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Ervin Staub, Ph.D.

Ervin Staub Ph.D.

Nonviolence as a Way to Address Injustice and Group Conflict

Nonviolent strategies can effectively address conflict, injustice and repression

It is almost inevitable in human societies that some groups come to have greater power, wealth and influence. At times groups limit the rights and opportunities and harm members of other groups. The more powerful tend to ignore requests by the less powerful for security, rights and opportunity. This often leads to violence by the less powerful, whether terrorism, guerilla warfare or revolution—as it did in Argentina in the 1970s, in Syria currently, and by the Palestinians since the establishment of Israel. The more powerful usually respond with violence, and a cycle of increasingly intense violence can follow. It is not simply that the powerful resist giving up privilege. It is also that they develop a world view or ideology according to which they deserve it—because they are more hardworking, or more intelligent, have better values, or are inherently better as a race or ethnic group. If the less powerful gain power in a violent revolution, since violence tends to expand, often a repressive and violent reign follows. Conflict between nations is also common—now between Iran, and the U.S. and other countries.

When people join together they can accomplish a great deal through non-violent action. At times non-violence often needs to be forceful, requiring courage, people putting their bodies on the line. Well known examples of effective non-violent actions include the people's movement that Gandhi created, which led to India becoming free of British colonial rule, and the primarily non-violent civil rights movement in the U.S., led by Martin Luther King. The evolution of civil right in the U.S. would have been very different it instead of peaceful demonstrators, willing to endanger themselves for their ideals, the authorities and people opposed to it had faced guns and bullets.

Among other examples, Milosovic, who was to a large extent responsible for Serb violence in Bosnia, was overthrown by students and workers who joined in huge peaceful demonstrations. They also used cars, buses and tractors to block traffic in Belgrade, the Serb capital. In Chile, when miners who planned to strike were surrounded by the military, they asked that sympathizers walk slowly at designated times and flash the light on their cars. As many people did so, everybody became aware of the degree of opposition to the military dictatorship under Pinochet. Resistance increased and the days of the system were numbered. The Arab Spring, Egypt and Tunisia, and Occupy Wall Street are important current examples, and show the Internet as a new way to get people informed and engaged.

Can non-violence be always effective? Perhaps it would not have been effective in the face of the Nazi's readiness for brutality. But when the German people became aware of the so called euthanasia program, the killing of mentally and physically handicapped Germans, and relatives, lawyers' groups, and leaders of the Catholic Church protested, the program was halted. There was only one limited protest against the persecution of the Jews. When German wives of Jewish men protested in front of government buildings the deportation of their husbands, the deportations stopped and some of the men were brought back from concentration/extermination camps.

Events in Syria may show the limits of non-violent action. It is possible though, that if the protestors had remained non-violent, the reactions of the world would have been so uniform and overwhelming that the government could not have survived. No outsider can ask, however, that when people are shot at and killed they should not take up arms themselves. This is a decision only the people who are involved can make.

Countries sometimes act belligerently and threaten other countries, and a similar process of actions, reactions, increasing hostility and violence can follow. Right now we are witnessing the evolution of such a process with Iran, which can lead to destructive and tragic ends. Diplomatic engagement and bringing the parties together for dialogue are forms of non-violent action, in every situation. Such engagement, to be most fruitful, has to overcome mistrust of the intentions of the other party. It was presumably such mistrust of the outside world, his own population, or both, that led Saddam Hussein not be forthcoming in showing that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps pride also made him less forthcoming, the pride of a dictator. The determination of the U.S. government to go to war did not help.

Sanctions against a country can also be non-violent action. Huge demonstrations by people at many places led corporations to stop doing business in South Africa, contributing to the collapse of the apartheid system. Those who are the objects of sanctions can consider them, however, a form of war. Sanctions can also greatly harm a population and lead to many deaths. An awareness of the suffering they can create led to a shift to leaders and the elite, their money and travel, as the target of sanctions.

We have much to learn about what forms of non-violent actions work best in what cultures, with what governmental system, with what kind of leaders and elites. Research in psychology indicates that while in dialogue less powerful groups want to talk about their grievances, members of the dominant group want to talk about common interests and goals. Those with privilege seem more inclined to give up their privilege if instead of demands by the less privileged, the degree of their relative privilege is highlighted.

We have to gain more knowledge about non-violent strategies to address conflict and injustice. Non-violence also needs to become a strong value, of people, and leaders. To avoid the human suffering and material costs of violence, we must learn to engage with each other, to hold legitimate goals and address them in non-violent ways. People need to exert influence on their leaders to do their utmost to resolve conflict without violence.

Ervin Staub's latest book is Overcoming Evil: Genocide, violent conflict and terrorism, 2011.


About the Author

Ervin Staub, Ph.D.

Ervin Staub, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.