top of page

The True Meaning Behind Non-Violence

The True Meaning Behind Non-Violence
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.

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 McClaine, 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 the heart of property, of whiteness, and of the police. It gets to the very root of the way those three things are interconnected.”

While personally I do not condone looting and I question its moral standing, I cannot deny its effectiveness. Often those in power are slow to move until they are directly affected by the issue. When mayors, governors, senators, and more see the destruction of property, it hits right at the center of what people in power care about - money and material goods.

This is where I come back to the idea of nonviolence. Osterweil brings her argument back to the concept of nonviolence and the civil rights movement where she says, “The popular understanding of the civil rights movement is that it was successful when it was nonviolent, and less successful when it was focused on Black power. It's a myth that we get taught over and over again...that it was a nonviolent movement, and that that's what matters about it. And it's just not true.” While lots of nonviolent tactics we employed in the fight for civil rights in the 60s, these were often met with violence. Sit-ins resulted in protestors being beaten by police and white people. Marches led to protestors being hosed, beaten, and attacked by dogs.

We forget that often the threat of violence bolstered non-violent activists’ reputation. Our history books often focus on the narrative of MLK and his work as a non-violent activist, yet forget the other movements at the time. Malcolm X, another major civil rights leader, believed that the violent actions from white people and the government justified violent actions from the Black community to bring about change. The Black Panthers and Huey Lewis, who saw how the systems of power, or in this context police, designed to protect citizens failed the Black community, created a commune for Black people in which they educated, fed, housed, armed, and policed their own community. Leaders such as Malcolm X and Huey Lewis with the Black Panthers terrified the majority of Americans. The thought of a violent uprising boosted MLKs popularity, a man who wanted change without guns or violence.

This brings me to the biggest point on non-violence that many forget. Even though things are non-violent, it doesn't mean that they aren't disruptive. It doesn't mean it isn't controversial. While our history books glorify MLK as a savior to the people, who pushed for a better America, we forget he was deeply hated by many Americans for disrupting the status quo. He was so hated that he was assassinated as he was about to go march with sanitation workers for better working conditions.

I vividly remember years ago when a Black Lives Matter protest lined up on the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time, handcuffing themselves together to block traffic. Many people were angry at the major delays caused, and questioned what's the point? They’re just making people mad. They are disrupting people's lives, but that was the point.

Non-violence means that there isn't any bodily harm caused by the actions of protestors. It doesn't mean that people's lives are not inconvenienced or uprooted. The point of non-violence is to say wake up, pay attention, there are horrible injustices happening. Our current systems are broken. Things aren’t the way they should be.

Non-violence is the act of disruption without bringing about physical harm to a singular person. The destruction of commercial goods, over physically attacking a person. Boycotting, striking, marching, protesting, are all nonviolent methods that cause a person to pay attention by hugely inconveniencing those in power, and those complicit to it.

Which brings me back to the early months of protest against police brutality this year. When protests were being organized in many cities across America, as well as in my own hometown, I saw many members of my community taking to Facebook, asking “why can’t we all just get along?” “would MLK approve of this?” and angrily repeating the quotes about “peace” and “non-violence” from MLK.

What we need to understand is the difference between pacifism and non-violence. Non-violence seeks to disrupt the status quo, and it strives to make those in power uncomfortable. It aims to make those complicit with systems of oppression uncomfortable and aware of what's happening. Non-violence takes the truth, the reality of our society, and puts it in our face so that we cannot ignore it anymore. We need to understand this, and we need to find our place in bringing about change, for all.


Kurlansky, Mark. Nonviolence: the History of a Dangerous Idea. Modern Library, 2008.

This Article was orginally published September 13, 2020

bottom of page