Is Nonviolent Use of Force an Oxymoron?

This article has been in the works consciously for at least three years, and, implicitly, since 1995, when I first heard Marshall Rosenberg speak of the protective use of force. Here’s one way he described it in a video interview: “The protective use of force is necessary when another person for whatever reason is not willing to communicate and meanwhile their actions are threatening our needs. So we need to take whatever action can be made to protect against that happening but we can do that without violence.” In that same interview he also said: “Use force to prevent violence.”

Image of an interview with Marshall Rosenberg

This description, as well as variations on it, including my own earlier attempt to create a list of criteria that I included in one of my books, raise more questions than answers:

I now have a template that I have derived after more thinking than I could track, more reading than I can reference, and more conversations than I can remember or give credit for. Suffice it to say that the template I have derived cannot in any way be thought of as mine alone. I see it as refining and making operational what Marshall’s words point to, a step in the direction of rigor, and a woefully incomplete one:

In the rest of this article I unpack each component of this template. My hope is that this level of detail and specificity will support those who, like me, find any use of force exceedingly difficult, both practically and spiritually. I am in conversation here primarily with those who are fully committed to nonviolence and are struggling to reconcile that commitment with the reality of the world as it is. In small measure, I am also in conversation with those who claim that nonviolence is insufficient to the task because they, like some proponents of nonviolence, equate nonviolence with the total absence of using any force. I hope this article can show, in broad strokes, that a coherent path of nonviolence exists that is adequate to respond to the challenges that a world in crisis presents.

In subsequent articles I plan to explore a few difficult case studies simply to expose and invite engagement with the difficult questions that arise, not to answer them. Those range from situations such as whether or not to take a former spouse to court in relation to child custody all the way to weighing the options available to Palestinians in their struggle to free themselves from many decades of occupation, and anywhere in between. The common denominator of many of the situations that tend to come up is that the path of dialogue is closed by the other party and the real or potential negative impact of the actions is serious.

Use of Force

My own understanding of what it means to use force is broad, in that I include many more types of action than some others do, and relational, in that I measure it by its impact rather than by the reasons for the action. Any time any person or group takes action and/or prioritizes needs in a way that doesn’t include the active participation of those affected I call that use of force.

There’s nothing simple about applying this way of understanding use of force. It means, for example, that much of what most parents do includes use of force, and I know this because the children affected more often than not are not consulted by the adults. That the adults believe their choice is motivated by care for the child’s needs and well-being, and even how accurate they are in assessing the child’s long term or even short term needs, is irrelevant to the child’s experience of being forced.

This understanding also means that nonviolent resistance, the mainstay of Gandhian and any other forms of nonviolence I am aware of, also counts as use of force. Although Gandhi himself believed that what he referred to as the “unnatural relationship” was harming both the Indians and the British, the British didn’t agree with him and were, for a while, intent on continuing to rule India. Neither the British occupation of India nor its ending was based on freely chosen dialogue, where both parties are committed to finding a solution that attends to everyone’s needs. Similarly, when Mubarak or Milosevic stepped down from their political office, it wasn’t because they shifted their perspective and came to appreciate the needs of those who stood up to them. In both cases, these major shifts happened because those in power lost their power base, and had no path forward to continue to maintain their control over a population that no longer accepted their legitimacy. There is no doubt in my mind that, like the child, they didn’t like having no say in the matter.

Martin Luther King — Refuse to Cooperate, 1957

This is one core reason why the question of force is so central: to the extent that nonviolence aims for what Martin Luther King, Jr., called “Beloved Community,” every time we use force on the way, there is more repair needed on the other side of potential “victory” because no matter the reason, use of force leaves a mark. It’s hard to find, and sometimes to notice, examples where, in the wake of regime change (including through so-called peaceful and democratic elections), revolution, or other political upheavals the newly vanquished were actively cared for. One of the most impressive such examples is the way that West Germany was treated after WWII. Although there were those who wanted to destroy Germany and bring it to a preindustrial state, the ultimate agreement offered enough for West Germany that the cycle of violence was interrupted. This is in stark contrast to the Treaty of Versailles which many see as directly linked to the rise of Hitler, as that treaty was experienced as humiliating by many in Germany.’

Michelle Alexander researched and wrote “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colourblindness”

In my assessment of history, the overwhelming preference for piling humiliation on top of loss results in seething resentment that only contributes to the continuation of the cycles of violence that exist in the political world. As Michelle Alexander pointed out in The New Jim Crow, there is a direct link between the experience of white people after the Civil War — humiliation and complete disorientation of their worldview and ways of living — and the establishment of Jim Crow, and, similarly, between the success of the Civil Rights movement and the rise of mass incarceration, which I join her in seeing as a new form of the same phenomenon without the explicitness of racism. In both cases, nothing was put in place to attend to those who lost. It’s not simple to do it because of the moral outrage at the actions of those who were overthrown, for example, and, still, it is essential in order to be able to shift beyond the separation that is at the root of the horrors in the first place and manage to create some togetherness between “winners” and “losers.”

