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Our Tragic Flaw: Confronting Violence in Ourselves and the World (c) Parke Burgess, 2018




I have asserted that nonviolence has a certain power that enables one person (or group) to transform the violence of another into peace. But how does this happen? While no theory could possibly comprehend the whole complexity of such a phenomenon, and certainly not in all its potential permutations, I would like to offer one psychological theory that begins to make sense of how this might sometimes occur. Then, we examine three well-known historical examples to demonstrate how the theory makes sense of events in a new and, I hope, more satisfactory way.

Aggression is one of the natural responses to threat wired into our nervous system from quite early in our evolutionary development. There are others, such as ‘flight’ or ‘freeze’ responses. But we, like many animals, tend to aggress when we encounter a threat that we sense we can overpower. When confronted, a rapid calculation takes place in the limbic system that evaluates the threat and our capacity to prevail over it in a contest of physical prowess. If this calculation favors a ‘fight’ response, our limbic brain immediately recruits our sympathetic nervous system and, along with it, the endocrine system, which floods us with adrenalin and other hormones to mobilize our aggression. Only sometime later do the slower processes of our frontal cortex, the seat of our executive and reflective functioning, catch up to what is occurring, perhaps after we have already initiated combat. A purely physiological understanding of ‘violence begets violence’ flows from this: When our foe behaves violently, we naturally read that as threat and everything else follows; we are likely to respond with violence of our own (if we assess the contest as winnable) which our opponent reads as threat; and so on.

From here we can begin to think our way toward an alternative response to threat, one that has transformative power. We must confront violence, not simply avoid it, or we lose the opportunity to transform it; but we must confront it in a way that does not trigger the neurobiology of aggression. How do we stand directly before an aggressive, threatening Other without immediately sending their nervous system into a cascade of responses that will likely result in violence? We must stand there in just a certain way, one that contains all the strength of our resolve and yet without representing a visceral threat to the perpetrator. Usually we think of confronting as inherently threatening. We imagine two combatants staring one another down, each brimming with lust for the other’s blood. Who will blink first? It is perhaps difficult to envision how confronting another would not arouse a defensive ire in them.

But let us imagine, instead, other scenes well known to us. Take, for example, the mother who lifts up into her arms her bawling child, looking him full in the eye. He wants to look away, to prolong his tantrum, but her look is so intentful, so compelling, so earnest that he cannot long avert his gaze. And when his eyes finally meet hers, when he sees the deep well of compassion visible in her loving, familiar, longed-for face, his anger begins to drain away and he softens into her embrace and her warm, soothing coos. Acute internal dissonance and interpersonal distress has been transformed into harmony, inside and out.

Or consider the hurt spouse, bitter at the other for his distancing, rejecting withdrawal. She feels a terror and rage toward him. If he privately cowers before this rage, or defiantly ignores it, her upset only foments all the more. The violence, hot on one side and cold on the other, persists. But something different happens if he turns toward her with softness in his eyes, open of face, with obvious earnest, and says in one way or another, “I see your rage and terror. I see how my hiding has left you feeling alone, abandoned. Yes, I have done this. I see now how my self-protection has been cause of your suffering. Your pain makes sense to me. I don’t want you to feel that pain. I want to be close to you, for you to feel that I am close, for you to be close to me. I don’t want to abandon you, ever. I never meant to. I am so sorry that I have.” He is showing by his stance and his words that he is able to tolerate her pain, take responsibility for his part in that pain, be vulnerable to her accusation, and to accept her anger and hurt toward him, returning it with warmth and love from a tender, open heart. Maybe not at once, but in time she can only melt before this way of showing up. He creates so much safety that her terror is assuaged. And how can she maintain a high pitch of rage against one so open and undefended? Reams of research data affirm that she cannot.[i]

To capture the attitude just described in mother and lover, which I submit represents the active ingredient of nonviolence, I offer the phrase centered vulnerability. In both cases, the distress of the other does not throw one off balance. The mother and lover remain centered. Neither one falls apart before the child’s or partner’s rage; neither one becomes defensive. Both remain open, loving, engaged, contactful. This is the essence of emotional vulnerability. Neither tries to appear invincible, distant, cold, judging. It is not about being above the other in a power-over kind of way, but a being-with that is mutually empowering, collaborative, and connective. There is strength in it: “I can hold onto myself in the face of your rage,” and, “I can be strong for you in your distress,” both. And there is suppleness in it, too: “We are in this together,” and, “I am suffering with you”—not suffering “because of you” but “alongside you,” one naked, messy, complex human being keeping company with another. These are only a handful of the meanings intended by the phrase, centered vulnerability.

