Nonviolent Resistance

In HSD, we teach people to see patterns in complex situations, and to understand them in true and useful ways. The goal is to make choices and take actions that shift those patterns toward greater health and wellbeing—away from oppression.

In March of 1930, Gandhi invented the modern form of nonviolent resistance when he led a crowd across India to make salt from sea water. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King led nonviolent resistance on buses, in courthouses, and at lunch counters in the Southern US. You might consider nonviolent resistance, too, if you are dissatisfied with the patterns of tension, fear, and distrust that shape public life today. People from every camp—blue, red, and purple—are looking for a way to shift their communities away from today’s tensions and toward tomorrow’s possibilities. We do not want to give up. We hope that nonviolence is an option, but what can effective, nonviolent resistance look like in the media-rich, virtual world of contemporary citizen engagement?

Across the US and around the world, people are using many different nonviolent methods to express their concerns. For example, groups are boycotting products and events, unplugging from social media, joining marches, hosting dialogues, bringing lawsuits, and waging battles of words on Facebook and Twitter. All these activities help people connect to like-minded folks. They relieve frustration and fear, and they make us feel better for having tried. The problem is that none of these connects to the deep, underlying pattern of oppression that drives our current crisis. They are important signs of resistance, but they do not make an essential response to the modern-day instruments of oppression.

Gandhi lived in a world where the British Imperial government claimed control over the access to salt, which had been a right of the people for generations. So, Gandhi chose salt as the bedrock of his resistance movement. King fought concrete signs of racism where real people were denied real access to services because of their race. His nonviolent acts were not merely symbolic, they overcame concrete barriers that limited the quality of people’s lives. To be effective, to draw people in and make a clear and powerful statement, nonviolent resistance must be connected to differences that make a difference. They must focus attention on the cause of oppression and break through obvious and immediate barriers to freedom. 

We have seen resistance movements in our recent past falter, in part because there was no clear, present, and physically immediate threat to freedom. Occupy Wall Street movements around the world rattled a sabre at the unseen world of privilege. Black Lives Matter focuses attention on painful and significant threats, but they have no choice but to focus on the last, not the next, attack on an innocent victim. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” on the other hand, shifted patterns in a different way because the gesture put physical action in the moment of nonviolent resistance. Mothers Against Drunk Driving focuses on policy and practice to make social change, but their message is not physical and immediate. All these movements, and many more, have accomplished good work, and they continue to move patterns of public will. They are often derailed, however, because they do not speak to the essence of the current attacks on freedom and justice.

What would it mean to respond in a powerful, unambiguous way to the oppressive forces at work in 2017 America? In the US, many different and opposing groups are experiencing oppression. Those who stand with the liberals and those who stand with the conservatives, feel their freedoms restricted and their dreams constrained. Is there a single source of these dual oppressions? What would the essence of such an oppression be?  Where can nonviolent action be taken to interrupt the actions of oppressors, whether they influence the right or the left?

In HSD, we teach people to see patterns in complex situations, and to understand them in true and useful ways. The goal is to make choices and take actions that shift those patterns toward greater health and wellbeing—away from oppression.  Since November 8, 2016, we have searched for a useful way to see the patterns in the current political landscape. We seek to see what is happening to our society in a way that empowers each of us to take intentional action to make a difference. We want to see and influence the patterns of oppression that influence us.

There is no shortage of explanations for the current patterns of political distress: Income inequality; lack of critical thinking in public education; media echo chambers, institutional racism; unregulated capitalism; redistricting; reality television; and communist infiltration.  Each of these explanations probably carries some scent of truth, but none of them is very useful. They are not useful because they give us no options for powerful action to shift toward something better. There is nothing significant that I can do, in this moment, in nonviolent response to these patterns of systemic oppression.

We continue to search for a pattern in the political landscape that is both true and useful. We are looking for at least one that explains what is happening and provides concrete, individual options for action in constructive response. At this point, we have three candidates. Each one emerges from a particular view of the current situation. Each one takes a point of view and deserves its own story. We believe all of them work across the whole spectrum of values, beliefs, and political identities. Like any good pattern, they are simple, but they are not easy. Once you see them, you cannot un-see them, and actions to counteract them become immediately obvious. Our investigations continue, of course, as we generate and test hypotheses with colleagues, opponents, and friends. Today, however, we pose three patterns to inform nonviolent resistance in 2017.

The first pattern is propaganda. We can call it “fake news” and pretend that it is unintended. But, the emergent pattern matches the rise of public conflict in troubled cultures across the world and through history. We have no difficulty recognizing propaganda for what it is, “over there,” but it is difficult to acknowledge it in our own culture.  Nonviolent action in response to propaganda cannot be alternative propaganda, nor can it be truth. The one just reinforces the problem, and the second becomes indistinguishable from the first. We believe the only effective antidote to propaganda is inquiry.

The second candidate for a true and useful pattern in the political landscape is self-interest. This is not the balanced self-interest of Getting to Yes or free and fair elections. This is unadulterated self-interest that consumes everything and sacrifices nothing. Open altruism is no counter to this pattern of self-interest. In fact, radical self-interest feeds on the selflessness of others. Effective, nonviolent action in response to this pattern is a focus on fractal patterns—patterns that resonate across a complex system for the whole, the parts, and the greater whole.

Our third candidate for a pattern that creates destructive tension in our society is fatalism. We hear what we hear; we know what we know; and we expect what we expect. We think what we see is predetermined and inevitable. Too often, the patterns we recognize and name seem intractable. We believe they are the only possibility. If we are able to step outside of a moment and see other possibilities, we break free from an oppressive present.  We may even open a door to a more fruitful future. The radical response to fatalism is imagination.

Over the coming months, we will test these patterns and possible responses to see whether they are true enough and useful enough to inspire effective nonviolent resistance. I invite you to join me in a series of Adaptive Action experiments. Over the coming months, in this space, we will explore the nature of each of these patterns. We will consider examples of and options for local, individual, nonviolent action that each pattern can inspire. And, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, we will offer specific activities you and your friends can take to shift the current painful and unproductive patterns of our political present toward better lives for all of us and all our children.  Welcome to Adaptive Action as nonviolent resistance for the twenty-first century.

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