The Advantage of Peaceful Protest

An excerpt from the book The Moral Arc by Michael Shermer, pp 87-88 [with paragraph breaks added by me for easier internet reading]:

From 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns worldwide were twice as likely to succeed outright as violent insurgencies.” [Political scientist Erica] Chenoweth added that “this trend has been increasing over time – in the last 50 years civil resistance has become increasingly frequent and effective, whereas violent insurgencies have become increasingly rare and unsuccessful. This is true even in extremely repressive, authoritarian conditions where we might expect nonviolent resistance to fail.”

Why does nonviolence trump violence in the long run as a means to an end? “People power,” Chenoweth says. How many people? According to her data, “no campaigns failed once they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population – and lots of them succeeded with far less than that.”

Further, she notes, “Every single campaign that did surpass that 3.5 percent threshold was a nonviolent one. In fact, campaigns that relied solely on nonviolent methods were on average four times larger than the average violent campaign. And they were often much more representative in terms of gender, age, race, political party, class, and urban-rural distinctions.”

How does this nonviolent strategy translate into political change? If your movement is based on violence, you are neccessarily going to be limiting yourself to mostly young, strong, violence-prone mailes who have a propensity for boozing and brawling, whereas, Chenoweth explains, “Civil resistance allows people of all different levels of physical ability to participate – including the elderly, people with disabilities, women, children, and virtually anyone else who wants to.” It’s a faster track to the magic 3.5 percent number when you’re more inclusive and participation barriers are low.

key takeaways:

1. We need 3.5%. Chenoweth has recently estimated more than 1% of the US population participated in the women’s marches. We’re a third of the way there.

2. Practicing nonviolence is practicing inclusivity. Violent protest elevates able-bodied young males to the exclusion of many other participants.


another good Chenoweth quote:

When people hear the word “nonviolent,” they often think of “peaceful” or “passive” resistance. For some, the word brings to mind pacifist groups or individuals, like Buddhist monks in Burma, who may prefer death to using violence to defend themselves against injustice. As such, they conflate “nonviolent” or “civil resistance” with the doctrine of “nonviolence” or “pacifism,” which is a philosophical position that rejects the use of violence on moral grounds. But in civil resistance campaigns like those occurring in the Arab Spring, very few participants are pacifists. Rather, they are ordinary civilians confronting intolerable circumstances by refusing to obey — a method available to anyone, pacifist or not.

from “Think Again: Nonviolent Resistance” in Foreign Policy

and here’s the master list of all her internet-readable stuff.

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