Now, nonviolence between two people who love each other—who are one another’s primary attachment figure—may seem an entirely different thing than nonviolence between longtime mortal enemies. While of course that is true, there is much more that is similar than we might first think. I suggest that, in general, it runs against our natural grain to fear the vulnerable or to hate an open heart. We can do it, but it requires considerable effort. The more plainly and persistently a potential adversary remains vulnerable and open in a steady way, the less capable we become to fear and hate her. Even the coldest heart melts eventually.

But let me be clear: it is rarely necessary to melt the coldest of hearts, as we see in detail below. When there are multiple perpetrators, for example, touching only a few of these in a fresh way divides them, creating momentum for something different to happen. And still more available are the hearts of the bystanders, often very numerous and much less dug-in to the path of violence. To turn this crowd in favor of the targets and actionists undermines violence in a powerful way. The sympathies of the bystanders, in turn, bolster the sympathies of some among the perpetrators, which eventually isolates the coldest hearts, leaving them in an untenable position. They must soften themselves or find themselves simply left behind, shut out of a new configuration of connection.

When we are able to be vulnerable in a centered way we tap into and exude the deep dignity of our being. To stand defenseless before a brute, warm but unflapped, ready to die but also ready to embrace the shaky person peering at us from behind their fierce mask, open, grounded, strong but not threatening, and above all entirely present—this is a powerful and readily recognizable expression of human dignity. When we show up like this we become magnetic. We embody what all of us deeply aspire to be, what we all authentically are but may be afraid to dare to show, and what we all long for in our fellows. This way of presenting ourselves calls out to perpetrator and bystander alike. It attracts, and it inspires the longing we carry inside to embody our own authentic dignity in such a way. So incongruous is all of this with the logic violence that violence simply cannot survive.

Centered vulnerability affects more than just the perpetrator and bystander. It also infuses others who have been targets of violence, helping them to hold their heads a little higher, to straighten their own long-beaten backs a little more, to tap into their own great resilience. And it emboldens fellow actionists, too. If the most courageous among us show us the way, those of us less developed in our capacity for centered vulnerability can seize upon the model being offered and attain greater heights of self-possession and empathy than we had thought possible. Thus, the targets and their advocates become emboldened by one another and the process of nonviolence intensifies, becoming more and more powerful and compelling in turn. When this process is allowed to continue—not allowed by the perpetrators, to be sure, but by the larger community of the targeted and those who support them—it cannot fail to make a deep impression and will usually succeed in the end to transform violence into peace.

Nonviolence Embodied

The theory of centered vulnerability, to be meaningful, must be fixed in the body. Certainly, it is upon the body and bodies that it is practiced in movements for social change, as we see in some detail in this chapter. We experience our existential situation (E) as a body—not the body as conceived in Cartesian dualism (in opposition to mind or spirit) but phenomenologically, as the experiencing body.[ii] Our body is our actual existential situation. Violence maps itself onto the bodies of its participants, most cruelly on the bodies of its targets, who do not consent to their many disfigurements, but also onto the bodies of its perpetrators—think of their grimaced faces, fierce or dead eyes, and the pumping adrenalin of their hatred and destruction, not to mention their battle wounds, their broken intimacies, their losses. Think now of the body at peace—not disfigured, not contorted, not broken.

Here, we are especially interested in the body engaged in nonviolence, both the body of the actionist and that of the perpetrator, and also including the bodies of those who stand by and observe. Todd May, in his excellent book on the philosophy of nonviolent resistance, captures this in several places. He says, for instance, “In nonviolence, one does not express one’s equality with a gun but rather one’s own body.”[iii] In my terms, this is saying that the equality of the actionist (and target) and the perpetrator is simply our actual existential situation (E). So when the lone actionist stands in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square he is embodying that actual equality. He is placing his body in front of the soldier’s body, confronting the soldier with the fact of their equality as beings. This enacts and demonstrates the real situation, but of course also involves great vulnerability—the tank could easily crush the undefended body.

