What is Nonviolence?


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.

What is Nonviolence? « The Berkeley Blog.

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