What is principled nonviolence? Its primary, overriding principle of nonviolence from which all other aspects flow was described by Mahatma Gandhi as heart unity, which can be thought of as a shift in one’s individual attitude toward others so profound that it affects one’s entire worldview. The shift in attitude is expressed as a desire (backed up by action) for everyone to thrive, both physically as well as mentally & emotionally. This causes one’s entire worldview to change, although the degree of this change varies from individual to individual. And one cannot help but go from thinking of people and the environment as separate, distinct entities to beings whose actions and emotions are related and intimately intertwined, at least by cause and effect, if not also in a deeper and more spiritual sense.
Derived directly from heart unity are two related aspects of principled nonviolence: 1) always striving for reconciliation, and 2) accomplishing goals in such a way that you could end up as friends with the people you are struggling against because we should be persuading people, not coercing them. These two principles of nonviolence are dependent upon seeing all people as sacred and separating that from the culture and other factors which can cause people to act in violent ways. Because a person or group is not the problem; the problem resides in violent ideologies and negative energy used to solve conflicts.
In one of his lectures on nonviolence at UC Berkeley, Michael Nagler demonstrated Gandhi’s ability to do this by describing how he once stayed in the home of, and ate dinner with, the home of a businessperson he was in town to protest against. Gandhi understood that expressing or repressing anger was counter-productive, but that one could learn to use the energy generated by that anger to engage in constructive (and even obstructive, in the case of protests) endeavors while still maintaining composure and keeping everyone’s dignity intact. Insults, dehumanizing language, and any other attempts to reduce a person’s inherent value or worth are considered acts of violence and do not belong in a life dedicated to nonviolence.
In nonviolence we are dealing with actions not usually considered violent in our culture, it is crucial to create a clear definition of violence that we may work with. In this field, a definition often used is that of one of the pioneers of principled nonviolence, Johan Galtung, which according to Dadalos.org is as follows: an avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs. Galtung’s ideas about fundamental human needs are also described on Dadalos.org and they divide into four categories: survival, well-being, identity/purpose, and freedom. The four groups represent a combination of the basic physical needs that most people think of (food, clothing, and shelter) and the more abstract but equally, if not more, important needs of love, identity, and freedom.
One last principle to understand when living a life of nonviolence is an idea that in some ways may be considered an article of faith. It is the notion that win-win situations are always possible. And when violence does occur it is, as Dr. Nagler phrased it in The Search for Nonviolent Future, due to either ignorance or a “failure of imagination.” Nonviolence can be thought of as one of the most exercises in creativity that we can engage in.
All our approaches to nonviolence flow from the concept that Gandhi understood as heart unity. From interactions between two individuals to nonviolent approaches to war, wanting everyone to thrive and struggling to ensure everyone’s basic needs are met makes nonviolence effective.
1) Michael Nagler. PACS 164A . UC Berkeley.
2) Ragnar Müller. Peace Education. Dadalos.
3) Michael Nagler. The Search for a Nonviolent Future. New World Library.