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Non-violence in a violent world

By Rajni Bakshi

Published: Nov. 29, 2023
Updated: Nov. 29, 2023

ROBI Damelin remembers only the shock and searing pain of that moment when she was told that her son, David, had been killed by the bullet of a Palestinian sniper. It was her family members who later told Robi that she had turned to the Israeli army official who gave her the news of David’s death and said: “You may not kill anyone in the name of my child.”

Even as she struggled to live with a pain that would never go away, Robi reached out to those on the ‘other side’ who were suffering, just like her. She found Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian father, whose 10-year-old daughter was shot dead by an Israeli soldier as she walked home from school.

Against all odds, since it was founded in 1995, The Parents Circle Families Forum — to which both Robi and Bassam belong — has enabled hundreds of bereaved families to harness grief to work for peace. These are people united by the pain of violence that only begets more violence.

Amid the devastation of severely escalated hostilities in that region efforts like this can easily seem to be marginal. It is the most polarizing voices that tend to grab centrestage — even if they do condemn killing of civilians. Across social media the dispute is about which side has a longer history of oppression and is thus more entitled to use violence.

Voices like Robi’s and Bassam’s are inconvenient to combatants on both sides because they speak aloud a bitter truth — that violence has solved nothing.

But they are often dismissed as being idealistic and foolish. Or, worse still, complicit with oppressors. People and governments long inured to hostility are hardwired for violence as a default response. They find non-violence difficult to comprehend. It is an unknown value they are afraid to deal with, let alone embrace. But in a world adrift in seemingly endless conflicts, can it be different?  The mega unsolved question of our times is: Can nonviolence as a mindset, a perspective, an ideal go beyond the individual to apply to the world at large?

When the venerable Tibetan monk, Samdhong Rinpoche, says that human beings are intrinsically ahimsak or non-violent, he draws on his lived experience as well as his deep scholarship of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The Rinpoche, who served as the first prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, belongs to a pre-modern tradition of knowledge about the human mind and spirit. 

Over the past half-century, a vast body of multi-disciplinary modern research has also concluded that human beings are not intrinsically violent. Some of this research was brought together by The Seville Statement on Violence, adopted by UNESCO in 1989.

Protesters fill the streets in New York

This statement was the work of 20 social and natural scientists, who deliberated for many months before coming to the conclusion that “there is nothing in our biology which is an unsurmountable obstacle to the abolition of war and other institutional violence”.

A capacity for violence has been an important aspect of the evolutionary journey of human beings. But without the social conditioning, it is not necessarily the dominant response of human beings in situations of conflict. Thus, the five propositions of the Seville Statement, on why war is a social invention and not a biological phenomenon, deserve closer attention.

One: There is no scientific basis for the claim that war cannot be ended because animals also make war and humans are like animals. Animals can be violent towards each other but they don’t in fact make ‘war’. In addition, having invented culture, humans are now much more than animals. Therefore: “A culture that has war in one century may change and live at peace with their neighbours in another century.”

Two: Even if war is deemed to be part of human nature, that does not mean it cannot be ended. Yes, genes transmitted from parents to children influence how we act but they need not control our actions because humans also have a sense of agency and can make choices.

Three: There is no scientific basis for the claim that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behaviour more than for other kinds of behaviour. Research shows that “…status within the group is achieved by the ability to cooperate and to fulfil social functions relevant to the structure of that group.…Violence is neither in our evolutionary legacy nor in our genes”.

Four: Humans do not have a ‘violent brain’. We do have the neural apparatus to act violently, but this capacity is not automatically activated: “Like higher primates and unlike other animals, our higher neural processes filter such stimuli before they can be acted upon. How we act is shaped by how we have been conditioned and socialized. There is nothing in our neurophysiology that compels us to react violently.”

Five: War is not caused by an ‘instinct’. “The emergence of modern warfare has been a journey from the primacy of emotional and motivational factors, sometimes called ‘instincts,’ to the primacy of cognitive factors. Modern war involves institutional use of personal characteristics such as obedience, suggestibility, and idealism, social skills such as language, and rational considerations such as cost-calculation, planning, and information processing.”

