What happened to nonviolence?

Two graphs tell some of the story.

First is how often “nonviolence” and “non-violence” appeared in books until 2008, when Google quit keeping track:

Second is search trends for “nonviolence” and “non-violence” since 2004, which is when Google started keeping track of trends:

Clearly nonviolence wasn’t a thing at all until 1918, which is when Mohandas Gandhi started bringing it up. It became a big thing again in the 1960s, thanks to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement he led during the Vietnam war.

Then, at the close of the 60s, it trailed off. Not that it ever went away, but it clearly retreated.


Here’s the part of the story that seems clearest to me, and to the late Bill Hicks:

Spake Bill, “We kill those people.”

I was only a year old when Gandhi was shot, so I don’t remember that one; but I was involved in both the civil rights and antiwar movements in North Carolina when Martin Luther King was gunned down in June 1968, and Bobby Kennedy a few days later.

I cannot overstate the senses of grief, despair and hopelessness that followed those two assassinations. (And of Malcolm X three years earlier. And again when Nixon got elected a few months later in ’68.)

Two things were clear to me at the time: that violence won, and that the civil rights and antiwar movements were set back decades by those events.

Those observations have been borne out in the half-century since. Yes, there is still peaceful resistance, as there has been at various times and ways, going back at least as far as ahimsa in the Jain, Buddhist and Hindu faiths.

But where is it now? Look for nonviolence in Google News and you’ll find some nice stuff, but nothing that looks like a movement to counterbalance the violence in the world, or the hostile prejudices that fuel it.

Racism and appetites for violent conflict today are hardly less embedded than they ever were, and are now emboldened within the echo chambers of tribalisms old and new—the latter thanks to online media, some of which seem purpose-built to gather, isolate and amplify hostilities. (Bonus link: Down the Breitbart Hole, in last Sunday’s NY Times.)

I can hear the arguments: “look at all the examples of peaceful marches” and so on. But nonviolence itself, as a virtue and a strategy, is back-burnered at best, and lacks a single exemplar or advocate on the scale of a Gandhi or a King.

Hell, maybe I’m wrong about it. If I am, tell me how. My mind is hardly made up on this.



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7 Responses to What happened to nonviolence?

  1. Paul Gauger says:

    You’re not wrong but,as we learn in the holy book of Patrick Swayze’s Next of Kin: “You ain’t seen bad yet, but it’s comin’.”

    Avoid crowds. If you can get you and your loved ones out of the cities, do it now before your skin becomes your uniform.

  2. Mary Gray says:

    Doc, I understand the skeptism, I genuinely do. But I think of nonviolence this way: it’s a practice–a means, not a destination. That means that I can expect to practice it everyday. The question is: does doing so bring me more peace than misery? My two options, put starkly, are: practice nonviolence or practice violence, in my daily life. From that perspective, everyday that I have brought more peace than pain to myself and others is a win and a counter to escalating violence. Ghandi’s thesis was: we are likely to bring more peace than pain to each other the more of us focus on doing so. It only takes one jerk to undo nonviolence through a violent act. But I am doing nothing to bring peace back by matching violence with violence.

    Put another way: we have no historical evidence that violence permanently ends violence. But many of us have at least a few examples of days where peace lasted all day long because we contributed nonviolence to the mix.

    • Doc Searls says:

      Thanks, Mary.

      Speaking personally, I have believed all my life that violence is simply wrong. I didn’t come to fully realize that until I attended a Quaker college during the Vietnam War, committed as fully as I could to the practice of it, married a Quaker girl, registered for the draft as a conscientious objector, and raised two Quaker kids.

      I also watched in despair, as the wind went slack behind the sails of the antiwar and civil rights movements the moment Martin Luther King was killed. To put it bluntly, assassination worked. In fact that one is still working, fifty years later.

      It did as well against Gandhi, JFK, RFK, Malcolm X and many others. This is what I think happened to nonviolence itself. No world leader today stands as an exemplar of it. Not even Pope Francis, whom I greatly admire.

      I still believe it it, though I am now long married to a Catholic girl, and have raised one Catholic kid (very much his own soul, however); and I like that one of my first two kids is still a practicing Quaker. The other too, in his own way. (And so am I, even when I attend Mass. Once a Friend…)

      Yet I am also haunted by Robinson Jeffers’ The Bloody Sire, a poem he wrote during WWII:

      It is not bad. Let them play.
      Let the guns bark and the bombing-plane
      Speak his prodigious blasphemies.
      It is not bad, it is high time,
      Stark violence is still the sire of all the world’s values.

      What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine
      The fleet limbs of the antelope?
      What but fear winged the birds, and hunger
      Jewelled with such eyes the great goshawk’s head?
      Violence has been the sire of all the world’s values.

      Who would remember Helen’s face
      Lacking the terrible halo of spears?
      Who formed Christ but Herod and Caesar,
      The cruel and bloody victories of Caesar?
      Violence, the bloody sire of all the world’s values.

      Never weep, let them play,
      Old violence is not too old to beget new values.

      Our beliefs require constant challenge. That poem, more than any other, challenges mine.

  3. First, thanks for the Bill Hicks. He was a genius. Second, I find those two charts fascinating, for the reasons you describe. But I’m not sure I agree with all your conclusions. You might want to take a look at a 2016 book called “This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century,” by Mark and Paul Engler. The subtitle makes their argument pretty clear. Beyond that, they make an eye-opening (and encouraging) claim: that current nonviolent movements (widespread and successful, at least by certain measures) are fueled not so much (as was the case with Gandhi and MLK) by this or that deeply held religious conviction, but rather by a pragmatic belief in the systematic efficacy of nonviolent strategies and tactics. Gene Sharp, probably the most important scholar and theorist of nonviolent struggle of the last fifty years, is largely responsible for this pragmatic approach. I just (as in on Friday) sold a book proposal on nonviolent activism of the last hundred years (for young readers), so stayed tuned. But I’m cautiously optimistic that nonviolent change is making a comeback (assuming it ever went away). Thanks for the post.

  4. Todd Hasak-Lowy says:

    Doc, as a Quaker, you might be especially interested in Alice Paul (a Quaker) and the nonviolent campaign she led, from 1913-1920, to win women the right to vote. Part of what’s fascinating about her story is that she applied nonviolent tactics before the modern (Gandhian) discourse of nonviolence reached the United States (something your first graph bears out). But there is no doubt that she intentionally crafted a nonviolent movement (parades, picketing, hunger strikes, instructing her followers to never fight back violently, etc.). I mention this as well to point out that sometimes nonviolent activism isn’t named or identified as such. If you’re interested, I can send you more information about her–one of the under-appreciated heroes of the last hundred years.

    • Doc Searls says:

      Thanks, Todd. Yes, Alice Paul rocked. Please send me more about her if you like.

      I am glad you bring up the unsung heroes of nonviolence, which include everyone who has stood against (or walked away away from) violence as the all-too-easily rationalized option for solving problems real or perceived.

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