Nonviolence in a Violent World

Like many, I started the journey of nonviolence from a deep faith that everything can be addressed without use of force except in those rare circumstances such as when a child runs into the street and is about to be hit by a car: simple protective measures about imminent physical risk. That was how I understood what I learned from Marshall Rosenberg, and I defended this understanding valiantly for a long time even while colleagues were insisting that I was denying that force was being used in nonviolent direct action. When I finally managed to fully digest that what counts as force must include the impact, and that the most iconic examples of nonviolent action include use of force, everything exploded. I had taken in, deeply, the invitation to embody nonviolence in thought, word, and deed. What to do, then, with there being force right at the center of what Gandhi and others have been demonstrating to us?1

Along the way, I came up with my own definition of nonviolence, of which the first part is specifically relevant to this article:

Nonviolence is a way of being and living that orients, in thought, word, and deed, towards integrating love, truth, and courage in individual and collective action aimed at preserving what serves life and at challenging what doesn’t to transform itself so the human family can realign with life.

After much agony, still ongoing, I have come to believe that, in the world as it is, certain ways of being pure about nonviolence can easily slip into subtle forms of sustaining the status quo. This is the place where my concerns intersect with those people who overall condemn nonviolence as an instrument of the state. To the extent that our commitment to nonviolence is embraced within any unconscious priority given to the comfort of those whose actions we’re attempting to change, or if we insist on using only dialogue even while active harm persists, the continued, pervasive, and invisible-to-some violence that is built into our current world order continues with our implicit consent. This is a spiritual conundrum that challenges me repeatedly.

In a nonviolent world, a peaceful place where all needs, impacts (both positive and negative), and resources are cared for and engaged with as we continually flow with life, use of force would be, and apparently was, reserved for extreme and rare situations.2 Achieving aims nonviolently, in that world, can be fully done through connection, collaboration, and dialogue only.

In a world in which decisions about whose needs are prioritized are made on the basis of fears, collective and individual trauma, and narratives and concepts resting on separation and scarcity (such as “who deserves what”), and in which some people have the capacity to make the lives of others miserable, or even to end them with no consequences to themselves, we cannot rely fully on dialogue. At the same time, if we are committed to nonviolence, there won’t be any abstract rules. Engaging nonviolently in this time of human evolution means an incessant requirement of rigorous discernment about how to respond, with or without force, to the multiplicity of situations in which individuals, groups, or abstract structures (e.g. laws and norms) operate in ways that are at serious cost to others.

Photo by D. Myles Cullen

Even in our daily living, outside of the extreme, the pervasively violent, and the systemic, much of the time we end up prioritizing needs in ways that run the risk of harming others or life. This is because the core set of principles that our institutions and mindsets are based on assumes that individuals and the whole (e.g. society) are at odds with each other, a view rendered so fully in Civilization and Its Discontents,3 and so at odds with the few societies that anthropologist Ruth Benedict studied and referred to as synergic cultures4. Questions show up as either/or rather than inquiries about what’s possible, and we have little practice in staying with the unknown to find solutions that work for all. We then easily polarize, and either use implicit force against others by prioritizing our needs, or against ourselves, by prioritizing others’ needs. Whenever we do that, we reinforce the paradigm of scarcity, separation, and powerlessness and thus unconsciously sustain the existing social order even without any intention to do so.

Black Lives Matter protest against St. Paul police brutality. Photo by Fibonacci Blue.

Embracing and committing to nonviolence in a violent world entails recognizing these realities and integrating them into our choices. It means releasing the illusion that we can, or at least that we always can, do things in ways that care for everyone; or that we can singlehandedly compensate for systemic violence in individual relationships; or free ourselves fully from the legacy we have inherited as individuals. We always operate, by necessity, in constrained circumstances for as long as the status quo continues, even as we also have the freedom to choose how we respond within those circumstances.

At the very same time, part of the essential core of nonviolence is the commitment to no harm.5 Within this, I want to initially approach any use of force, even small, as a likely break from the fullness of this commitment. I see nothing light or easy about this. My own personal abhorrence of imposing anything on anyone kept me for years in a place of not seeing that nonviolent resistance is already use of force. With that conceptual muddle, I held on to a belief that it would always be possible to engage and transform situations, even very difficult ones, even war, without using force. That I have come to shift my understanding after years of study and conversation is no license to use force. Only a tragic recognition that our ways of organizing our societies, for thousands of years now, make attending to everything without using any force — the purist’s nonviolent heaven that I myself used to proclaim — less possible than I want. This is part of the tragedy and calamity that the original shifts to patriarchy thousands of years ago6, and all forms of domination that subsequently emerged, has meant: less is possible in terms of not using force, and even less is visible to us as possible. While reshaping what is possible systemically is one of the collective tasks of nonviolence as a whole, rigorously learning to see more possibility is one of the individual tasks of anyone committed to nonviolence, because for many of us the temptation is too great to sweep past the constraints and slip into far too much latitude with regards to use of force.