The power of nonviolence, however, rests in exactly this. The bystander, as well as the driver of the tank, can hardly help but feel the equality of their respective bodies in this situation—this fact is powerfully underscored by the actionist’s vulnerability. And if the tank were to run over the actionist and crush his body, a rush of powerful feeling would course through everyone’s body: the other actionists, the bystanders, the tank driver, and those whose orders he follows. I am not suggesting the feeling would be the same for everyone—it certainly would not be—but that a powerful feeling of some kind would occur (except for those most calloused to the horrors of war, which is another kind of misery). My point here is that it would be experienced bodily, and strongly so for many. And this would organize further living, further action, further demonstrations of the actual existential situation.

As May puts it, “by displaying dignified behavior, one reminds oneself (or convinces oneself) of one’s own dignity.”[iv] I would want to say, rather, that we enact our dignity, our actual existential situation (E), because we can see how that is how our body already is, and this enactment carries E further. The behavior expresses the dignity of our body and dignifies our body. This, in turn, carries the dignity of the bystander further—she bodily feels the dignity of the actionist as an expression of her own dignity, which is then carried forward in her. Nonviolence thus has the character of a contagion. Insofar as it expresses what is true, the body is carried forward by its expression; indeed, all participating bodies are carried forward by its expression—though for each one only in its own way, reflecting the unique existential situation of each individual body.[v]

May touches on the embodied aspect of the centeredness of the vulnerability required for nonviolent action when he writes, “Toughness is displayed in the ability to sustain injury or violence without being broken by it.... In this sense, toughness is very much like the particular vulnerability displayed in nonviolent struggle and resistance. After all, that vulnerability is not vulnerability in the sense of fragility. It is, rather, quite the opposite.”[vi] The injured-but-not-broken body that is displayed to the world, to perpetrator and bystander alike, painfully proclaims the equality of all beings, the dignity of all persons, and the injustice of the perpetrator. This does not require words. Indeed, words often fall short. It is felt directly and powerfully by the body itself, body-to-body. The centeredness of this kind of vulnerability, what May is here calling “toughness,” magnifies and intensifies the bodily experiencing of the whole situation.

Let us now turn to three illustrative examples of this process at work. I will begin with an intimate portrait of nonviolence, the story of Karen Ridd. Next I will consider perhaps the most famous example, Gandhi’s Salt March of 1930. Finally, we will look at a more complex but also very well known case, the 1986 fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Phillipines.

Karen Ridd

Karen Ridd, a Canadian citizen, was doing peace work in the tumult of Guatemala in 1989 when she and a number of others were arrested by the Guatemalan military, accused of terrorism. She found herself imprisoned with a compatriot, a woman from Columbia, being harshly interrogated, distinctly aware of torture going on elsewhere in the same building. As luck would have it, the Canadian embassy caught wind of her arrest and pressured the Guatemalan government to free her.[vii] As her captors escorted her to the compound’s gates to be released, she was wracked with a sense of responsibility to the Columbian woman she would be leaving behind. To the dismay of those who had come to rescue her, she turned at the last moment and walked back into the hell from which she had been freed moments before. Before long, as Nagler describes the scene:

Karen’s gesture was having a strange effect on the [military] men. They talked to Karen despite themselves, and she tried to explain why she had returned. “You know what it’s like to be separated from a compañero.” That got to them. They released Karen and [her Columbian friend] and the two women walked out together under the stars, hand in hand.[viii]

In the first place we can ask: Was this nonviolence? It seems clear. Karen confronted violence directly by walking back into the fray, putting her body directly in the line of fire. But she did so without any apparent aggression. She was unarmed and, in that literal sense, undefended. She was explicit and clear that she was returning to secure the release of her compatriot—she was directly insisting on the relaxation of violence in a very specific way. She stood fast. And the forces of violence, at first so menacing and powerful, relented. One might suppose that the soldiers were feeling pressure, direct or not, from the fact that their own government had tried to retrieve Karen, so the ultimate release of the two prisoners had less to do with Karen’s nonviolence than we might want to think.[ix] But it seems more plausible that Karen’s way of showing up was decisive in saving the life (or at least much reducing the harm) of her compatriot.

So, if it was specifically Karen’s nonviolence that won the day, let us consider the question of how—by what psychological mechanism—she did so. Nagler ventures, “It’s as though her very vulnerability put in her hands some kind of force which worked a minor miracle, even though Karen had not counted on it.”[x] Although Nagler’s language here is tentative, he has put his finger right on the most important point. According to what I have argued, it was exactly her vulnerability that gave her the leverage to transform a scene of brutality into one of redemption. Moreover, Nagler is more right than he seems to know when he says that vulnerability represents a “force” for the transformation of violence into peace. It is indeed a force in the scientific sense, specifically a force of attraction, no less real than gravity or electromagnetism—not a “miracle” at all.[xi] It is a force that obtains in the interaction of one organism with another, common to all social mammals and much beyond.

