Monday, March 07, 2011

Ethics and nonviolence

There are a lot of surprising developments taking place in the Middle East these days. People rise and protest against their suppression and dictators cannot sit down safely in their seats any longer. Several rulers have already fallen or are about to fall, others try to secure their position by doing concessions, but whether that will be enough is not sure. Who would have predicted that only two months ago?
These uprisings look spontaneous. What many people do not know is that there is much organization and thinking behind them, at least in a number of cases. Already for several years Egyptian activists had been preparing nonviolent action against Mubarak. They used Facebook and Twitter but also the handbooks by Gene Sharp, an American researcher of nonviolence. Moreover they asked advice from Otpor, the Serbian student movement that toppled president Milosevic in 2000.
Since already more than 30 years Gene Sharp is one of my favourite authors. He is famous for his list of 198 nonviolent action methods and he wrote also a guide with directions how to bring down a dictator. He wrote quite a bit of other books and articles as well. In all his work he has an important point of departure: all action and resistance must be nonviolent. When hearing the word “nonviolence” many people think of something soft, vague and not very practical. Or they think of high moral principles that are actually far-away from reality. Sharp’s idea of nonviolence has nothing to do with that. Sharp talks never about ethics but only about application. His idea is: conflicts cannot be avoided but in order to prevent that they are solved in a violent way, one has to look for nonviolent alternatives with the same functions as violence. And that’s what he has done during his whole life: Looking for alternatives for violence and looking for ways to put them into practice. And he found them by analyzing historical and contemporary cases, by making use of sociological theories and by employing organizational principles. What he did not incorporate in his work were ethical and moral principles. Sharp does have his reasons for advocating nonviolence, but you do not find them back in his writings. Only the practical applicability of nonviolence counts there, not moral reasons why it has to applied, as long as it works. And it does work. Insiders know that already since many years. They have seen the fall of Milosevic, as said; the people’s movements in Georgia (2003) and in the Ukraine (2004); and they have seen lots of other cases, often successful and, indeed, sometimes also not successful. Now it works also in the Middle East and the world has discovered it, for since a recent interview with Gene Sharp in the New York Times, he doesn’t have a quiet moment any longer. For thanks to him the world knows that nonviolence works also when it is not fundamentally based on ethical and moral principles but simply on well-thought-out practice and organization.

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