How Does Nonviolence Work?

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Nonviolence strengthens a campaign in three ways:

1. Among participants in a campaign. In fostering trust and solidarity among participants, they (ideally) are put in touch with the sources of their own power to act in the situation. Many people don't realise how creative they can be until they have support of others in trying something new.

2. In relation to a campaign's adversary. Nonviolence aims either to inhibit the violence of an adversary or to ensure that violent repression will 'backfire' politically against them. Beyond that, it seeks to undermine an oppressive institution's 'pillars of power' (see 'Pillars of Power' or 'Spectrum of Allies' Exercise). Rather than treating employees of our opponents as inanimate tools, nonviolence tries to create possibilities for them to rethink their allegiances.

3. In relation to others not yet involved. Nonviolence changes the quality of communication with bystanders or 'outsiders'—people not yet concerned about the issue or not yet active about it, people who can be potential allies (see 'Spectrum of Allies' Exercise). The pioneer of nonviolent scholarship was Gene Sharp, who has suggested four mechanisms of change in those opposing a nonviolent struggle: a) conversion: occasionally a campaign will persuade them to its point of view; b) coercion: sometimes a campaign can coerce adversaries to back down without convincing them of the activists' views of right and wrong; c) accommodation: when an adversary looks for some way to 'accommodate' a campaign, to make a concession without granting everything a campaign demands and without relinquishing power; d) disintegration: a mechanism Sharp added after 1989 when Soviet-aligned regimes had lost so much legitimacy and had so little capacity to renew themselves that, in the face of a 'people power' challenge, they disintegrated. (For more, see 'Forms of Action').

Scholarship on nonviolence tends to look more at the ultimate success of a movement, in particular the leverage it succeeded in exerting on those in power. This Handbook, however, is more concerned with looking at processes involved in building campaigns, in making issues alive and tangible, in designing campaign strategies, and in preparing and evaluating action. What we write is firmly grounded in the practice of social movements, and in particular our own experiences with the peace, antimilitarist, anti-nuclear, and social justice movements of various countries.

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