Nagler tells that at first, when Karen returned to the interrogation chamber, the soldiers were “exasperated” and threatened to become more vicious than they had been before, and brutally attacked her Columbian friend. Psychologically, this makes sense. Already humiliated by having to release the Canadian, they were further humiliated by her refusal to go and her insistence that they also release the Columbian. They were frustrated and angry, and probably more than a little afraid of Karen’s power to conjure government rescue parties. But Karen did not threaten or cajole. We imagine that she implored her captors both implicitly by the very fact of putting herself at their disposal—‘here I am and here I will remain’—and explicitly by speaking her mind when the soldiers, “despite themselves,” asked her about it.

By making herself vulnerable to them she stunned them, who would have expected her to flee terrified into the arms of her rescuers. This act of sheer courage caught the soldiers up short, an implicit but powerful rebuke to their cowardice. But rather than lord this over them she was of course completely at their mercy. Something in her demeanor, which we can only guess from Nagler’s account, perhaps her centeredness, attracted them, drew them toward her, opened them to her humanity. We get some sense of this something in her spoken words, the very words that we are told affected the soldiers decisively, “You know what it’s like to be separated from a compañero.” These are words of connection. She is saying, “you would feel, have felt, as I do now.” We are alike, you and I. Even as she shows up as different—more courageous, more centered and mature—she is saying that she is deeply similar. We both feel fierce loyalty to our companions. You would do anything for your companions. I would do, am just now doing, anything for mine.

In this encounter, the physiology of fight-or-flight is absent. Karen is no threat in any way that the soldiers’ limbic systems would register as such. Quite the contrary, her vulnerability combined with her capacity to be centered, present, and connective with her captors sends the opposite message to their nervous systems. Neurobiologically, their approach responses are activated. They become intrigued by her, they find themselves admiring her—indeed, in a profound inversion, they become captivated by her. In this state the soldiers were very likely able to access, albeit almost certainly not on a conscious level, their own longing for connection rather than disconnection, peace rather than violence. From this place of longing, which undoubtedly motivated Karen and which she evoked in them, their empathy could flow. From this place, there was no choice but to release both prisoners to the starry night.

As profound as this experience was, and as impactful as it was on the two women involved, it can only have been a minor victory, a small redemption. We can imagine that the soldiers spent the rest of their evening torturing less fortunate victims in other rooms, continuing with the work of past days, months, years. We might even regard the whole event cynically, as two people sufficiently privileged to volunteer in the peace effort who got their freedom while hundreds or thousands of poor Guatemalans with much less social mobility remained imprisoned, tortured, or killed. But we can reasonably surmise that the soldiers who were confronted by Karen Ridd that day were never again quite the same. At least for a moment they were softened, were able to access their own dignity as human beings, and to act out of a deep sense of their own integrity. Had further opportunities of this kind come along we can imagine that they may have been quicker to soften, might have softened more, and might even have shifted wholly to the side of peace rather than violence. If the longest journey begins with one step, Karen afforded them a propitious first step, indeed. This is exactly, I think, what the work of nonviolence looks like.

Salt March

That these small steps can sometimes add up to events of far-reaching significance is demonstrated in the two remaining examples of nonviolent action. Let us begin with Gandhi’s iconic nonviolent action, the Salt Satyagraha.[xii] In 1835, the British colonial government imposed a Salt Act that prohibited private citizens from making their own salt, a long and ancient tradition in Indian culture (as everywhere else, of course), and required Indians to buy their salt from government-owned saltworks, upon which the British levied a stiff tax. Many Indians found these measures obnoxious and deeply offensive, a symbol of everything they deplored about their relationship to the British. Upon declaring the goal of swaraj—independence from colonial rule—in 1929, the Indian National Congress, under Gandhi’s influence, identified the Salt Act as one of its primary targets for nonviolent civil disobedience.

In March of 1930, Gandhi and a small group of his closest associates, all people deeply committed to the cause of swaraj and the methods and philosophy of ahimsa (nonviolence, literally non-harm), began perhaps the most compelling single campaign of satyagraha ever seen to that day and to this. Satyagraha was defined by Gandhi as “soul force,” or “truth force”—referring to the catalytic power of nonviolence to, in my terms, transform violence into peace. It points to the confronting itself, with all its connotations of centered vulnerability and, indeed, the whole psychology of nonviolence, though Gandhi tended to conceive of it in spiritual rather than psychological terms. Gandhi and his small but steadfast band of satyagrahis made a pilgrimage from Ahmedabad to the sea at Dandi, a trek of some 120 miles through many small villages across India, whereupon they made salt in direct contravention of colonial law. This highly public event drew enormous attention from British authorities, the Indian people, and the international press.

