Gene Sharp and Non-Violence

January 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

I have not dedicated enough time to reading or formulating an opinion in regard to non-violent means to protest, conflict, or revolution. Today, however, I read an interesting essay on Gene Sharp, the very well-known scholar of non-violence. This essay was written for the NewStatesmen (a british political paper) by John-Paul Flintoff. Sharp is founder and senior scholar of the Albert Einstein Institute, and his prolific writings have been said to have influenced recent revolutions around the world (though some believe that these influences are overstated). Whatever the case, taking a moment to learn about a man who appears to live a rather solitary life dedicated to a rather underestimated philosophy is worth your time. It is a long essay, so in the very least I offer excerpts here:

“…[As a young man] living in a shared house on All Saints Road in Oxford [UK], Sharp started to accumulate examples from what turned out to be a vast history of the pragmatic use of non-violent struggle. With hindsight, this may not seem such a remarkable idea, but the eventual effect of his researches was hugely significant.

For Sharp, a principled belief in non-violence was necessary for the techniques to work. Yet his research showed that non-violent struggles were overwhelmingly waged by people who did not have ethical or religious objections to violence. He first became aware of this while sitting in a library and examining newspaper accounts of the use of non-violent protest in India. “I was copying by hand descriptions in Indian or English newspapers of what was happening in one of these conflicts. It became clear that the resisters were acting non-violently without that belief. I stopped taking notes. Should I write that down or skip that part? I wrote it down. In time, I realised this was not a grave problem but an immense opportunity. It will not be necessary to convert masses of humanity to believe in principled non-violence before abandoning violence in conflicts.”

Often people who have tried to make change in the past have done so spontaneously, and intuitively. How much more effective might they have been, he wondered, if they’d had a better idea of what had been done before?”

The author of this essay, Flintoff, goes on to cite examples from Sharp’s “magnum opus,” which laid out 198 forms of non-violence:

“Taken as a whole, the list of 198 methods of non-violent action can be divided into three categories. The first comes under the general heading of “protest”, or “raising awareness”. The second is described by Sharp as non-cooperation – ceasing to have dealings with systems or people you dislike (for instance, not buying items made by companies that exploit their workers, or refusing to fly in order to reduce CO2 emissions). The third group comes under the heading of active interventions to disrupt the status quo, perhaps by building alternatives to what is available. These innovations need not be especially “alternative” in the pejorative sense. Nor are they always negative, in the sense of involving withdrawal or hostility. Japanese trade unions, working for employers who used just-in-time delivery, invented the “go-faster” strike to support their demands for better pay. When in 2011 a library in Milton Keynes was threatened with closure because of budget cuts, local people joined forces to withdraw every single book there, leaving the shelves bare: they opposed the planned closure by showing that they did use the library.

“Sharp’s litany of examples challenges us to ask whether there is something that we should be doing today, about something that is going on right now….Sharp has never said that every use of every method of non-violent action will bring success. “But people who say it can never work at all seem to use a higher standard of success for non-violent struggle than they do for war. How many wars have been lost, how many people have died in wars without getting the results for which they fought?”  – John-Paul Flintoff

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