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The Kings of Nonviolent Resistance

It is no longer news that Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., passed away this week. She was 78.

An advocate and practitioner of nonviolent resistance, Martin Luther King Jr. once uttered a classic statement: "I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."

While a lot of discussion has ensued over the nature of the "love thine enemy" philosophy that seems to underlie King's statement, I think there is a truth therein, which was made even more apparent by King's wife. Coretta Scott King often repeated her husband's maxim: "Hate is too great a burden to bear." But she added: "It injures the hater more than it injures the hated."

I've talked about the effects of hating in other posts dealing with everything from Yoda to my articulation of "The Rose Petal Assumption," so I won't repeat my reasoning here. Suffice it to say, there is an internal relationship between hatred, fear, anger, and suffering, and, often, the transcendence of one brings forth the transcendence of all.

I think what the Kings focused on was not "loving one's enemy" per se, but the practice of a positive alternative in one's opposition to evil. Nonviolent resistance is not equivalent to pacifism. It is not the renunciation of the retaliatory use of force; it entails, instead, the practice of a wide variety of strategies—from boycotts to strikes, which remove all sanctions of one's own victimization. One refuses to be a part of a cycle that replaces one "boss" with another. One repudiates real-world monsters, while not becoming one in the process. For as Nietzsche once said: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."

Nonviolence is not a social panacea, and sometimes it is absolutely necessary to use violence in one's response to aggression. But much can be learned about how to topple tyranny from the lessons provided by the theoreticians and practitioners of nonviolent resistance.

It's fitting that today I've marked Ayn Rand's birthday, for Atlas Shrugged is one of the grandest dramatizations in fiction of the effectiveness of fighting tyranny through nonviolent resistance. It is no coincidence that, while writing her magnum opus, Rand's working title for Atlas was "The Strike." Of course, Rand was no theorist of nonviolence, but her novel is instructive.

For further reading on the subject of nonviolence, let me suggest first and foremost the books of Gene Sharp, founder of the Albert Einstein Institution. See especially Sharp's books, The Politics of Nonviolent Action and Social Power and Political Freedom.

Comments welcome. Cross-posted to L&P.


Dear Chris,

From the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for sharing this post. When I read it, I felt delighted and encouraged. With it, you've helped to satisfy my need for knowledge about nonviolent resistance - not to mention my curiosity to learn ever more about your point of view.

I've noticed your mention here and there of your interest in nonviolent resistance, and I've felt eager to learn more about your thoughts on this subject. Thank you for offering not only more such information, but also specific suggestions regarding how one can learn still more about nonviolent resistance.

If dialectics is the art of preserving context, then I'd like to voice my hopefully dialectical conviction that nonviolent resistance can't be most thoroughly understood unless with reference to the wider context of nonviolent communication.

During the course of the last few months, I've discovered something which is stimulating more excitement in me about the evolution of my worldview than probably anything I've read since I first discovered the work of Ayn Rand. That's the book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. from PuddleDancer Press. If there were one book that I could persuade you (or any of your readers) to read right now, this would be it. I've fallen in love with it and with the NVC (Nonviolent Communication) method. In my judgment, Rosenberg's ideas are clear, accessible, immensely practical... and yet, when examined closely, are also deeply challenging philosophically and personally... and are even (dare I say it?) profoundly radical.

To make a long story short, with his method, Rosenberg has provided me with the equivalent of a road map for the next stage of my personal, philosophical and spiritual evolution.

I think that this book and its ideas could interest you for a variety of reasons, and not only because of the connection between nonviolent resistance and nonviolent communication. In your blog, you've at various times commented on such topics as the nature of civil discourse, discussion and debate. You've also sometimes expressed frustration in the face of the way that some people express themselves (for example, in your recent entry in which you discussed American conservatives' complaints about Academy Award nominations). The book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life has given me more insight into all these sorts of things than anything else I've yet read.

There are other reasons why I imagine that this book and its ideas might interest you.

One is that nothing that I've encountered since I first immersed myself in the work and ideas of Ayn Rand has clarified for me more fully why I want to let go of the moralistic judgmentalism that I now regard as a much-deeper-than-merely-stylistic impulse in Rand and Objectivism. For those who have read or listened to Damian Moskovitz's remarkable talk at my Living Action web site ("Moralism in Objectivism," a talk which profoundly moved and influenced me) - Rosenberg has helped me to understand moralistic judgment with even greater depth than Damian has.

