Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | December 3, 2013

Nonviolence Isn’t Necessarily the Answer

In her TED talk “Fighting With Non-violence,” Scilla Elworthy asks, “How do we deal with a bully without becoming a thug?” This refers to a central quandary in the problem of violence. It highlights, I feel, an important problem with the problem: we are not sure about ourselves.

To rephrase Elworthy, “How do we deal with a bully without looking like a thug?” I think this is the more frank and widely applicable version of Elworthy’s question. If we know for a fact that we are not thugs, then we should have no question whether the use of bully-like behavior will make thugs of us, and the question whether we’ll be regarded as thugs by others should be secondary, if relevant at all. If violence is effective and doesn’t escalate conflict, why not use it? If knocking the bully down stops the bully from trying it again, what’s the problem with knocking him down?

Of course, prevailing nonviolent dogma claims that violence always serves to escalate conflict. That’s a belief, not a tested hypothesis. There is plenty of evidence showing that violent resistance often escalates conflict, but precious little to show that it always does. In fact, we have plenty of evidence that, past a tipping point, violence does not escalate conflict, but instead ends conflict and eliminates subsequent violence. This is, in fact, the same principle that abusers, dominators, and tyrants rely on to acquire and sustain control over their victims. What’s more, it’s the same principle that state-controlled “justice” systems rely on to combat “criminal” elements of society. So, in those contexts at least, violence works. We just don’t like what it means when it comes to our involvement.

The tipping point is the point of intimidation at which victims of violence succumb. This point varies from person to person, people to people. Until that point is reached, victims of violence resist. After that point is reached and beyond it, victims of violence feel overcome and believe that resistance is futile. It’s ludicrous to witness this over thousands of years of history and billions of people in the persons of the oppressed and criminalized, which at times have been indistinguishable, but deny its validity and applicability to oppressors.

We know that oppressors can, through violence, be brought down. We know that formerly brazen, monstrous men can be brought low, totally deflated, made to collapse, losing all intention, motivation, and will to resist, even moving them to self-destruct. So violence does not always escalate conflict, at least in the short term. Hardly. If that were true, we in the USA would be insane to rely for our “security” on the largest military force in the world, expressly founded on the premise that overwhelming violence does indeed end opposing violence. Many of us do in fact think that this reliance is patently insane, but even we don’t deny that overwhelming violence would drastically reduce conflict, not escalate it, at least in the short term.

In the long run, the oppressed or the vanquished oppressor might regain will and again start towards retaliatory violence, or others sympathetic to them might take up their cause, reigniting the vicious cycle. But notice that the same belief that causes victims to capitulate and complicitly enable their own plights also makes oppressors cave in and accept their fates — the belief that resistance is futile — and the belief in the futility of resistance must be rescinded or suspended before resistance can be resumed. If oppressed or vanquished oppressors and their supporters can be kept believing that resistance is futile, resistance will not resume, and the vicious cycle of violence will remain broken.

On the other hand, nonviolent resistance likewise succeeds only if it manages to achieve a tipping point at which the opposition realizes that their cause is futile, that opposing the resisters will fail. So, the crux of successful resistance is not its method — violent or nonviolent — but inducing the belief in those being resisted that they will succumb, that counter-resistance is futile. How that tipping point is achieved is important, but instilling the belief — not the method for instilling it — is the critical factor in successful resistance.

An interesting asymmetry serves to recommend violence against oppressors. While oppressed people instinctively feel violated by oppression, oppressors have already bought into paradigms that legitimize both violence and oppression before they engage in them. At some level, violence — the lingua franca of oppression — seems legitimate to them. This, oddly enough, applies whether they perpetrate it or suffer it. Their outrage against violence is not that it was used, but that it was used against them. Violence itself, however, makes perfect sense. In contrast, most who resist oppression object to violence in principle. So, ironically, their objection to violence against oppressors tends to be stronger and more profound than that of oppressors in their own defense.

So, if violent resistance is sometimes effective, and especially if those overcome by it can be kept believing that subsequent resistance is futile, what’s wrong with using it?

Discussing that question is rich and interesting, but I don’t intend to pursue it here. I raise the question for another reason: to point out that, in a very real and relevant way, many people do not want that question seriously considered. They object to the question itself, being predisposed to invalidate it. I’m interested in why that is so and where the prejudicial bias comes from. I suspect that it has partly to do with the question I opened with, the problem with how we approach the problem of violence: we are not sure about ourselves.

If violence is sometimes effective, then we must contemplate its use or prejudicially dismiss it and forego its benefit irresponsibly. But people who were raised to care and be considerate of others find contemplating actual violence to be uncomfortable, even repugnant. However, it’s not so far removed that we can’t find it in ourselves. If we think of an innocent, especially someone we know and care for, and particularly if that person is someone we feel protective about, like a child, it’s easy to find ourselves comfortable with violence. Imagine a child or relatively frail person, like a beloved elder, being attacked by a thug. Would you — assuming that you’d succeed — resort to violence to protect the innocent? If your answer is no, then you might want to explain how preserving a commitment to an abstract concept like nonviolence outweighs the very concrete safety and welfare of a living human being.