As the Indian National Congress made preparations for a second phase of the action—in which all Indians would be invited to march with the satyagrahis in strict adherence to nonviolence upon the saltworks of Dharsana—Gandhi was arrested. Nevertheless, the action at Dharsana commenced and the international press were there to witness it for the world. What they saw amazed them. Wave after wave, unarmed actionists in files of 25 walked toward the police line only to be beaten down in the fierce summer heat by the batons of the British. Among the actionists, there was no violence, no resistance, no voices even so much as raised in anger. Only the relentless matter of the undefended walking again and again into the maw of brutality, crying out in their pains. This continued all day long, hour after bone-crushing hour, and was repeated at other saltworks across India in subsequent months. Finally, in March 1931, the British softened. They agreed to a number of reforms that lightened the impact of the Salt Act without rescinding it altogether, and gave the Indian National Congress a seat at the table of negotiations with the British that ultimately resulted in Indian independence in 1947.

Unlike Karen Ridd’s action, the Salt Satyagraha was not instantly rewarded with an unambiguous success. The British took a year to bend, and then only a little. The ultimate success of the swaraj movement had to wait another 16 years, and even still one could argue that the British would have divested from India around the same time regardless of nonviolence, Gandhi, or the Indian National Congress. For these reasons, we may not look to the Salt Satyagraha as evidence that nonviolence always, or quickly, achieves its political objectives.[xiii] But what it does show unambiguously is that nonviolence can be organized and executed at a massive scale, involving thousands of actionists across a vast geographical distance, almost without blemish in discipline.

It is difficult to forget the image of wave after wave of unarmed people walking directly into the fray of crashing police batons, the bloodied and broken bodies accumulating by the hundreds or thousands. We are lucky to get an impression of this from Richard Attenborough’s movie, Gandhi, in which as much historical detail as possible was preserved. It offers a vivid testament to human dignity and the resolve of righteousness. Both the centered vulnerability of the marchers and the ruthless brutality of the police cut us to the quick, but especially the contrast between the two. One short vignette offers a particularly telling glimpse into the psychological dynamics of the scene:

An American journalist, Negley Farson, recorded an incident in which a Sikh, blood-soaked from the assault of a police sergeant, fell under a heavy blow. Congress first-aid members rushed up to rub his face with ice. “...[H]e gave us a bloody grin and stood up to receive some more....” The police sergeant was “so sweaty from his exertions that his Sam Browne had stained his white tunic. I watched him with my heart in my mouth. He drew back his arm for a final swing—and then he dropped his hands down by his side. ‘It’s no use,’ he said, turning to me with half an apologetic grin, ‘You can’t hit a bugger when he stands up to you like that!’ He gave the Sikh a mock salute and walked off.”[xiv]

We see two key dynamics in this scene: the impact of nonviolence on both the perpetrator and the bystander. The perpetrator falters just before the “final swing” that would, undoubtedly, have finished the Sikh. What stayed his hand at the precipice of victory? He had all the power—his authority from the state and its orders to fell the protesters; he held the baton; he was uninjured; his freedom of movement was entirely unfettered; whether he kills the Sikh or not, he will have dinner at home with his family that night. Why did he refrain from his state-sanctioned duty?

Because it ran against every grain in his body, I suspect, to kill (or severely maim) a man who smilingly welcomes his blows, who stands before the sergeant secure in the principle of his act—namely, that British colonial rule and the Salt Act in particular are unjust. The policeman observed a dignity in the satyagrahi that he betrayed in himself in the very act of beating a person in full possession of their own. The sergeant’s violent victory would, at best, ring hollow to himself; but really, it would represent his own undoing, a failure of his own humanity. The genius of the Sikh, and indeed of nonviolence, is that the sergeant was able to feel this failure immediately, in the heat of the moment, down to his bones. This was accomplished not by persuasion or reason. It was accomplished directly and viscerally. In this precise sense, nonviolence works at the bodily level.

