radical flank [2]" Reid Hoffman brought up the question about whether Gandhi would have been successful if their opponent had been Hitler and not the British. Good question. The idea that “in some cases, violence is necessary” is a point that can be argued and is hard to dispute.

Last month, I had the opportunity to hear John Lewis [3] speak. He spoke about his strict adherence to nonviolence and the workshops he attended as a student in the basement of Clark Memorial United Methodist Church run by the Rev. James Lawson and Rev. Kelly Miller Smith. They would sit while other people hit them, spat on them, pushed them from their seats. They practiced continuing to look forward, smiling and not allowing themselves to get emotional and learning to resist the urge to strike back or become violent. He spoke about many times where he was beaten during his nonviolent activities.

He shared a story from 1961 in South Carolina when he was beaten by members of the KKK and left in a pool of blood during the Freedom Rides. In 2009, one of the Klansmen who had beaten him visited Lewis on Capitol Hill with his son - the man was in his 70s and his son was in his 40s. The man came to apologize and asked Lewis if he would forgive him. The son started crying, then all of them started crying. Lewis forgave him and they hugged and cried together.

Lewis explained that nonviolence left space for humanity to emerge.

The week after hearing John Lewis speak, I had breakfast with Marshall Ganz [4] and I asked him about nonviolence and he stressed the historical importance of nonviolence in the success of movements. He also taught me about the “radical flank effect.” He told me to read “Why Civil Resistance Works - The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict” by Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth [5]. This is a scholarly article and a study on the success of nonviolent campaigns compared to those that were violent. The article begins with:

Among political scientists, the prevailing view is that opposition movements select violent methods because such means are more effective than nonviolent strategies at achieving policy goals. Despite these assumptions […] The success of these nonviolent campaigns—especially in light of the enduring violent insurgencies occurring in some of the same countries—begs systematic investigation.


Our findings show that major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns. There are two reasons for this success. First, a campaign’s commitment to nonviolent methods enhances its domestic and international legitimacy and encourages more broad-based participation in the resistance, which translates into increased pressure being brought to bear on the target. Recognition of the challenge group’s grievances can translate into greater internal and external support for that group and alienation of the target regime, undermining the regime’s main sources of political, economic, and even military power.

Second, whereas governments easily justify violent counterattacks against armed insurgents, regime violence against nonviolent movements is more likely to backfire against the regime. Potentially sympathetic publics perceive violent militants as having maximalist or extremist goals beyond accommodation, but they perceive nonviolent resistance groups as less extreme, thereby enhancing their appeal and facilitating the extraction of concessions through bargaining.

Our findings challenge the conventional wisdom that violent resistance against conventionally superior adversaries is the most effective way for resistance groups to achieve policy goals. Instead, we assert that nonviolent resistance is a forceful alternative to political violence that can pose effective challenges to democratic and nondemocratic opponents, and at times can do so more effectively than violent resistance.

According to this paper, nonviolence was found to be more successful than violence for the set of campaigns it studied, but it also shows that nonviolence is not always successful - successful only 52% of the time.

The paper also makes an interesting differentiation between strategic nonviolence and principled nonviolence.

Strategic nonviolent resistance can be distinguished from principled nonviolence, which is grounded in religious and ethically based injunctions against violence. Although many people who are committed to principled nonviolence have engaged in nonviolent resistance (e.g., Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.), the vast majority of participants in nonviolent struggles have not been devoted to principled nonviolence. The conflation of nonviolent struggle with principled nonviolence, pacifism, passivity, weakness, or isolated street protests has contributed to misconceptions about this phenomenon. Although nonviolent resistors eschew the threat or use of violence, the “peaceful” designation often given to nonviolent movements belies the often highly disruptive nature of organized nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance achieves demands against the will of the opponent by seizing control of the conflict through widespread noncooperation and defiance. Violent coercion threatens physical violence against the opponent.

I also believe that the idea that nonviolence is “weak” is a misguided idea often detrimental to the recruitment of people who are anxious for action.

John Lewis made me realize how strong and disciplined he was and how much harder, yet more strategic and morally correct, nonviolence was than violence. While there is no guarantee that nonviolence will always prevail, closing off the path to humanity and healing and escalating the conflict through violence is almost never the right path. As we consider the criteria for the disobedience prize, I feel strongly that nonviolence should be one of the most important criteria for the award winner.

After reading this post, Marshall Ganz emailed with the following point:

One of the confusions regarding nonviolence is that the term defines itself by what it is not. Gandhi called it “satyagraha” or “truth force.” It points to action not away from it. When I was trained in it in the South, and especially with the Farmworkers, it was made clear that unless we could be creative enough to offer an alternative way to “fight” without violence, it was a failure of leadership. It was not enough to simply tell people not to rely on violence as their only way to fight.


Ratbas Fecasea:

The man came to apologize and asked Lewis if he would forgive him. I also believe that the idea that nonviolence is “weak” is a misguided idea often detrimental to the recruitment of people who are anxious for action. geometry dash subzero

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