Few of us would let “what others might think” deter us from using violence to rescue someone we care about. I suspect that our more profound discomfort with violent action stems from another variant of Elworthy’s question: if we behave like bullies, how can we be sure that we are not thugs? Of course, as long as we think solely in behavioral terms — i.e., that our behavior defines us, that “doing it” amounts to “being it” — there actually is no question. From the perspective of our society, there in fact is little question. In the eyes of the law or public opinion, for example, behaving like a bully makes you a bully, and you can be tried, convicted, and punished like one, even if you aren’t.

The behavioral approach to defining ourselves isn’t just problematic, it’s backwards. Behavior is expression, motivated by psychological processes that always precede the behavior, conditioned by a slew of preexisting attitudinal factors that I refer to as intention. Behavior is determined by intention and motivation, not the other way around. Behavioral conditioning can affect intention and motivation, as behavioral therapies show, but this only confirms my point. The objective of behavioral conditioning is to alter, if possible, the preconditions and factors that determine subsequent behavior for which altered intentions and motivations are indeed responsible. It might be a cycle, but it’s a progressive cycle, a spiral, if you will. The causal direction still holds.

So, in effect, doing violence doesn’t make us violent. Neither does nonviolent behavior necessarily make us nonviolent. We might be extremely violent, but simultaneously capable of amazing self-control, so that we don’t let ourselves express our violent impulses raging within. In fact, we tend to see successful management of that kind of internal conflict as a virtue — the greater the violence we suppress, the greater the virtue. But this merely condones the psychological processes that instigate violence, allowing them to continue, simply because we’re able to prevent their expression. This is to make saints of those who psychologically are thugs, simply because they can control their thugishness.

So, ironically, the devotion to nonviolence so in vogue these days might actually be — and, I believe, in part actually is — a symptom of our anxiety that we in fact are prone to violence. Concern that using violent methods makes us thugs, even if we in fact are not thugs, betrays a profound self-doubt. Consequently, we tend to avoid violent methods, even if they would be more effective than nonviolent ones, without regard to outcome or actual benefit but because of egoistic concerns. What’s worse, we’ve become so averse to the question of violence that we refuse to raise it when simple intellectual and ethical authenticity demand that we should.



  1. This is really interesting to me. I’ve been heavily influenced by Buddhism for years and believed in ‘non-violent’ reactions to conflict. Some kids who my sons play with, here in the neighbourhood have a very unpleasant mother who was horrible to my eldest son for years. She used to shout at him in the street for no reason, take friends away from him and was just mean to him, despite us being extremely kind and generous to her kids.

    I took the ‘non-violent’ approach for years which mostly meant doing nothing and letting it ‘work itself out’ and I also took the ‘compassionate’ approach of, ‘well, they’re a troubled family and I should have compassion for them’.

    It didn’t work at all, it continued.

    So, one day after yet another incident of my son being shouted at and intimidated I flew over to her house and gave her a piece of my mind. (This is after 5 years of doing nothing). I threatened her and swore at her in a very aggressive way which must have been a shock as I’m seen to be very friendly and accommodating to everyone round here.

    The first thing to say is that it felt GOOD. It felt so much better than doing nothing and making allowances for them.

    I also stuck to my threats and got the police involved (there were other issues with the family).

    Since then our kids no longer play with their kids – which has been a good result – (we used to have them over all the time!). There’s no more shouting.

    We said we should have done it years ago. It’s made me very skeptical about the non-violent approach.

    • Justine, you made me literally laugh out loud. b^.^d 😀

      Yes, it DOES feel good, and not for selfish reasons, either. Compassion and empathy get violated when we let oppressive people operate without consequence. Our compassionate, empathetic hearts GRIEVE when innocents get abused and exploited. Putting things straight creates JOY! Peace, too.

      This was all surprising to me, too, as I started discovering what worked instead of simply complying with what I’d been taught is “right.” I am an avid advocate of nonviolent approaches to communication and conflict resolution, but in practice I found the typical approaches sorely lacking.

      Many nonviolence loyalists completely overlook the language barrier. People who see violence as a valid first resort literally are not working with full decks. For one, violence is incredibly inefficient. If they thought rationally, they’d realize that and look for better alternatives. But they are not thinking rationally. They are locked into scripts that were indelibly imprinted on their psyches by past traumas they suffered, and these scripts are written in the language of abusive emotion, not reason and logic. Reason, logic, appeals to conscience and compassion fall on their deaf ears. We might as well be speaking Swahili.

