How to Change the World

I’ll admit it – I’m what we used to call in the 60’s a “Peacenik.” A bleeding heart liberal. A Pacifist. I relate to the plaintive cry: “Can’t we all just get along?” (the sentiment, not necessarily the weird situation in which it became a catchphrase). Growing up in the Vietnam War era, the songs I was taught in school were about peace, perfect harmony and teaching the world to sing about the deaths of assassinated leaders. Television shows for kids stressed cooperation, diversity and kindness. I truly believed that if we only tried to understand one another, and acted respectfully toward one another, we could truly live happily, like the songs and commercials and television shows promised; and it never occurred to me that anyone would disagree. As I grew up I learned that, like most idealistic dreams, it’s not that simple.

My bubble of rainbows and unicorns was a tiny blip floating in a sea of a culture that glorifies war and violence. Sadly, it has only gotten worse as I now reach my 60s. Children learn History in a framework of war. Violence, “standing one’s ground” by using death threats, gun-toting, machismo and smack-talk are still all seen as desirable shows of strength – the mark of a protector. Video games reward children for violent and bloody kills. We have become anaesthetized to mass-shootings, even when children are the victims. Moneyed lobbyists have the ears (and fill the pockets) of our legislators. Movies that have always aggrandized war have become more and more graphic and violent. Pain, rape, blood, dirt and lamentations are everywhere in our entertainment media. Violence, we are told, is the most efficient and effective way to get what we want. Might makes right.

I still believe, as some of my most influential teachers have insisted, that peace is the way. Although I consider myself politically active to an extent, I believe that strength is not in confrontation, but in passive and non-violent resistance. Some would say that resisting passively is a contradiction in terms, akin to no resistance at all. Many people snicker or roll their eyes at the thought of a nonviolent response to an authoritarian regime – it’s seen as noble, but naïve – a moral position, but not a viable strategy. It’s for pussies. But I beg to differ, and at least one researcher of the effectiveness of nonviolent vs. violent revolution, which has made them one of the world’s foremost authorities on passive resistance, not only agrees with me, but has proven it.

We’re living in a time during which violence is more than just accepted as a necessary evil, it is glorified. It’s an endemic part of our culture – the culture of the world, not just any particular country. Politicians who “talk tough” are considered leaders. Those who use violence in conflict are seen as courageous war heroes. People argue and threaten one another on social media, under the cover of anonymity, or sometimes right in the open, knowing that there will be those who excuse their inexcusable words and behavior, or even applaud them. Violence is used as a form of protest, of fighting back, of “standing up for what’s right.” But does it work?

First of all – what is nonviolent or civil resistance? If you’re resisting, you’re putting up a fight, right? And aren’t all fights violent in some way? No, and no. Think Mahatma Gandhi, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Singing Revolution that led to the destruction of the former Soviet Union, and the Serbian Otpor resistance that led to the resignation of a brutal autocratic regime there (not to mention my favorite passive resistance story – which you’ll find in the podcast I talk about below. Hint: it involves stray cats), to name just a few. Nonviolent resistance is about using other means to provoke change – such as grass roots organization, protest songs, boycotts, rallies, marches, letters to the editor, speaking at town meetings, having discussions with elected officials, etc. to spread a message of resistance or revolution. Passive resistance is similar, only it often involves violating a law or rule in a way that doesn’t involve violence (at least on the part of the protestor) – such as peaceful trespass, sitting or lying quietly in a restricted area or after having been asked to leave, “disturbing the peace” (oh, the irony) by singing or chanting or praying in a public place to draw attention to an unjust situation, etc. Civil disobedience, in the alternative, usually involves violent disregard for authority – such as looting, rioting, throwing objects, physical confrontation, etc. Although sometimes bad actors (or subversive agent provocateurs pretending to be part of the otherwise peaceful protest) may turn nonviolent resistance into civil disobedience, the two should not be thought of as the same, since they are in fact mutually exclusive. True non-violent and passive resistance have historically enjoyed great success in accomplishing astonishing revolutionary change. Civil disobedience, on the other hand, simply pours gasoline on a smoldering flame.

Secondly – brute force will always win over passivity, right? Emphatically – no. Violent protests grabs headlines. It’s sensational, strikes fear and/or excitement, it makes people notice and drives viewership/readership, which sells advertisement and makes money for those who report the “news.” But studies have shown that it’s not very effective at doing anything but escalating conflict and leaving a wake of death and destruction.

Some weeks ago I listened to a podcast about how non-violent protest is truly a force that changes the world. Erica Chenoweth, an American political scientist, professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, has been fascinated by war and ideas of wartime valor since they were young. They had always been under the impression, as most of us were taught, that only violent insurrection or war can lead to change. However, after they spoke at a conference, Chenoweth was approached by Maria Stephan, then at the U.S. State Department, who proposed that they do a study to test that idea. No one had ever undertaken a scientific review of the data before, as it was just assumed that revolution can only come about through violently fighting for it. Using a strict set of parameters, the team studied over 200 violent revolutions and 100 nonviolent campaigns of the 20th century.* They found that the nonviolent campaigns were actually twice as likely to succeed – 53 percent to only 26 percent of the violent uprisings accomplished their goals. Not only that, they found that more recently, nonviolent campaigns have been on the increase, and increasingly successful. Even Chenoweth and (to a lesser extent, as she was already a believer) Stephan were surprised by the results. The nonviolent campaigns were most likely to succeed (i.e. usher in revolutionary change) when there is mass participation of at least 3.5% of the population (this number is crucial, and would mean, for example, about 11 million people in America); dividing the opponent by getting a large base of supporters of the oppressive regime to shift loyalties; using tactical innovation (such as humor, public theater or strikes and stay-at-home tactics which keep the protestors at home rather than placing them in the path of violent retaliation); and organizational resilience, discipline and cohesion. These tactics concede that there is no way to change a dictator him or herself, but rather focus on winning over those who are passively supporting their regime, supporters who may be having second thoughts, or are neutral. Some of these campaigns were even successful in turning the hearts of the soldiers whose job it was to violently react to uprisings – not to demoralize them but the re-moralize them – remind them of their humanity.

However, these tactics need to be known, used, and trusted, in order to make a difference. In Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know, Chenoweth writes that “nonviolent revolutions have indeed created major societal breakthroughs,” but that “there are still many people around the world who have not yet been exposed to these ideas or who remain more sympathetic to violent alternatives—and, as a result, default to apathy or to violence as their only options.” Yes, there is hope in a peaceful solution to violence – but the elephant in the room is that pervasive and relentless misinformation and outright lies being drilled into the heads of those who don’t have critical thinking skills (no longer taught in schools, due to budget cuts) or don’t have access to the truth, continue a cycle of villainization of the “other,” and a deification of saber-rattling and violence.

As long as people feel powerless, weak and downtrodden, they will be – because of those (many of whom have put the citizens in this position to begin with) who will take advantage of their despair. There is definitely strength in numbers, and those who are reluctant to march in the streets with half a dozen of their friends will be more likely to head out once they look out the window and see a multitude chanting what they themselves believe. It’s time for peace-lovers to join the resistance. Peacefully.

*The study was not about those whose countries are invaded by foreign aggressors, such as what’s happening now in Ukraine. It was focused on those countries with autocratic leaders, in which the citizens were seeking a revolutionary change in leadership or form of government.


More on nonviolent and passive resistance, and Erica Chenowith, may be found here: (TED talk)


2 thoughts on “How to Change the World”

  1. This article speaks to my heart and core. I grew up believing in peace and peaceful protest. My mom taught me that was a way to make positive change.

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