Rhetorical Nonviolence

We need a new movement of nonviolence for how we talk to each other.

Posted Aug 18, 2020

Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash


I recently saw someone on Facebook post this, but it was posted as a repeated reply to several different alleged plans and policies of "the left", such as removing statues of Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Columbus, renaming John Wayne Airport in southern California, and anything aimed at fundamentally transforming the United States.

Unfortunately, this kind of rhetoric is all too common these days. We all know it. But what are we doing about it? What can we do about it?

It is especially a problem in our discussions and debates about religion, morality, and politics. Rather than a love of truth, hope for furthering the common good, and a concern for unity, our discourse is marked by a neglect of truth we might not like, a desire for victory, and the hope that we can shame or embarrass our opponent while exalting ourselves and our viewpoints. We deflect, we show disdain for others, and we dehumanize them. For what? For having a different view than we do? For refusing to toe whatever party line we favor? This leads to deep division rather than unity. And whether we are witnessing it, on the receiving end of it, or perpetrating it, such verbal behavior is out of bounds, and actually irrational. It is irrational because it does not lead us to truth and wisdom.

One solution to this is the practice of rhetorical nonviolence.

Nonviolent action, as a more general concept, has been defined in this way: “Nonviolence is not passive nonresistance; nor is coercion always violent. Nonlethal coercion (as in a boycott or peaceful march) that respects the integrity and personhood of the ‘opponent’ is not immoral or violent. By ‘nonviolent action,’ I mean an activist confrontation with evil that respects the personhood even of the ‘enemy’ and therefore seeks both to end the oppression and to reconcile the oppressor through nonviolent methods” (Sider 2015, xv).

If we apply this to how we talk to one another, we can understand rhetorical nonviolence as verbal behavior that reflects, in both content and tone, a respect for one’s opponent as a person with inherent dignity, a fundamental value that all human beings possess. We can be right, resist what is false, fight for truth, goodness, justice, and beauty as we engage in debate and dialogue with others. But we can interact with others without verbally abusing or assaulting them. We can even interact in ways that reflect humility and love rather than vicious anger.

Sometimes, rhetorical nonviolence may simply mean we are silent. We choose not to respond at all. If someone is consistently antagonistic, fails to respect our boundaries, or engages us in verbally abusive ways, rhetorical nonviolence does not counsel us to passively receive such behavior. There are times when it may be wise to simply block someone on social media or suspend, and even end, relationships in real life.

There are other benefits produced by adopting a rhetorically nonviolent approach to discourse online and in real life. In my experience, it opens the door for better conversations, softens my opponent’s heart as well as my own, and refocuses the conversation on the substance of our discussion.

By adopting the practice of rhetorical nonviolence, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If we truly desire and seek truth, goodness, beauty, and unity, then this approach is the one we must take.


Thanks to Brandon Rickabaugh for making me aware of this idea.