      To make an impact on psychopathic people (“pathic” as in “pathology” as in damaged psyches) we need to use language that they relate to. Of course, that’s the language of violent abuse, of domination, of superiority over inferiority, the language of threat and ultimatum. That’s a tall, uncomfortable order for good, well-intentioned, compassionate people.

      Abused, abusive people don’t hear words, they feel power, and the power they pay attention to is the power to overcome and dominate. They recognize when we get to the point where there are no more ifs, ands, or buts, that it’s going to be the way we say it is, period. That unquestionable determination lets them know we’re serious. Short of that, it’s all “blah, blah, blah.” When they realize that we’ll actually follow through and that we’ll likely beat them, they usually capitulate. If they sense weakness or indecisiveness, it just eggs them on to resist or escalate.

      The weird thing is that when they capitulate, instead of being truly upset–although they might throw scenes, etc., just like children objecting to the will of parents or life itself–they noticeably enjoy being put in their places, as if they feel better, more secure. I’ve even seen them smile, as if we just made a connection! I get people who “friend” me on Facebook after basically ripping them new a-holes on public threads. It’s bizarre, which only tells me I’ve yet to understand and familiarize myself with what’s actually going on.

      Even serial killers have a wish at some level to be caught and tell their stories. Bullies seek connection and relationship through their bullying. They want to connect with their victims by inflicting/sharing their pain with them. It’s twisted, but seeing this has helped me avoid making the mistake that putting a bully down means I have to make him my enemy. And it’s helped me realize that it’s easier than I thought, so I’m learning how to minimize the overt, ugly side of confrontations. No-nonsense, the-jig-is-up determination can be communicated without a lot of fireworks. Sometimes with just a solid, piercing look right into another person’s eyes. But that’s still a work in progress, lol. I think the important thing is to continue experimenting and learning, instead of letting the possibility of ugliness or mistakes shut us up and cow us into inaction.

      Thanks for sharing your experience! I’d love to hear more. Looking for collaborators and explorers on this kind of thing. 🙂

  2. Oh, I find it fascinating.

    Looking a little bit more at my past experiences explained what had brought me to favouring the non-violent ‘way’.

    I grew up with a father who fell out with the whole neighbourhood, mostly over petty issues, some a bit more serious, but it made for a very uncomfortable existence, on your own doorstep. I never, ever wanted to recreate that for my kids so I swung the pendulum way too far in the opposite direction and, in hindsight, took far too much shit than I should have done.

    I was also fearful of retaliation. This is a family that have a criminal past. So I was thinking ‘what if my tyres get slashed?’ for example.

    And for me the most interesting factor I’ve realised is that the non-violent’ reaction was superior. So it was about my ego. ‘I’m far too intelligent and high-minded to get involved in a bun fight in the street’.

    And then, there was already my leaning towards Buddhism principles in life.

    The other factor is that it’s all well and good reading books in your 20s and being convinced of certain principles of how to live your life – until you become a parent and a scenario like this arises and it’s real, not just theoretical and all your idealistic visions just don’t work (as you mentioned in your op).

    The point is there’s a whole range of reactions between ‘non-violent’ and ‘violent’. There are more choices and perhaps each given scenario requires us to be creative with our thinking as to which is the better choice at the time.

    I think you’re right in that bullies just don’t get compassion or empathy. The more I did for this family (in order to show them a ‘better way!’ – again, ego?) the less appreciation they showed and it really baffled me. I even took their deliquent teenage son, who had attempted to steal bikes in our garden, out to the skate park – to get him to ‘channel’ some of his negative energy and for sure his mother would never have bothered. Forgiveness, an underpinning Buddhist principle, was important to me and for me to model to my kids.

    It didn’t make a jot of difference and the mother still continued to be a monster to my son.

    I realised also that she probably wasn’t capable of receiving loving kindness. If she was never open to it in the first place how could she even receive it?

    In a way, I’m interested to see how my next conflict in life arises and how I deal with it, and what happens and of course which urban myths I have been believing for years can be completely busted 🙂

    • Please do keep in touch with me as you experiment and learn more. I’m just coming out of a rather bizarre experience myself. A little too fresh to write about yet, but very much along these lines. Still haven’t found the “sweet spot” so to speak where minimal conflict yields maximal results. Still searching…

      If you’re on Facebook, please “friend” me–Millard J Melnyk. I’m more active there. My blogs so far serve as places to assemble my thoughts, but aren’t very interactive. 🙂

    • PS. I read recently that Gandhi had an obsession with conflict, even sought it out. Maybe that’s how he learned to deal with it!

  3. […] want to know is: How do we deal with a bully without looking like a thug? I discuss this in Nonviolence Isn’t Necessarily the Answer. You just can’t clean things up if you’re afraid to get a little dirt on you. Some of […]

  4. […] actually want to know is: How do we deal with a bully without looking like a thug? I discuss this inNonviolence Isn’t Necessarily the Answer. You just can’t clean things up if you’re afraid to get a little dirt on you. And some of our […]

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