John G Bell


Fall '02 - Hill & Gilliam

Book Response: “A Force More Powerful” Ackerman & Duvall

A. Important things about ...

  1. the power and limitation of dialogue

    The extreme elements of any issue will become increasingly violent as they become threatened by conciliatory and compromising centrists. This is a built in weak point in any movement for change or dialogue. It's something to take seriously if there's any hope of broad-based inclusion.

  1. American or world society

    Our current societal trend toward ever increasing authoritarian control is likely to create a resistance that's easy to discredit because it will tend toward extremism unless addressed by those seeking lasting real change.

  1. these specific groups

    I find it immensely depressing that the examples in these chapters really didn't give me a feeling of hope that either violence or non-violence offered significant change. The examples, especially of Yugoslavia, were depressing. In Yugoslavia, the success of the non-violent movement resulted in a return to power by Milosevic and ultimately an escalation of violence to an international level, which oddly the book seemed to celebrate. I remember reading about the battle of Kosovo in the late 1300's during the period when the US was bombing the region and having the intense realization that we were involved in a 600 year old religious conflict about which we were woefully and willfully ignorant.

  1. myself

    Every time I think I've figured something out I end up with more questions. I read a book about the increase in non-violence and I get depressed. Maybe this is residual feelings from watching X and Bowling for Columbine, but there's so many factions, factors, fictions and facts to sort out. The idea of having to deal with the will to power, inherently undermining progress, of all the people involved in any issues makes me feel very tired. I think of all the things I want to do and I feel helpless to make real change.

B. Talking points

  1. Thanatos urges

P457 “It is only small groups, who know that they cannot get sufficient popular support, that resort to methods of violence, imagining in their folly that they can gain their ends this way. - Jawaharlal Nehru”

P459 “It is not a myth that violence alters events. It is a myth that it gives power to the people.”

P462 “Had the Tamil non-violent effort been more imaginative ...”

P465 “...with Tamil and Sinhalese extremists as the only benificiaries.”

P467 “death was not to be feared but embraces as a kind of apotheosis.”

P467 “the supreme assertion of the self over the other”

So, how does anyone deal with the extremists that won't compromise and resort to the desperate acts of violence to stop others from compromise. It's exactly these inflexible forces that continue to resist compromise in both the Palestinian-Israeli and Irish conflicts. They don't seem to be controllable. In fact, they seem increasingly violent the closer the other factions get toward compromise. The last chapters make a point that non-violence isn't about avoiding violence, but this kind of violence amounts to increasingly effective sabotage to any progress.

Violence may not give power to the people, but it does work to the advantage of those seeking to alter events. It serves to support the will to power, the Thanatos urges, that consistently fight against loss of individual power. There's nothing in non-violence that seems to address this effect. If this isn't addressed, then there's always going to be an increasingly effective call to violence for those disaffected marginalized extremists. This not only acts as a form of sabotage to progress for the whole, but also provides a large tool which the oppressors can utilize to dismantle and distract the revolutionaries from their cause and public opinion from sympathy with the revolutionaries.

This is really the whole question of terrorism. When the protest go unheard, they tend toward violence. It's not enough to resort to ad hominem slurs of this being “folly” or “unimaginative” because it's a serious and real issue that continues to undermine movements. When protest moves toward violence it does so because those people feel that there's no other option left. It's not enough to dismiss this by saying that these people didn't try hard enough or have enough intelligence. That's disingenuous and insulting. They were met by a more powerful force that could not be swayed, violently disagreed with them and they failed to affect real change by any other means.

Even the book says that the Tamil and Sinhalese extremists are the beneficiaries of this kind of violent escalation. So, except to say that violence morally sucks more than non-violence, but that in many cases both methods fail to make real progress, there's not good information on how to deal with these Hyenas. In the face of mounting compromise, the Hyenas merely redouble their efforts to monkey-wrench and the opposition has more reason to scapegoat the whole movement by pointing to these extremists. It's thus in the best interest of the movements to figure out how to appease these factions.

This is the will to power, of individualism and ego, expressing itself like the Freudian Thanatos opposition to Eros urges. If non-violence in the face of an immovable foe is a form of suicide, as recognized by Martin Luther King Jr., who determines where that line is drawn? What effective means can a movement use in the face of its own immovable foe or its own internal Thanatos urge?

  1. Non-violent movements as training for future leaders.

P489 “...political scientists and historians have seen a relationship between the way a nation overcomes authoritarian or outside rule and its ability to build a civil society and sustain democracy.”

P489 “When a ... movement succeeds in using non-violent action ... its members have had to develop abilities and exemplify the spirit that are later critical in maintaining democracy: empowering individuals to take public action, building consensus on behalf of common objectives and insisting that laws and leaders earn the consent of the people.”

P503 “Authoritarian governments breed apathy in all but those who have either acute grievances or an unquenchable thirst to speak the truth.”

There's no real place for this kind of skill development in an authoritarian state. An authoritarian state would naturally fear the development of the skills necessary for public action and broad understanding of how to work toward social and political changes. Maintaining a state of fear, coupled with the illusion that conspicuous consumption is a panacea, would likely be a primary goal for an authoritarian state: a state sponsored general powerlessness.

By marginalizing the voices of dissension, this creates the extremists that ultimately serve to undermine public opinion that might otherwise support reasonable action. Shouldn't it be the first purpose of movements for change to figure out how to address this consistent disintegrating force within it? Maybe the point is that there needs to be more focus on providing space for dialogue in daily life, both physical and mental space. There would also be a place for early exposure to the ideas of non-violent action. Of course, that wouldn't go over well in our increasingly authoritarian school systems.

C. Outrageous statement or claim

It really bugs me that there's constant ad hominem arguments against the people that attempted non-violence but failed or skipped straight to the violence. That's arrogant and rude. It merely pushes out the divisions to the extremes, instead of addressing the fundamental crisis this suggests. I thought that a way to address this was to develop dialogue with between the core and the willing extremes, but reading these chapters reminds me of how desperate the extreme gets when confronted and isolated. The increasing violent desperation on the edges of movements working toward consensus and compromise is something that shouldn't be dismissed even if it's horribly difficult to resolve.