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Intelligent Nonviolence


(I wrote this on April 7, 2003)

Somewhere along the path from Thoreau thru Ghandi thru MLK Jr to the present, the progressive movement decided that nonviolent civil disobedience was the premier way to bring positive change into the world.

Maybe it is, sometimes. But practicing nonviolent civil disobedience for the sake of practicing nonviolent civil disobedience is probably counterproductive, in the same way that using antibiotics for every ailment is counterproductive. Different problems require different solutions.

Nonviolence is a tactic, not a goal. It has the best chance of working when it is used intelligently in pursuit of a goal. It works best when practiced by disciplined individuals who are not afraid to stand their ground and die, if necessary, when assaulted by authority. It works best when these individuals conduct themselves in a way that highlights their basic human rights. It works best when these individuals break laws in ways that win sympathy from viewers around the world.

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There have been many protests about the US invasion of Iraq. More protests than I will ever know about. And more are coming!

Some of these protests are legal. Some of them are not. Some protesters are breaking various laws on purpose in order to get arrested, usually by blocking traffic or surrounding particular buildings, or even by removing their clothes in public ;-)

Aren't many of these illegal protests self-indulgent? Are they designed to build sympathy for a cause, or are they designed to vent personal anger? Are they targeted toward symbolic acts that will resonate in the minds of viewers, or are they intended as an expression of political sanctimony?

Protesting a bad government decision is a valid expression of human rights. But some forms of "protest" seem more like temper tantrums to me a bunch of angry people who didn't get their way and who don't respect the democratic decision-making process.

For example if a local government strangely decided to outlaw bicycling on all city streets, then it would make great political theater to get a group together to protest the law by notoriously bicycling on city streets. It would not make much sense to protest this law by removing clothes en masse in front of City Hall.

A protest makes more sense to the rest of the world, and brings sympathy from the rest of the world, when the protest has some sort of symbolic link to the problem it addresses. For example a respectful and prayerful candlelight vigil to protest the death penalty makes a lot more sense than blocking rush hour traffic to protest the death penalty.

When we inconvenience others in ways that have no symbolic connection to our grievance, we can not expect to win their sympathies. And in a country that is ruled by public opinion polls, sympathy is the entire ball game.

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If you live in a democracy, and something your government does upsets you, you have the perfect right to contact your elected officials, to vote, to organize opposition, to boycott corporations or geographic locations, to publish your opinion, and to organize legal protests. If you have done all of these things, and the majority of your fellow citizens still disagree with you, then think carefully about how you might use the tactic of civil disobedience to sway opinions in your favor. But please, don't insist on using civil disobedience until you've thought things through. How will this action help you to achieve your goals? Are you doing this because you want to get arrested, or are you doing this because you believe it will generate sympathy for your cause?

I think many people who line up to get arrested believe they are engaging in the strongest possible protest by doing so. I think the strongest possible protest is the one that convinces people to agree with the protesters.


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