All of this was seen and felt palpably by Negley Farson, the observing journalist, whereupon he reported it in rather vivid terms to people all over the world. The stark moral contrast between the suffering Sikh and the abusive sergeant may not have persuaded the British government, at least at first, to take a higher road. But the neutral bystander could not help but be horrified by their brutality. And this, over time, was undoubtedly persuasive to the British. Almost certainly this accounts for their final relent in March of 1931. Here we see evidence that it is not necessary to convert the perpetrator per se (although on a micro scale the sergeant was, after a fashion, converted to some degree). But we see that conversion of some number of bystanders will eventually apply sufficient leverage to soften the harsh resolve of a perpetrator.

Ferdinand Marcos

This dynamic, however, poses the question of whether the perpetrator is ever actually converted, or simply relents under great pressure by those who are. And if they are not, can the resulting condition really be described as peace? Might it not be true that the perpetrator is merely chastened but still intent on inflicting harm when the opportunity arises? Is this merely a suspension of violence rather than its abatement? Let us turn to our final example of nonviolence in action to reflect further on this issue. By studying the case of Ferdinand Marcos we can better explore the role and meaning of coercion as a process sometimes required in nonviolent action.[xv]

In 1965, Marcos won the presidency of the Philippines by democratic means but proved so profligate with public funds and intemperate in his narcissism that by 1973 he was forced declare martial law in order to maintain his hold on power. This he was able to do in large part because the United States encouraged him, eager as it was to use Marcos as a bulwark against communism in the region. Marcos overplayed his hand, however, when he actively or implicitly saw to the assassination of a major political rival, Ninoy Aquino, in 1983. This immediately polarized the nation and converted many of its people to active resistance. At first, this resistance was splintered among a variety of groups and strategies. Most violent were the communists and militant Muslim factions. More moderate voices wavered somewhat between more and less violent strategies. Ninoy Aquino himself had actively embraced nonviolence before his death (after seeing Attenborough’s film, Gandhi) and his widow, Corazon (Corey) Aquino, continued in that vein.

Resistance to Marcos steadily intensified until November of 1985, when he suddenly announced elections for the following February. Thereupon, under the glare of international scrutiny, Marcos squared off against a highly focused and organized opposition led by Corey Aquino and an active Catholic Church, both preaching nonviolence. To all observers it was clear that Aquino’s coalition won the election, and that Marcos, as he had so often done before, declared victory by fraudulent means. Tens of thousands of civilians took to the streets of Manila in the days after the election, affirming Aquino’s victory and demanding that Marcos step down. To a remarkable degree, these crowds remained nonviolent.

Two developments emerged in the succeeding days that would decisively end Marcos’ regime. First, a faction of the military that had been for some time disgruntled with Marcos openly split off, defiantly siding with the peaceful protesters. With the crucial help of the Catholic Church and its independent radio station, throngs of peaceful protesters flocked to protect the rebel forces from the expected retaliation by forces loyal to Marcos. These many people, both as a mass and in countless individual acts of heroism, stood with centered vulnerability against Marcos’ military as it sought to quell the insurrection of its dissident faction. As Enrile, the chief military officer of the insurrectionist group, observed, “It was funny. We in the defense and military organization who should be protecting the people were being protected by them.”[xvi]

The second key development followed. The Reagan administration soon abandoned Marcos in light of the obvious fraudulence of the election, the fracture of Marcos’ hold on his own military, and the steadfast intransigence of the Filipino people. Almost immediately, Marcos escaped into exile, his legacy in ruins. Over a scant 18 days an almost entirely peaceful movement achieved what had seemed impossible when the election took place. Tyranny had given way to democracy.

Here we see in dramatic fashion how the centered vulnerability of the actionists—namely the civilian population, who were also the real targets of violence—split the perpetrator group. Over many years of mostly peaceful protest, some among Marcos’ military became converted to the cause of the people. This galvanized quickly and irrevocably in the heat of the 1986 election process and its aftermath. Marcos may already have been fatally weakened, especially after it became clear that the multitude would put their undefended bodies on the line to protect the renegade military faction from Marcos’ retaliatory ire. Then, when the United States withdrew its support, the perpetrator group quickly collapsed. With the United States explicitly—or even implicitly—supporting Marcos’ thuggery, he felt emboldened and perhaps even invincible. But without that protection, the perpetrator suddenly felt naked, exposed, and vulnerable.