Another is that Rosenberg is deeply committed to the idea - in principle and in practice - that we most fully satisfy our needs only if we communicate with one another in a manner that involves zero manipulation or coercion.

Another reason relates to your passion for communication and the choice of the most effective language with which to communicate. Rosenberg has called my attention to subtleties, nuances and subtexts in our language that I'm now convinced contribute to oppression in frightening ways.

Yet another reason relates to your passion for dialectics. I feel blown away by Rosenberg's ability to preserve context with respect to compassionate communication. I've never seen anyone manage this more impressively. (As a historical aside, Marshall Rosenberg's father and grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Russia, and I couldn't help but wonder whether they may have brought some dialectical patterns of thinking with them! To verify that would probably require massive research and the writing of a whole book, though. Still, it would be intriguing if Rosenberg ended up qualifying as yet another "Russian Radical." ;-) )

I'm betting also that I would feel amazed and dazzled if I were ever afforded the opportunity to read an exploration of potential opportunities for cross-pollination between Rosenberg's communication principles and the principles of dialectical libertarianism.

In the past, at least in private correspondence, I've mentioned to you that I've thought that tragically, despite offering major value, in their efforts to inspire cultural change, Ayn Rand's philosophy and the Objectivist movement contain the seeds of their own destruction. Prior to discovering this book, I've felt unequal to the task of adequately articulating why I've thought this. Now, for those who are familiar with Rand and Objectivism, the most helpful words of wisdom that I can offer are to call your attention to this book.

In light of my familiarity with Rand, Objectivism, and the challenges they have faced in their efforts to promote objectivity, rationality, individualism and liberty - and not only in their engagement with the wider culture but also in the schisms that have always dogged the Objectivist movement - nothing has ever provided me remotely the explanatory power that this book has... even David Kelley's book The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand doesn't even come close.

As if that weren't enough, the book is concise, easy to read... and yet it manages to incorporate an abundance of real world examples that illustrate how its principles work in action.

So... even though I know you are thoroughly invested in reading many other things already... I'm hoping I might have a shot at stimulating enough interest in you to give the book a reading. If you did, I would savor the opportunity to either discuss it with you or to read about any of your reactions.

I genuinely hope you will readit, though, only if you can do so with the same enthusiasm that a small child exhibits when joyfully feeding a hungry, baby duck. Because I wouldn't want you to do anything that I asked with any less enthusiasm.

Thank you again for writing and posting your encouraging and informative blog entry... and for welcoming comments. Both help to satisfy my need for nonviolent communication.

Fess up, Chris. How much did you pay Vid for that response? :-)

Seriously, very good post. My experience is that a lot of people have the idea that we can solve many problems if we can just kill enough "bad" people. Witness the current "war" on terrorists. I'm no pacifist either, but both the morality and practicality of killing your way out of a problem need to be addressed. This is an issue brought up by Steven Spielberg in his great film "Munich."

And it is more than a little ironic that while Rand's great book was about nonviolent resistance, many of her followers today are rabid warmongers who literally want to bomb/invade/destroy most of the Middle East.

Vid, Mark, thanks for your comments here! And Mark, I haven't yet seen "Munich"---and Vid got not one cent. :) He's just prolific in his own right!

Vid, thank you for your kind words and for the passion you bring to this subject. I've not read Marshall B. Rosenberg, but have added him to my "list." :) I like the idea of "nonviolent communication"; I often wonder how much of that might, in fact, be incorporated into the theoretical edifice of the so-called "dialogical" schools that I survey in the final chapter of Total Freedom. Jurgen Habermas, for example, deals quite extensively with the "ideal-speech situation," as he calls it, which bars all forms of "strategic communication" from dialogue... that is, any forms of communication designed to manipulate one's dialogical partner. I think there is much to be said about the essential morality of such an approach to human communication. And it has been incorporated in the libertarian approaches of people like Hoppe, Kinsella, and others.

Oh, be sure to check out Roderick Long's comments on this thread, at Liberty and Power Group Blog here.

Hi Chris... I think I've brought up his books before, but this discussion and especially Roderick's remind me of Orson Scott Card's Ender series, particularly Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead. The books well illustrate the theme of loving your enemy while nevertheless having to destroy him as well as lack of real communication and empathy as a major cause of war.

I still have to read those books, Geoffrey, but your point is well taken.