The Seville Statement was endorsed by numerous international scholarly bodies and while some of its details have been contested there is now a broad scientific consensus that humans are not primarily hardwired to be violent. More and more research, on humans and animals, is now focused on understanding how conflicts are avoided or resolved. For instance, Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal, a leading figure in this field, has suggested that empathy resides in parts of the human brain which are so ancient that we share them with rats.

A cry for Palestine in Israel

Once we acknowledge that humans do not have a default tendency or ‘need’ to be violent then it follows that people can be trained for either violence or non-violence. For instance, it is now known that militaries across the world work hard to create, among their soldiers, a willingness to kill.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman served in the US Army and went on to write a book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. “There can be no doubt,” wrote Grossman, “that this resistance to killing one’s fellow man is there and that it exists as a result of a powerful combination of instinctive, rational, environmental, hereditary, cultural, and social factors. It is there, it is strong, and it gives us cause to believe that there just may be hope for mankind after all.”

This confirms why Mahatma Gandhi himself repeatedly insisted that non-violence is an ancient impulse. Since Gandhi’s time the concept and practice of non-violence has expanded in diverse ways. Based on the experiences of practitioners in different situations, this is broadly how the dynamic between violence and non-violence is known to operate:

Here is one of the most poignant moments from Ahimsa Conversations, which illustrates how this translates into action.

David Hartsough participated in the lunch counter sit-ins during the American civil rights movement in the 1950s. It was then illegal for non-white persons to come to such lunch counters. Though David is himself white, he had joined his African American friends in this act of civil disobedience. As David recalls:

“I heard this guy come up from behind me and he said, ‘If you don’t get out of this store in two seconds, I’m going to stab this through your heart’ and in his hand was a switch-blade and it was shaking half an inch from my heart. I had two seconds to decide, do I really believe in non-violence. Or is there some other way to deal with this guy with so much hatred. We had had a lot of experience and I just looked him in the eye and I said, ‘Friend, do what you believe is right, but I’ll still try to love you.’ And it was miraculous. His face that was contorted with hatred changed, his jaw began to drop and his knife, which was right next to my heart, began to fall and he left the store. So, at age 20 that was probably the most important experience of my life in terms of the power of non-violence.”

Like the more famous case of Rosa Parks, who peacefully refused to give up her seat on a bus and became an icon of anti-racism struggles, David’s action was a result of conviction backed by intensive training. Non-violence training is based on acknowledging that conflict is a fact of life but it need not lead to violence.

Japanese protesters denounce the attack on Gaza

Therefore, the premise of the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) is that if we can organize for war we can organize for peace. NP is a global NGO, inspired by David Hartsough’s activism, that works with communities in areas of conflict to interrupt and prevent violence. In her Ahimsa Conversation episode, Tiffany Easthom, a peace activist who heads NP, describes how: 

“You can be sitting at a table across from — the nickname I use is the ‘Genocidal General’ — someone who is a state or non-state person in control of a group of armed actors. On paper, from the outside, he is impossible to deal with. And then you have a moment when you really work on connecting with that person and find some basis of commonality — often it is that we both want people in the community to be safe, we just have different ideas about how to get there. And when that happens that creates an opportunity, it’s nothing magical … it doesn’t suddenly bring peace across the board but it can shift the dynamic, it can open up space and it can encourage everyone to make different choices.”

But, as Tiffany is at pains to point out, such work needs time and patience. On principle, NP only goes into conflict zones on the invitation of local people. In recent years some of its most intense work has been in South Sudan and to some extent in the Ukraine conflict.

Then there is Nisha Anand, CEO of the US-based Dream Corps, who works on conflict resolution within American society. “Hurt people hurt people,” says Nisha. “So, I know that although our pain is not equal, I know that the white supremacist has something painful in their past. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a discovery and I think if we can hang in the conversation and discover that, you can move all sorts of things.”

Such work is anchored in the insight that it is impotence and frustration that breed violence. Thus, some of the strongest validation for non-violence activism is in the writings of political philosopher Hannah Arendt — who is not usually counted as an icon of non-violence. Hannah’s understanding was sharply precise: “Politically, loss of power tempts men to substitute violence for power.… Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power.… Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.”