It is deeply unfortunate, both for him and for subsequent developments in the Philippines, that Marcos did not take this opportunity to become centered in his own vulnerability. He might have turned toward the people and taken full responsibility for his abuses, accepted the forgiveness that his fellow Filipinos might have offered, and gracefully acceded to the public will. This process of truth and reconciliation might have smoothed the path for Filipino society for decades to come. But this was evidently beyond the capacity of Ferdinand Marcos. Instead, he ran, tail between his legs, whimpering pathetically all the way. He was not converted. He was, in fact, coerced to leave power and the land of his ancestors.

Coercion involves the application of a force too powerful, to reflect Ackerman and Duvall’s phrase, to be overcome. We usually conflate coercion with violence, as if only violence could confer that kind of force. But in this case we see not only that nonviolence can be coercive, but that it can overpower violence specifically, even the kind of brutality Marcos was capable of using. But let us be very careful here. Marcos required coercion because he lacked the capacity to access his own longing for loving connection and a peaceful world. He proved incapable of conversion to peace, so it became necessary to coerce his relent. Coercion is only consistent with nonviolence when there has been offered a genuine opportunity to soften, to access the deeper desire for connection, to become vulnerable in a centered way.

Nonviolence must begin with an invitation to become peaceful and the modeling of a peaceful way of being—the way of centered vulnerability. But if the perpetrator repeatedly refuses to relent, it may become necessary to contain the harm by use of nonviolent coercion.[xvii] Harkening to our earlier definition, we remember that violence hinges on an infringement that is not necessary. For an act of coercion to be considered nonviolent, therefore, the infringement must be necessary in the prevention of much greater—and unnecessary—infringement; and must be as limited as possible to only what is actually necessary. This necessity is calculated by considering, as best one is able beforehand, the most likely route to a condition in which the least possible suffering is caused to the least possible number over the greatest possible term.

When Marcos remained unmoved after decades of nonviolent social action, through countless demonstrations and electoral challenges, even in the final days as his crisis mounted to the breaking point, he proved himself unwilling or unable to relent in his use of violence. The people stood firm, saying, ‘this is totally unacceptable.’ They actively witnessed his atrocities, articulated their grievances, and nonviolently blocked his armed forces, gradually splintering off his support, leaving him isolated. And still they stood strong. ‘It is time to go.’ And he went. In keeping with the immense dignity of these long suffering people, they did not inflict indignities upon Marcos himself other than the supreme—but necessary—indignity of fleeing into exile. Immediately, a dramatically more peaceful way of life ensued for the great majority of those who remained.

While this kind of coercion is nonviolent, we can expect it to produce a less peaceful result than conversion would have. As long as Marcos lived in exile he undoubtedly cleaved to the logic of violence, smoldering with fantasies of vindication and probably sowing back home whatever seeds of discontent he could. Similarly, his devotees who did remain behind very likely worked to undermine the new arrangement in hopes not only of a return of Marcos to power but also violent retribution to those held responsible for Marcos’ fall.[xviii]

Nonviolent coercion represents a second-best pathway only taken when conversion fails. In terms of our model, coercion depends on the conversion of enough bystanders and perhaps some perpetrators sufficient to delegitimize the remaining perpetrators and bring an end to the violence. But conversion of the perpetrators in toto is the ideal, the ultimate goal of nonviolence. Nonviolent coercion does not entirely transform violence into peace because it leaves some still committed to the logic of violence, and therefore does not really dismantle the cycle of violence—so long as perpetrators harbor designs for vindication that may play out even in subtle ways as subsequent events develop, undermining a deep and lasting peace.

Our consideration of the enactment of nonviolence would not be complete without some consideration of the role of rage. Many activists for social justice argue that rage powers their own activity, the movement, and the changes that flow from it. This is problematic but by no means a simple problem for nonviolence theory. It would be wrong to suggest that anger should or can play no role in social change work; this is not our existential situation. Of course the targets of violence and oppression are angry! Emotion theory tells us that anger is what we feel when our body is preparing to respond to violations of its integrity. It is an upwelling of energy, a flooding of the sympathetic nervous system, an emboldening of the mind, and an engorging of the muscles for battle. Receiving violence is exactly such a violation; of course our body will react this way.