Learning to See What’s Possible

In my work over thirty years, one of my conclusions is that expanding the range of what we see as possible is one of the ways that we increase our capacity for nonviolence. Put differently: the fewer options we perceive and the less access to power we experience — regardless, in both cases, of what an outside observer would perceive or assess — the more likely we are to resort to force. This may seem counterintuitive, and still I’ve found it’s true: the attempt to control circumstances, and especially other people, which is at the heart of violence, stems from lack of agency and of perceived sense of power. The more we can see ways of attending to what matters to us that are not at cost to others, the more likely we are to use them.

How do we increase our sense of the possible? This could be an entire piece in itself. In brief, I would say: through learning about things happening on the edges of the culture, outside the mainstream, such as the many attempts to preserve or reclaim the commons; doing active work on liberating ourselves from scarcity, especially time scarcity; and increasing our overall support. This last is because the more we walk away from the mainstream, the more friction there will be, and the more support we need. It’s no accident that “support” has its own full section within this article.

In the context of use of force, then, in order to be able to imagine pathways for attending to what matters to us with the least amount of force possible, we will need more personal capacity and freedom and/or more individual and community support. These capacities are needed to counter the absence of systemic support for the person making the choice about whether and how much force to use, and for the very availability of nonviolent options. Without them, our imagination remains shrunk within the limits of the dominant culture and within our own reaction to what happens, which effectively means both that we are more likely to believe that the only way to respond is using force, and, having assessed that force is needed to respond, we are more likely to overestimate how much force will be necessary and literally not see that less force is possible.

This is part of why I am using the measure of possible rather than the measure of necessary, as in Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary.” In addition, when we think in terms of what is “necessary,” we are more likely to slip into believing we are seeing objectively, while assessing what is “possible” invites humility, as it more clearly involves only our perception of resources and capacity. Otherwise, we might miss the possibility of reducing the amount of force we will use.

At the same time, there are also situations in which focusing on what’s “possible” within the existing constraints will support us in making vital decisions to protect what is dear to us when we could see that, in principle, a smaller amount of force is necessary. If we focus on “necessary” in these cases, we might get lost in a purism that would prevent us from taking action at all. For example, “forcing” someone to engage in alternative dispute resolution methods is not part of legal statutes anywhere I know, and thus, the options of a disputant are limited. Sometimes, even in the face of actual or potential harm that is quite significant, a disputant may still want to engage in collaborative measures to find a solution that works for all. This is particularly likely in family disputes, especially those that involve children. If the other party keeps saying “no” to dialogue or mediation, and force is the only option left, by virtue of how the legal system is set up, the force will end up being more than what would be necessary, and can include punitive measures that the disputant would much rather not use.

To sum up: there is no neat algorithm. Focusing on what’s possible will sometimes result in not using force when otherwise we might not imagine nonviolent options; sometimes lead us to use less force than we might otherwise use; and sometimes lead us to use more force than we might otherwise use. In the process of discernment, we are likely to develop our imagination, our humility, and our capacity to open our hearts and mourn.

In this context, I also want to always remember what I already alluded to before: this guideline, this focus on “the least amount of force possible,” can also lead to inaction or to ineffective action in the face of ongoing structural violence, thus contributing, however inadvertently, to the perpetuation of that violence. This potential slippage is precisely what has led to nonviolence being seen as passivity. Even Gandhi himself said that he preferred to engage with someone committed to violence than with someone who was a coward. Looking for the least amount of force possible is not a license to watch harm and do nothing — or do so little that it doesn’t effectively interrupt what is going on, if interrupting it is possible — because we don’t know how to do it nonviolently “enough.” It’s only a discipline to rigorously leave no stone unturned in the search for options that use no or less force than initially may seem absolutely necessary.


As far as I can tell, even brutal wars are generally presented as a necessity based on protection. If we have any chance of preventing the force we use from becoming one more human activity that claims to be protective and ends up being de facto abusive, something needs to be in place to maintain sufficient rigor to counterbalance the millennia-old reverence for violence, what Walter Wink called the “redemptive use of violence,”7 which can easily pull anyone who begins that path of exploration into the glorification of the choice to use force.

This glorification, so intimately intertwined with notions of masculinity, is deeply embedded within our patriarchal training, regardless of our biology or gender. Without counterbalancing it, if and when the underdogs using force to reach their goals somehow attain power, they are more than likely to recreate the structures that they rose up to transform. Just looking at the history of the Russian Revolution is enough to weep about this deeply engrained habit.

The genius of nonviolence is placing love at the center of whatever action is taken. This is not love as in liking the people whose actions we might end up using force to stop, or wanting to be their friend, or even choosing to collaborate with them. This is love as in being committed to their well-being, to their dignity, to their needs being fully part of the equation about how to make things work — before, during, and after using force. This is no small task. It may be the hardest thing any of us who has tried this will ever experiment with. This means burning through any residual social training that leads us to respond to actions that don’t work for us by separating from those who took those actions, whether they are a serial murderer, the CEO of a lumber company, a colleague who is acting in ways we would call racist, or Donald Trump. Once we open our hearts to this degree, we can no longer distance ourselves from the impact of our actions, and the choice to use force becomes that much more challenging.