This is what enabled the Iranian dissident, Ramin Jahanbegloo, to survive incarceration and emerge more confident about non-violence. In the face of the violence of being thrown into prison in Iran, Ramin had to make a choice — he could be bitter and choose to favour violence in response. But he chose to follow Nelson Mandela’s example of emphatically rejecting bitterness. The outcome, says Ramin, was spiritual, it felt like a liberation.

Such examples are anathema to those who believe that the struggle for justice demands sharpening of the conflict. Then bitterness and anger become essential ingredients of the desired social and political transformation. The fact that most revolutions driven by these emotions have produced a truncated and distorted version of justice, along with causing mass death of their ‘own people’, is either overlooked or explained away as minor side effects.

But what of the horrendous injustices that persist? What of the unspeakable suffering caused by systemic violence across the planet?

It is true that the answers provided by advocates of non-violence may seem unviable at a macro level — especially in the complicated domain of geo-politics involving conflicts between nations. Ironically, those who see violence as a necessary evil don’t have workable macro answers either — except to keep trying more violence. And, even they tend to acknowledge that most violent geo-political conflicts help no one other than arms manufacturers.

Yet a common impression persists — namely, that those willing and eager to use violence are more serious about justice. This is actually a form of misinformation. From Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. and contemporarily, practitioners are clear that non-violence means active, not passive, resistance. Gandhi and King both emphasized that, given a choice between cowardice and violence, the latter is the superior choice.

In a time of polarized societies and cancel culture, non-violence is naturally threatening. When courage is equated with ‘calling out’ people, it must be disconcerting to instead be invited to ‘call in’ people — so that we may engage in deep listening and new learning. When seeing the world through the lens of binary divides constitutes a comfort zone then a capacity for empathy that deliberately rises above context and reaches across lines of conflict is bound to look like betrayal. 

People take to the streets in Egypt

And yet no one could remain unmoved by the opening page of the Parents Circle website which in late October 2023 said: “Our hearts are broken.” Below that it said: “We express our deepest and heartfelt condemnation of the ongoing violence in the region. It is a time of great sorrow, knowing that countless families now bear the burden of emptiness in their hearts and the heavy weight of grief due to the tragic loss of their loved ones.”

Theirs is a determination to keep working for a reconciliation process that must be an integral part of any political future peace agreement that ends the occupation and honours everyone’s right to exist with dignity.

It is a resistance against efforts by the Israeli government to ban the work the Parents Circle does in schools. “We touch a fear in them, of change,” says Robi, in an interview she and Bassam gave to Spectrum News. As Bassam says, only the “graves and the weapon-sellers” are winning. 

“If you are pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian all you are doing is importing our conflict and creating hatred between Jews and Moslems. If you can’t be part of the solution, it’s better if you leave us alone,” pleads Robi. 

This tenacity, valour and wisdom may or may not be their own reward. But we can all attempt to honour these qualities by seeking them within. As Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk and peace activist, puts it: “If you wait until the time of crisis, it will be too late…even if you know that non-violence is better than violence, if your understanding is only intellectual and not in your whole being, you will not act non-violently. The fear and anger will prevent you.”


Rajni Bakshi is the founder of YouTube channel Ahimsa Conversations


  • Mala

    Mala - Dec. 14, 2023, 10:24 a.m.

    'In a time of polarized societies and cancel culture, nonviolence is naturally threatening' is such an important truth in the violent world we live in today. This cover story is immensely insightful in ways more than one. It inspired me to strive for my own little world of peace amidst the chaos that engulfs us all. Reading this made me think perhaps our world isn't entirely bleak. Maybe there still is a chance for peace to prevail. Thank you for choosing to write on matters that are often shelved.

  • Shamana

    Shamana - Dec. 4, 2023, 10:06 a.m.

    Non Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg with a prac book for groups to meet and practice. Its a totally different way of thinking and responding.

  • Mohan Hirabai Hiralal

    Mohan Hirabai Hiralal - Dec. 4, 2023, 10:02 a.m.

    Excellent article! Training for nonviolent action is very important. Please take initiative for that. I am with you.

  • T.S.Ananthu

    T.S.Ananthu - Dec. 3, 2023, 7:31 p.m.

    Very good article. Especially the way the Seville statement has been summarized. And the way the Rabi asks people to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.