Here we come to the intrapsychic moment of centeredness that is more concealed from view than the later interpersonal moment, such as we saw between the Sikh and the British officer. Before the Sikh could do what he did, he had to master his own rage. This does not mean to repress his anger, but to resist stoking it into, or maintaining it as, rage. Activists who argue that rage is the fuel of revolution are not acknowledging that rage is both unsustainable and lacks wisdom. These are not moral judgments but physiological facts. Rage requires a level of energy the body cannot long sustain, and taxes the body in damaging and permanent ways—rage literally blows the adrenals; it bathes the body and brain in a toxic soup of glucocorticoids that compromises physical and mental health and reduces longevity.[xix]

Not only this, when we are enraged we physiologically “flip our lid,” dramatically reducing our access to our experience-dependent knowledge and our executive functionality. Among other effects, we lose our capacity to inhibit reckless impulses.[xx] I am not saying that rage is dangerous, scary, and unseemly to my middle-class sense of decorum, or that I am unwilling to face the righteous rage of the oppressed.[xxi] What I am saying is that rage cuts off our access to the full range of our potential responses and especially our capacity for connection, which are essential if we hope to build a peaceful and equitable world. Revolution as a frenzy of rage reliably results in exhaustion and more violence, in one form or another. It has sex appeal in the short term but ultimately does not satisfy.

I observe this lesson over and over again in my work with couples. Many come to me caught in the desperate and broken logic that requires each of them to force the other to see the justice of their cause, in which they remain utterly imprisoned by their own reactive emotions of irritation, frustration, hopelessness, and despair. And yet, with striking regularity, we are able to discover beneath all their reactivity a deep well of sadness and longing. But these underlying emotions were unexpressed, unfelt by the other, and inaccessible as long as the reactive emotions were never slowed down, explored, and contextualized within the whole human experience of each partner. Once that was able to occur, peace was at hand.

This journey into the deeper experiencing of perpetrator and target that reveals their underlying commonality and connectedness is very difficult. It may seem extremely unlikely that we as a people and global community can do this. Be that as it may, our current historical moment requires it. Let us now consider what kind of process would begin to move us in this direction.


[i] This is most directly represented by the research done under the name of interpersonal neurobiology. See Siegel, 2015. Of course, we can imagine scenarios in which he has harmed her so terribly that she cannot soften until much more repair occurs. But even here, the difference is a matter of degree; the principle still holds.

[ii] I allude here to Heidegger, but more to Merleau-Ponty, but above all to Eugene Gendlin. See Gendlin, 1962/1997. Also see my paper on applying Gendlin’s Process Model (Gendlin, 1996/2018) to violence, peace, and nonviolence, Burgess, forthcoming.

[iii] May, 2015, p. 155.

[iv] May, 2015, pp. 155-156.

[v] In these remarks I am leaning heavily on Gendlin, 1996/2018, especially in the term carrying forward.

[vi] May, 2015, p. 25.

[vii] It was not mere luck, of course. Just prior to her incarceration, Ridd had alerted the embassy and her organization in hopes that she might be rescued. This is an important point. As with any significant endeavor, planning, organization, and competent execution are vital to success.

[viii] Nagler, 2001, p. 43.

[ix] Nonviolent actions rarely, if ever, occur in a vacuum. One can always find traces of the logic of violence operating somewhere, on some level. But this says more about the world we live in, immersed in violence everywhere as it is, than it does about the efficacy of nonviolence per se.

[x] Nagler, 2001, p. 43.

[xi] Except in the generic sense that it is miraculous that there is something rather than nothing, and what a spectacular something it all, and every bit of it, is!

[xii] My account of the Salt Satyagraha is principally indebted to Bondurant, 1969.

[xiii] Recent evidence strongly suggests, however, that nonviolent campaigns tend to be more effective than violent ones. See Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011.

[xiv] Bondurant, 1969, p. 96. A Sam Browne is a leather belt worn as part of the police uniform. It was evidently so besweated that its color was leeching into the sergeants white uniform.

[xv] This example is drawn from the account in Ackerman & Duvall, 2000, pp. 369-396.

[xvi] Ackerman & Duvall, 2000, p. 388.

[xvii] In practical terms, of course, no matter how necessary nonviolent coercion may be, it will fail if it is not also possible. Part of the practical calculation, therefore, is an assessment of political and social probability. If the probability of success is too low, then nonviolent coercion cannot succeed; there will never arise sufficient leverage to be coercive. In this condition, other nonviolent means are required. For a thoughtful treatment of nonviolent coercion, see May, 2015.

[xviii] In the event, Marcos’ health had been failing for some time before his overthrow and he died three years afterwards. A triumphant and violent return to power was simply not in the cards.

[xix] For an encyclopedic account of the negative effects of glucocorticoids, see Sapolsky, 2017.

[xx] See Siegel, 2015.

[xxi] Nor can I deny that these responses may be unconsciously present in me, alas, given my own privilege.