“That which exists is possible”

Today I had the chance to hear Gene Sharp speak at the John Howard Yoder Dialogues on Religion, Nonviolence and Peace at the University of Notre Dame. I was not familiar with Sharp’s work prior to this event, although his most famous book is The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Sharp’s talk, entitled “Principled Non-violence: Options for Action,” was interesting on many levels and, I think, quite pertinent for us YARs.

I’ve highlighted a couple of points from the speech that I found most interesting (not necessarily what he emphasized), so if anyone else reading this was there, feel free to add stuff.

1. Human beings obviously don’t live in a perfect world. With that understanding, what then is the role of those who believe in nonviolence? Sharp says that simple refusal to participate in the violence means not only withdrawal from the violence but also from the conflict itself (and any chance to shape that conflict differently).

2. People will not choose to be powerless in a threatening world. And in the face of violence, there is often an assumption in broader society that counter-violence is the only option. Put slightly differently, “Failure to wage violence is seen as an abdication of responsibility to the whole society.” Education about what nonviolence is (or is not), as well as where it has worked in history, then becomes extremely important.

3. No evangelism allowed. Believers in nonviolence, says Sharp, should work with non-believers. Seeking converts will not increase the success of the struggle, and the pressure to convert is likely to drive others away. Participating in broader nonviolent struggles, building capacity in the society as a whole and seeking to make a movement as effective as possible reduces the pressure to resort to violence.

4. We in the United States often use violence not because it’s the most effective thing but because we believe it has to be. When asked if nonviolence could work in a given scenario, Sharp quoted a colleague, replying, “That which exists is possible.” Nonviolence has worked; it’s a part of our history.

5. What is the role of outsiders (i.e. Americans) in nonviolent struggles? Interestly enough, Sharp said he was quite skeptical of the role of outsiders in conflicts (and certainly, that outsiders should not be determining policies and actions for a movement). There were many folks from CPT there, which made it quite interesting as three of them successively tried to outline what they do and why it’s important.

And one should always approach as a student, with an open mind. Those who come with an attitude that “we already know what we need to know” are creating a barrier.

Sharp says it’s not sufficient to remain nonviolent; we also have to be committed, courageous and competent. It’s important to act wisely and to have good strategic thinkers and planners. It’s not enough to appoint leaders who are passionate about nonviolence; leadership is not a matter of the depth of one’s convictions. He quoted Gandhi, saying, “Nonviolence, to be a potent force, must begin with the mind.”

Comments (2)

  1. TimN

    This sounds like an especially interesting speech. I’m sorry I missed it. I take it that despite being succesive, the CPT advocats were not particularly succesful? Did Sharp feel that they were outsiders too much? I’d be interested to hear more details about his responses.

    Personally, I resonate with number 3 in your list. While handling media interviews during the CPT hostage crisis in London, I got really tired of ending up arguing about just war or the classic hypothetical situations with grandmas and guns. I decided that it was more important to suggest that peacemaking and nonviolence was a possibility rather than the only way, because there are many people who believe in peacemaking who also believe in war. We pacifists are losing a large chunk of the population if we seek to convert people rather than simply finding allies.

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  2. Lora (Post author)

    I don’t think that Sharp had specific critiques of groups like CPT, as he didn’t seem very familiar with their work. He did really emphasize the need to educate Americans, so on that level he might have concurred that it is important work–and that’s the level where I’d say all accompaniament is crucial. Of course, neither of them were going to convert each other and it dropped quickly. It was just interesting to me that several CPTers took his remarks with a bit of defensiveness. But it’s difficult to get at the nuances in a blog-and-comment setting. Maybe I’ll ask others who were there to make sure I’m reflecting this accurately.

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