Adolf Hitler as a Child (public domain photo)

One of the most profound moments of my entire life was when I was reading For Your Own Good by Alice Miller and found myself, utterly spontaneously and without effort, feeling tenderness and compassion for the seven-year-old Adolf who later became the man we know as Hitler.8 This, for me, as an Israeli Jew raised on the idea that the holocaust was the single most significant event in all of human history, was nothing short of a miracle. This moment was pivotal in my grasping the depth of commitment that nonviolence entails: to love, exactly like that, every human person who’s ever lived, regardless of their actions. Love, again, means wishing them well, which comes most powerfully from the deep recognition that the best strategy possible for preventing violence is doing all we know to attend to and care for everyone’s needs, without any exception.

This love, again, means neither passivity nor focusing on keeping people comfortable. It only points to what is in our hearts in relation to those who may be impacted by our actions in ways they may find even exceedingly challenging. The measure of love is internal, and is only about our intention to minimize unwanted impact as much as possible and to be available to dialogue once protection has been established. No amount of love informing our action will matter to the person receiving the impact, because force is measured by impact, not by intention. Regardless of our intention or openheartedness, every act of resistance, even the smallest, can easily be seen as violence by those towards whom it’s taken when it challenges their hegemony. This point was driven home for me when I read Martin Luther King’s Stride toward Freedom, about the Montgomery bus boycott. The people who participated in the boycott did nothing other than walk or use other modes of transportation instead of riding the buses. They harmed no one physically and only caused loss of sales for the bus company. They asked for nothing along the way. And still they were viciously attacked in multiple ways, including being put in jail. Changing the balance of power could always appear as violence to those who benefit from the existing structures. Unless we can take that into account deeply, it will be harder for us to use force in a way that is aligned with our commitment to nonviolence.

Martin Luther King Jr. (Creative Commons License: National Park Service)

Those whose work has inspired me have repeatedly cautioned us against shaming and blaming, although to many they appear both necessary and harmless. Yes, as someone has commented on a blog post of mine, such tactics may superficially cut through the denial of the powerful9, and I believe the cost is too high. There is no positive future if dignity, even of those whose actions constitute active harm, is broken.

This is precisely why Jesus spoke of loving our enemies. It is the deepest and quickest antidote to separation. Without it, any use of force we undertake will be too similar to what has been plaguing our beautiful planet since the dawn of patriarchy.

A digital representation created based on Inbal Kashtan’s protest sign. A sign coveying love.

What, then, do I mean by as much love as possible? How effective can that love or care be? Clearly, this commitment to love begins as an internal seed, a possibility of shifting the norm of distance and revulsion at “the other” whose actions we abhor. This is why when my sister and I went to a demonstration in the early 90s, she carried a sign that said “I am pro-Israeli and Pro-Palestinian:” for this number of words, there is no more love I can imagine. This is also why Sami Awad, Palestinian nonviolence educator, told me that he used to practice the nonviolence of hate, and now he practices the nonviolence of love. Sami makes it his business to understand and engage with Israeli Jews across the spectrum of opinions. This internal seed, in itself, is a staggering achievement, and it is, sadly, only the beginning. Because the more force we use, the more essential it is that we find a way to make this love manifest. This is love in action. Principled nonviolence, deeply practiced, is always also strategic, because the requirement of love rules out many options that are easily available without it, and thus invites more capacity to choose and to be creative in using the main power that nonviolence has, which is its moral force.

(Re)creating Conditions for Dialogue

The word “dialogue” is used in such a wide variety of ways that I want to make clear what I mean when I use this word. While the dictionary definition all but conflates dialogue with conversation, the nonviolence lineage I trace myself to leans on exacting specificity: a conversation isn’t a dialogue, without a willingness to listen and be influenced by what we hear. Merely the exchange of words doesn’t amount to dialogue, which is also a relationship, not only the content of what’s said. When that willingness is mutual, dialogue proceeds, often, with astonishing speed to solutions that could be hard to imagine before.

Documentary on Daryl Davis, “who likes to meet and befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan– something few black men can say.”

What, though, if the other party doesn’t exhibit that willingness? My own understanding is that on the deepest layers, nonviolence requires the unilateral willingness to speak with an open heart imagining an ultimate willingness on the part of another to listen and be influenced, even if at present such willingness is absent. Developing the capacity for such a practice is far from trivial, even when willingness is abundant. It regularly requires us to commit to stepping into a worldview, perspectives, and value commitments that are entirely foreign to us, and still remain steadfast in trusting our shared humanity with the other, whatever their actions or beliefs.10

