Non-violent resistance, resist the urge to be violent

by Robin Grace*
Anti-war demonstration in front of the Pentagon on October 21, 1967, organised by the National Mobilisation Committee to End the War in Vietnam - source
Growing up, I remember being in science class learning the laws of physics and other equations that I thought I would never use again, but as I ponder the effects of violence and non-violent resistance as a response to each other I am reminded of the words of Isaac Newton, ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’. This simple law that governs motion may have some weight in this debate about human behaviour.

Of course Newton developed this law in terms of understanding classical mechanics, but I would like to use it here as an analogy of how one human behaviour may cause others to react in a way that is either equal or opposite to that behaviour. Furthermore, it is worth noting that while human beings must exist within the limits of the physical world, we also have emotions and agency that allow us to react in different ways to the same situation. Thus, when presented with violent actions we have a choice to react violently or non-violently, this being equal to or the opposite of the initial violent action respectively. While this sort of reasoning is helpful in understanding human behaviour in an abstract way it detaches us from the reality and the emotions that are involved when we are presented with violence in the real world.

If you are lucky enough to live in a liberal western democracy, you are afforded the comfort and likelihood that violence is a rarity, but for so many others in this world violence is a daily occurrence that is very real. When one lives in a world of violence it is easy to react in a violent way because of the anger and frustration that is felt and it would appear appropriate and justified but it takes real courage and strength to use nonviolent methods as a response. Maryam Al-khawaja, daughter of the Bahraini human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-khawaja, said in a recent interview that we must not be angry at the person but rather be angry at the action. This sentiment is what keeps her and her family strong in their struggle against the unrelenting violence that is carried out by the Bahraini government on their people.

This type of thinking has proven effective in the past when others, such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Martin Luther King, saw past the violent actions and recognised the power of human emotion and compassion. Aung San Suu Kyi was able to see past anger and display a sense of clarity and lack of fear when she was faced with a row of Burmese armed forces pointing machine guns at her and a group of student protesters. Instead of reacting with anger or violence she was able to show compassion as she walked up to the first soldier, put her hand on his gun and lowered it, preventing him from killing anyone and allowing him to be a human being rather than a means of violence. It is exactly this idea that perpetuated the civil rights movement in America which resonates in the words of Martin Luther King when he said “darkness cannot drive out darkness only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate only love can do that. The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil”.

The actions and beliefs of these people in our societies make it possible for us to change the way we think about violence and ultimately may lead to how we behave in violent situations. While Newton’s law was meant to be understood in terms of the physical, I think that we can learn something from it when we apply it to the emotional behaviour of human beings and our ability to change our behaviour from anger to compassion. An old Cherokee told his grandson: “my son, there’s a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It’s anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego. The other is good. It’s joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness and truth.” The boy thought about it, and asked: “grandfather, which one wins?” and the old man quietly replied: “the one you feed.” If we feed our anger with violence we will breed violence, while if we feed our anger with compassion and kindness we will breed peace.

Robin Grace
is a recent human rights graduate from University College Dublin and is now working as the PA to Mary Lawlor, the executive director of Front Line Defenders. He is fascinated with human behaviour as well as moral and political philosophy.  

Readers are encouraged to quote, reproduce and share this content for educational, non-profit purposes, provided the source is acknowledged. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the HR&D team.


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