Introverts as Revolutionaries?

Why introverts may be naturally suited to non-violent resistance.

Posted May 02, 2011

"SHY U.S. INTELLECTUAL CREATED PLAYBOOK USED IN A REVOLUTION."

This sounds like a headline that I might have dreamed up, but it comes from a recent New York Times article on Gene Sharp, an "exceedingly shy" 83 year old man who grows orchids, eschews the Internet, and writes influential papers like "From Dictatorship to Democracy," which the Times calls "a 93-page guide to toppling autocrats." Sharp's ideas on nonviolence have inspired and informed protesters in Burma, Bosnia, Estonia, Zimbabwe, and, most recently, Egypt. His paper, "198 Methods of Nonviolent Action," a list including protest disrobing and disclosing identities of secret agents, was circulated by democracy activists in Cairo.

Sharp's example got me thinking about a question that has long intrigued me: whether there's something about the nature of shyness and/or introversion that inclines people to nonviolent modes of resistance. No one has ever researched this question, as far as I know. But studies do show that introverts favor non-confrontational modes of interaction. One study found that introverts even LIKE people better if they meet them in cooperative contexts, while extroverts prefer those they compete with.

Could it be that people who have spent all their lives instinctively trying to avoid conflict -- from the time they entered a nursery school classroom and a fellow 2 year old tried to seize their stuffed bear -- do the same thing on a large scale when they face civic injustice?

Examples of famous nonviolent resistors suggest that there's something to my (admittedly idiosyncratic) theory. Rosa Parks, for example, was a shy and quiet woman who started practicing passive resistance a full decade before Martin Luther King Jr. publicized the idea as part of the civil rights movement. She engaged in passive resistance "intuitively," writes her biographer, Douglas Brinkley. "Such principles were a perfect match for her own personality."

And then there's Gandhi, another constitutionally shy man. If you read his autobiography, you see example after example of him choosing, from the time he was a very young man, to avoid confrontation in situations where others would fight. These were small-scale clashes -- an unfair decree by the leaders of his subcaste; an insult by the Law Society in South Africa. Each time, he saw that restraint in the moment led to larger victories ultimately. By the time he faced the fight that really mattered, he knew that restraint was the key to his power.

This was not only a strategic choice but also an instinctive one. It may be that his personality would not have allowed him to do anything else. "I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts," he wrote in his autobiography. "A thoughtless word hardly ever escaped my tongue or pen...My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. It has helped me in my discernment of truth."

How about you? Do you think there's anything to my theory? What's your approach to conflict? How does your approach compare to that of other people you know?

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