In the context of efforts to create social transformation, the true conditions for dialogue are rarely there. More often than not, those who are perpetuating the existing system either don’t accept invitations to sit at the table with those impacted by their actions, or come to the table with no apparent willingness, and certainly no capacity, to be influenced by what they hear. Often enough without even acknowledging the basic humanity of those whom their choices as agents of the current system sometimes severely impact. And even if an abstract respect of their humanity is present, it is well researched that those in positions of power and wealth have reduced empathic capacity and fail to step into the frames of meaning-making of others who are outside their narrow reference group. This makes it abundantly understandable to me why so many groups reject dialogue and rely only on direct action. Understandable not simply on account of capacity. It would even be understandable to me to have that capacity and still choose not to be in dialogue. There can easily be an experience of violence towards self to be in dialogue with others under such difficult and demeaning conditions. That it’s understandable, though, doesn’t then make it nonviolent.11

Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the ways that we can tell whether we are acting with as much love as possible is to watch our own willingness to be in dialogue with whoever we are using force, or contemplating using force, against. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others in countless nonviolent movements maintained dialogue, or persisted in asking for it, with those in power all along while engaging in nonviolent resistance. As I understand it, key to nonviolence is faith that, as the Quakers call it, “there is that of God in every human being,” and appealing to that humanity is a mysterious key to transformation of even the most horrific tyrants.12 Even if we take actions that would be considered entirely peaceful, such as demonstrating, to the extent that we decline to dialogue with anyone or any particular group — be it police, government, or white men — I wouldn’t consider our actions fully nonviolent, strictly speaking.13 This is precisely the difference between the strategic use of nonviolence, which can be taken on without any deeper commitments to what Sami calls the nonviolence of love and others call principled nonviolence: the latter is invariably open to dialogue, with anyone14. While both would often lead to similar actions in the immediate future, the trajectory and the aims are different. While the force of a direct action may well be enough to motivate people in power to change their actions, the absence of willingness to engage in dialogue limits the range of possible outcomes, and maintains the separation between the two groups. In one case, the aim is simply to change the action of the powerful, or the system that gives them power. In the other case, the aim is to reach an ultimate “beloved community” through deeper and deeper dialogues with more and more mutual willingness to influence and be influenced.

This may well be one of the deepest criteria we can use to measure the seriousness of our commitment. Not all nonviolent resistance and other forms of force are consistent with this deeper sense of nonviolence. The more the actions are enacted as part of a larger movement that aims to (re)create dialogue with the very people whose actually or potentially harmful actions we are aiming to stop or transform with our actions, the more likely they are to embody that nonviolence.

Another way of looking at equalizing power is through the lens of the economics of impacts: who generates them, who absorbs them (especially the negative ones), and who finds out. The shift of power that nonviolence engenders can be seen through this lens as the capacity to expose impacts which previously were invisible to at least some while at the same time being meticulous to avoid generating new unwanted impacts in the other direction, except the unavoidable ones: those that accrue to those in power from having the impacts on others made visible to them and those that accrue from the shift in power and therefore loss of access to resources and choice that such shifts entail.

Gandhi leading his followers on the famous salt march to break the English Salt Laws on March 12, 1930

This move is one of the reasons why nonviolence works as well as it does when used fully: its moral force, which cannot easily be quantified. This moral force is based on ultimate faith in human nature as well as on deep integrity. In terms of the faith, Gandhi said: “Even if the opponent plays him [sic] false twenty times, the Satyagrahi is ready to trust him [sic] the twenty-first time, for an implicit trust in human nature is the very essence of his [sic] creed.”15 Exposing impacts in the way that nonviolence makes possible forces those in power to see what they might otherwise manage to avoid or look away from: the impact of their actions and choices on those with less power. It is clear to me that it’s impossible to wake up from the lull of power without incurring pain as a result of learning about the impacts of our actions on others. This would mean nothing if they didn’t have a soul that is fundamentally affected by moral considerations and empathy.16

The moral force that arises from integrity is about choice of means: the more we adopt the principle of absorbing impacts and not dishing out, remaining in love, and diminishing the negative impacts on others, including the specific targets of our actions, the harder it is for anyone outside to dehumanize us. Ideally, “diminishing negative impacts” means sticking only to the impacts which cannot be avoided once we take action at all. Similarly, when our choice of means remains within the exacting criteria of nonviolent use of force, it becomes harder for those in positions of power to discount what we do and thereby distract themselves, yet again, from the difficult and painful task we force them into: examining their actions through the lens of their values based on knowledge of the impact of their actions. Our task, then, is to create the conditions for this necessary pain and discomfort to come to the surface while aiming to reduce any of the unnecessary pain which I see as the shame that is so often heaped on those whose actions harm others.

