Not long ago, one of my Facebook friends threw up his hands, disgusted with the level of violence in the world. “It’s time for the people to do something if our leaders can’t,” he declared. Intrigued, I wrote back to ask what he had in mind, and like most of us who are disturbed by the turmoil around us, he hadn’t a clue.
According to Erick Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, both scholars on international affairs, perhaps the best we can do is nothing or little. Having studied how social change has occurred in societies throughout history, the authors have concluded that nonviolent resistance to the status quo is more effective than attempts at violent overthrow. Resorting to violence, they point out, plays to an oppressive government’s strength and gives its leaders a reason to unleash their weapons and military power upon unarmed citizens. (“Drop Your Weapons,” by Eric Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2014, pg. 106)
Peaceful dissent, by way of contrast, allows broad participation among the citizenry. Women, children, even the old and infirm can participate in demonstrations or work stoppages, or boycotts, for example. (Ibid pg. 96) Nonviolent movements also have an advantage because they are “not as reliant on outside support as armed ones are because what the protestors do not need is either troops or military arms.” (Ibid pg. 105) Rather than supply weapons to assist civic protests, what civilians need at such times is humanitarian assistance. (Ibid. pg. 106.)
To succeed, peaceful protests take prolonged planning — which is why spontaneous ones, like the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square (1989) are likely to fail. But even here, the story isn’t one of despair but of hope. “From 1900 to 2006, countries that experienced failed nonviolent movements were still about four times as likely to ultimately transition to democracy as countries where resistance movements resorted to violence at the outset.” (Ibid pg. 98). In fact, “Less than four percent of rebel victories in armed resistance struggles from 1900-2006 ushered in democracy within five years; nearly half relapsed into civil war within ten”. (Ibid: pg. 103).
Perhaps when our passions demand a solution, we should practice patience. If an idea touches enough hearts, no bullet will kill it. If the goal of war is peace, then the direct path is to use non-violent means to achieve it.