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The True Meaning Behind Non-Violence

Updated: 7 days ago

Dear Asian Youth,

In recent months, there has been a lot of discussion about the “right” way to protest, especially when it comes to whether violence in protests is ever justified. From the police protest for George Floyd, in Minneapolis, to the police protest for Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and countless other members of the Black community brutally murdered at the hands of the police. Activists, protestors, politicians, and political commentators have been discussing what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to protesting.

Early on the protests against police brutality ignited by the death of George Floyd, many people railed against protestors as they saw businesses looted and buildings burned down. People said this wasn’t protesting, this was destruction and violence. Many started quoting and distorting the words of Martin Luther King Jr. by saying that he never would have approved of the protest happening now. Yet, those that were most vocal against the looting and destruction of property, and cited Martin Luther King Jr. in their defense of why it was wrong, do not truly understand the meaning of nonviolence.

When we think of the word nonviolent, what images do we conjure up? Probably a vision of scantily clothed Gandhi sitting peacefully while being imprisoned by the oppressive British colonizers. We think of MLK walking across a bridge hand in hand with others and singing in unison until they’re tear-gassed and brutally beaten by police. Sound familiar? While these are no doubt examples of non-violent protest, the term non-violent is a lot broader than what we define it to be.

In the book, Non-violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Kurlansky, Kurlansky explores the history of nonviolence within our past. Kurlansky describes how acts of non-violence and leaders of non-violent movements have often been left out of the history books, and their tactics are forgotten in favor of writing about more violent and aggressive dictators and rulers. Yet, non-violence has played a major role in changing history just as much as wars and revolutions have.

Kurlansky starts with the history of some of the first non-violent movements, which were religious. He also distinguishes the difference between pacifism and non-violence, which is often confused. Kurlansky states, “Pacifism is harmless and therefore easier to accept than non-violence, which is dangerous. When Jesus Christ said a victim should turn the other cheek, he was preaching pacifism. But when he said that an enemy should be won over through the power of love, he was preaching non-violence. Non-violence, exactly like violence, is a means of persuasion, a technique for political activism, a recipe for prevailing.” It is often a misconceived notion that non-violence is peaceful, but inherently it cannot be. Non-violence is disruptive and terrifying, yet differs from violence in the way nonviolent tactics don't physically harm any person, although, historically non-violent movements have often been met with violence.

We can look at the English language in regards to our perception of nonviolence. English, which has been adopted by most Western nations, does not have a singular word that describes the concept of non-violence. We simply have violence and non-violence. The addition of the “non” means an absence of violence. Therefore, in the English language, we can only really speak to the concept of non-violence, in relation to violence.

Non-violence is defined in Merriam-Webster as “abstaining or free from violence.” Merriam-Webster then defines violence as “the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy.” Within this definition, we can define non-violence as the absence of physical force to injure, abuse, damage or destroy.

This is where the conversation shifts. Many people deify the idea of non-violence and the people who have historically resembled it: MLK, Gandhi, Fredrick Douglass; but many rarely understand what true nonviolence is and how it was used to bring about great social and political change.

In an NPR interview, published recently titled One Author's Argument ‘In Defense of Looting’ by Natalie Escobar, Author Vicky Osterweil talks about nonviolence in depth. She discusses how people are often misled on the concept of nonviolence and how nonviolence works to bring about change.

In the beginning, Osterweil defines looting as, “the mass expropriation of property, mass shoplifting during a moment of upheaval or riot..." She further clarifies her thoughts by stating, “I'm not defending any situation in which property is stolen by force...It's about a certain kind of action that's taken during protests and riots.” With that, she then goes to define how looting is a powerful tool. “Looting strikes at