The magnitude of this challenge often remains invisible to those who have never been in positions of power or significant privilege. It’s wrenching for any human to look at their actions; and more so the more harm they have contributed to, precisely because of the soul repugnance at being part of harming. This, coupled with the immense instability that loss of power entails and with the loss of the comfort and ease that come with privilege, leads to shame, humiliation, numbness, and anger instead of openness and engagement. Without understanding this dynamic more deeply, I don’t see how our actions can lead to genuine rather than forced dialogue. I have come to believe, though don’t know how to test it, that if we want to have outcomes that are truly transformative, we will need to learn to care for those who are affected by our force, even if it’s only moral force, so that they can show up for the eventual dialogue ready to engage from within their hearts. Clearly a tall order. While I consider the various truth and reconciliation committees a huge step in the direction I would wish, I am still left wondering about how much actual care for the sometimes deep impact of losing power is integrated into these processes. On a more individual and community level, there are more examples of rare cases, such as when former enemies have become deep friends or when mothers of killer and killed formed a deep bond. There are also more established processes for restoring trust at community levels, in many countries, with Restorative Circles being a clear example of similar principles being put into practice. I wonder if we will ever manage to create such conditions across gaps in power and within larger groupings of people than just unusual individuals. What will it take to support large groupings of people to move as far as practically possible toward the nonviolent end of the spectrum?

Nonreactive Discernment

I imagine by now it’s evident, if it wasn’t before reading this, that there are no easy solutions within the field of nonviolence, no rules, no algorithms (though there is a repertoire of actions started by Gene Sharp and continued by others17). Every case must be thought through on its own, with its context, needs, constraints, possibilities, resources, and more.

Part of the depth of challenge regarding use of force is that when the conditions that might call for use of force are in place, by definition some vital core needs are challenged, possibly active harm done to them, and the likelihood of attending to those needs through dialogue, or through dialogue alone, is just about nonexistent. How, then, can we possibly manage to discern the many variables that go into conscious choice about use of force under conditions of such stress?

Discernment as I understand it is an activity that brings together the intellectual and the spiritual dimensions of living. It requires deep inner spaciousness to achieve. Its irreducible necessity is one of the greatest strengths of nonviolence as well as possibly its Achilles heel. The requirement of discernment is what prevents nonviolence from becoming another dogma and losing its vitality and ever-present creative, all-caring edge that I see as key to any possibility of a livable future.

Mahatma Gandhi (public domain photo)

The weakness is that to the extent that nonviolence indeed rests on such depth of capacity for discernment, it can only be embraced fully to the extent that we manage to exit the field of trauma. This is also how I understand Gandhi’s otherwise enigmatic statement: “He [sic] who has not overcome all fear cannot practise ahimsa to perfection.”18 I refer, in my template about use of force, to nonreactive discernment and choice to remind anyone who contemplates use of force that we live in a chronic vortex of multigenerational trauma. There is research showing that, at least in the modernized parts of the world, our fight-flight-freeze is in constant low-grade activation. Living in most current societies, pretty much every single one of us has had tangible force used to coerce our bodies and intangible assaults on our spirits to get us to abandon our inner clarity. I wrote extensively about the link between obedience and the capacity to inflict atrocities.19 We have within us, all too easily accessible, the pulls of submission, rebellion, and domination. This means that our grounding in nonviolence is almost always flimsy and always requires increasing our freedom from habits, obligation, reaction, impulse, fear, shame, subjective powerlessness, or anything else we have internalized. This leaves me with a deep question: to what extent does it even make sense to say that we are choosing within this kind of world and the kind of socialization almost all of us have endured, especially when trauma is so prevalent as to obscure our own agency from us even when, from the outside, we would appear to have choice?

This weakness is my understanding of what led to the similar tragic consequences of Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassinations: those who stayed behind couldn’t fully continue with nonviolence, and both movements to a very large degree disintegrated or turned away from nonviolence.20 As I see it, nonviolence wasn’t individually integrated sufficiently to support freedom in relation to individual trauma. It’s far easier to embrace nonviolence within a collective field heavily influenced by the moral authority of a leader, which is why so many more were able to do it while the respective leaders were alive.

As an alternative to being so dependent on the unreliable presence of an exceptional human being, I believe we can, instead, embed the principles of nonviolence within systems and processes that express sufficient care such that the mistrust that pulls us away from the possibility of nonreactive discernment is far less likely to arise, leaving us with more access to our full faculties and capacity for choice. Such collective paths are a different, and possibly more robust way to create a larger field of nonviolence than any individual at any particular time. I plan to include an investigation of the role of systems in the capacity for discernment as one of my case studies to explore the questions I am raising in this article.

Meanwhile, since many of our choices, much of the time, don’t necessarily happen within such a collective context, we are still in the same quandary: what are we to do as individuals in discerning our actions and choices? How do we stay out of paralysis when so much is at stake, and more by the day? How do we account for our inevitable fallibility as humans? How can we become ever clearer and closer to knowing, regularly, why we would prioritize these or those needs? How can we know, sufficiently, whether this or that path upholds or subverts the social order? How do we include within our discernment the reality that the existing social order tends to prioritize the needs and comfort of certain groups and not others? How do we become ever more conscious of and able to make choices about including our own position within the power map of the world in how we prioritize needs, whether we have more or less access to resources and comfort than others?

Whether or not I manage to get there, what I know I want is to have less and less reactivity over time, so that, ideally, I can choose — including when pondering questions about whether or not and how much force I would use — based on weighing the principles I adhere to and taking the path that is most aligned with my deepest commitments. Along the way, as I painstakingly transform the legacy of scarcity, separation, and powerlessness within me, my ultimate hope is to be able to choose nonviolence and move toward courage, truth, and love even if no one else sees it or believes me. Just as much as there are gradations of violence, there are likely gradations of nonviolence, making it more a path of increasing capacity rather than a destination.


My own conclusion is that the magnitude of the task we face in embracing nonviolence and, specifically, in taking on the art of discernment about use of force is beyond the capacity of any one individual. We need support, or the strength of the web of social institutions and dominant narratives will overcome our will. The very idea that we can do this alone, and even the stories we hear about Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. as lone heroes, only serve to weaken our collective capacity to transform the current conditions most of humanity lives under.

The support I imagine takes many forms, and the details of how to set it up are beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I only outline the dimensions of support that may be possible in order to offer pointers for those interested to continue to pursue.

Individual support. Any of us who embarks on the path of nonviolence is likely to suffer bouts of despair, self-doubt, overwhelm, burnout, and the like. In such moments, what we need is people who will continue to uphold our dignity, offer empathic support so we can regain our footing, or even take on practical tasks when the load becomes unbearable. We also need support for strategic thinking, to increase the chances of remaining in full discernment and to garner collective wisdom.

Creative Commons license: Prabakaran Thirumalai

Community. One step beyond gathering people in support of what we individually are doing is being part of a community or movement that are working together, such that support is always in flow from whoever happens to have somewhat more resources in the moment to whoever happens to have somewhat more need in the moment, in a never-ending dance that sustains all and deepens commitment while easing pathways to capacity and flow. Such communities are the backbone of many successful nonviolent movements.

Information and inspiration. One of the sources of support for the work we do is deeper access to information about nonviolence, about movements, about theory and practice, and about what is possible. We learn some and deepen our capacity by doing, some by being with others, and some by discovering what has been done before. The movie A Force More Powerful, as well as the book by the same title show examples of the possible and successful. The work of the Barefoot College in India is one of my greatest sources of inspiration, and my visit there left a deep mark on me. Also, in my book Reweaving Our Human Fabric, I offer some ideas about concrete campaigns that could be started, with a specific focus on basic needs: food, shelter, clothing, health, education. We don’t ever need to start from scratch.


In the months leading up to writing this article, I’ve heard from two people who, in very different circumstances and for very different reasons, have found no option except resorting to use of force in their respective circumstances. Both of them are mourning their choice, especially the injury to themselves from acting against their values and feeling utterly helpless about that choice.

Grieving the impact on others to keep our hearts open, tender, and aligned with life — so that we can feel one another’s humanity

If we don’t find a way to mourn every time we know we are choosing to use force (and, clearly, we use more force than we are aware of when we live in the cultures that most of humanity lives in), we run the risk of becoming inured to the suffering that ensues when we use force, even if there is no other option.

Any use of force, however small, is already a loss within a nonviolent perspective. Loss, because of the tragic reality that we live in a world full of violence and thus the primary nonviolence of simply holding care for the whole in interdependent relationships with others and with life is not available to us except within high-trust islands. Loss, also, because we absorb the impact of having had negative impacts on others, however well-intentioned and unavoidable they are. We mourn, in part, to keep our hearts open, to actually feel the grief of inflicting unwanted impact on others, so we don’t close our hearts.

Keeping our hearts open while using force, being able to actually feel the sadness of seeing our impact, is our greatest insurance policy against the slippery slope that has taken so many well-meaning revolutionaries into the path of domination and reigns of terror. We mourn to stay aligned with life, tender, and vulnerable. We mourn so that even as we use force, those impacted can remember that we, like them, are human, and that, ultimately, we are all part of life and create our futures together.

Image credits:

King: ‘refuse to cooperate’ with bias: 1957. Photo by Scurlock Studio. Courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905–1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. CC BY-NC 2.0

Defense Agenda: Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks at the Center for a New American Security’s National Security Forum in Washington, D.C., Dec. 14, 2015. The center titled it’s program “Setting the Next Defense Agenda.” DoD photo by D. Myles Cullen

Accidental Coutesy documentary image:

Black Lives Matter protest against St. Paul police brutality by Fibonacci Blue: found on Wikimedia Commons.


1 I’ve been in conversations with many over many years. I want in particular to acknowledge Dave Belden and Rebecca Sutton, both of whom worked as loving editors for years, who also disagreed with me and challenged me on many points. This piece is Rebecca’s last that she is editing for me, and we went back and forth many time over months, a process that has benefited the piece tremendously. I also want to acknowledge Kit Miller, Dominic Barter, and Victor Lewis for companionship and learning together over many years, and Steve Wineman and Aaron Goggans for pointed comments on earlier versions of this article. Many others contributed comments, conversations, and questions that got me here.

2 See my article “From Obedience and Shame to Freedom and Belonging” for references to pre-patriarchal societies.

3 One of Zygmund Freud’s classic works.

4 A synergic culture, as Ruth Benedict defines it, is one in which there is no tension between caring for self and caring for the whole. Such cultures are almost nonexistent nowadays, to the point where the idea that some form of coercion and control of individual behavior appears inherently necessary to maintain the social order is almost axiomatic in the social sciences. See Abraham H. Maslow, John J. Honigmann, and Margaret Mead, “Synergy: Some Notes of Ruth Benedict.” American Anthropologist, 1970, 72(2): 320–333.

5 I distinguish harm from the emotional experience of hurt. There is much to be said about the complexities of living in times in which trauma is so pervasive that the two repeatedly get conflated. This discussion is beyond the scope of this article.

6 This profoundly oversimplifies that transition to patriarchy, which happened in different ways, at different times, and for different reasons, in different parts of the world. As I stated earlier, my article “From Obedience and Shame to Freedom and Belonging” includes references for beginning the search to uncover much information about these topics that is quite far from mainstream social science.

7 In The Powers that Be. In addition to righteousness, another factor that makes violence appealing while often remaining invisible to the person enacting it is the pervasive sense of victimization that, understandably, permeates modern societies. I’ve been impressed with Steve Wineman analysis of the potential for violence that powerlessness can lead to in his unpublished and freely available manuscript Power Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change.

8 I consider the entire section on Hitler a masterpiece of meticulous humanizing of the greatest symbol of evil in Western civilization. The thrust of the work is to make it understandable how a human person who went through what he endured in his childhood, in the cultural context in which he lived and came to power, could end up committing the horrors he did.

9 Comment on “#MeToo and Liberation for All” 1/22/2018 psychology today

10 This perspective is one of the core assumptions of the practice of Nonviolent Communication, which is the foundation of all that I do and think. See Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

11 While losing a sense of dignity may, on occasion, be worse than death, clearly a willingness to die rather than inflict harm could, also, be seen as violence towards self. When first beginning to study nonviolence, I definitely saw it this way, and was profoundly distressed about this aspect of nonviolence, seeing it as a deep limitation. It was not until I read Walter Wink’s The Powers that Be that I understood that absorbing violence and staying open in struggle has the transformative potential it has because any violence absorbed and not passed on results in overall less violence. I am still digesting the depth of this painful insight thirty years later. Many stories from the Civil Rights era confirm the mysterious power of nonviolence to create transformation through precisely this complex and difficult action. In the case of dialogue, this would then mean recognizing that our dignity is not dependent on anyone else acknowledging or honoring it.

12 For a dramatic account of moments of such transformation, see Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died that Night, which chronicles her interviews with the man referred to by many as “prime evil,” the mastermind behind Apartheid torture programs. I found especially meaningful her account of the moment in which he asked her if he had harmed any of her friends or family, and her account of what she then saw in him and what happened in her afterwards.

13 This brings up a host of questions about whether it’s ever possible to be in dialogue across such vast power differences as between marginalized communities and police. Those questions, while deeply pertinent to matters of strategy and action, are somewhat different from the one I am taking up here which is only about the heart willingness to be in dialogue with anyone if they are willing to come to the table. While the dialogue itself may not yield results, the willingness for it is part of the foundation of nonviolence and strengthens its moral force. For more on the specific practices and commitments that I see nonviolence resting on, see

14 This, too, is only the first layer. How often, with how much deception, and investing how much effort would we continue to be willing to dialogue with an individual, a group, or representatives of entities before reaching a limit? Is it ever possible to name such challenges and to decline invitations to “dialogue,” name our limits, and specify criteria and conditions that we want to be in place before resuming dialogue? Again, such questions are quite beyond the scope of what I am hoping is the beginning of a conversation — a dialogue if you will — about these kinds of questions.

15 The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, (1957), p. 170

16 Considering the particular ways in which the abstraction and distance of impact is growing, and the capacity for empathy has been shown to be declining, maintaining this faith is no small task. It’s still the case, as Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s work demonstrates, that nonviolent movements, even against repressive regimes, have been more successful than violent ones. In particular, defection of army and police is often key to the dismantling of a regime, and such defection is more likely the less violence a movement exercises, which then forces the police and army to reckon with repressing people who are not attacking them. Even Nazi officers could not continue to shoot and kill groups of Jews over time, a factor that led to the shift to gas chambers.

17 See Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, volume two. While Gene Sharp is associated with the branch of nonviolence that isn’t focused on moral and spiritual considerations, the specifics of his recommendations nonetheless can be a useful starting point for anyone wishing to expand their imagination in planning actions.

18 Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers, p.110

19 “The Freedom to Disobey” posted on

20 There are, as always, different reads on the history of these movements. That debate remains outside the scope of this article beyond saying that the Black Power movement and those who have followed in their footsteps have rejected any theory that claims nonviolence was what led to the civil rights successes.

Miki Kashtan is a practical visionary pursuing a world that works for all, based on principles and practices rooted in feminist nonviolence.

Miki Kashtan is a practical visionary pursuing a world that works for all, based on principles and practices rooted in feminist nonviolence.