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Will the Occupy movement stimulate lasting positive change for our economy and culture? Or will it merely serve as a lingering vehicle for expressing dissatisfaction, ultimately seeming to confirm the cynical view that real change is impossible? I propose that the outcome might depend on how deeply the movement embraces nonviolence in its most profound sense.
There is a consensus that the intention of the movement is to be nonviolent. Yet, I am guessing that many people lack a deep understanding of what nonviolence is, why it’s is a smart choice, how to make nonviolence powerful, and how nonviolence plays into a strategic vision.
An established order will always have infinitely more violence-related force that it can bring to bear on a situation than protesters can ever hope to muster. The second a movement gives into the temptation to pit force against force, it has entered the home turf of the prevailing order, and the game is lost. The movement can effect change only if it focuses on a different playing field. The power of a popular protest lies in its ability to enlist the sympathies of the general public to a point where there is broad popular support for and clarity about creating desirable change. Enlisting that broad support is everything.
A perception that a movement has become violent inevitably alienates a large portion of the population, forfeiting the single most potent asset a popular movement has. Even things like property damage, which may be tempting to rationalize as “valid,” will likely alienate many people. And because the public is sensitive to violence and destruction, even a little bit of these can cost a lot of support, and can easily divert attention away from the issues to which the movement is trying to draw attention.
Likely most people understand that overt violence risks alienating the public. What might not be so widely appreciated is that not alienating people isn’t enough--especially for a movement that wants profound systemic change, not just a few well-defined minor tweaks to the existing order. To be successful, the movement needs to deeply inspire people, and create a pervasive visceral sense that something new and unfamiliar is really possible.
The way Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. did this was not through a mere superficial refraining from overt violence. They did this through adopting and living in accordance with a worldview that religions preach, yet which most people imagine is impossible in practice. They refused to dehumanize their opponents or wish them ill. MLK offered a breathtakingly beautiful vision of the world he wanted to live in. It was an inclusive vision, with an honorable place for everyone, including his opponents.
Any “solution” that attempts to exclude anyone, even the 1%, will not ultimately be sustainable. Every single one of us has blind spots, things we don’t know about others, information that others have and we don’t that is critical to our mutual success. A struggle that pits my force against yours wastes most of our mutual energy, and at best results in a temporary victory that others will immediately start working to reverse. Something dramatically different can happen if I enter into a dilemma with a commitment to looking for a solution that will benefit everybody. Likely my opponent will not initially share that commitment, and I may find it necessary to offer opposition. Nonetheless, deep commitment to serving everyone’s well-being connects us to a profound well of power. It connects us to the deep wisdom and passion of our own highest selves. It maximizes the chances that the ultimate outcome will constitute a lasting improvement. It minimizes the fear that is likely to fuel opponents’ resistance. And it inspires the broad and deep public support that will be essential to implementing complex and daunting change.
This radical attitude of sincere care for the 100% while remaining passionate about what we value is also a game changer. It models that it is possible to change the status quo of the us-versus-them mentality that is at the root of 1% dominating the other 99%. It will shake up people’s assumptions about how the world works, open up people’s ability to imagine real change, in a way that simply trying to win on behalf of “our group” never could.
The catch is that this asks us to believe in deep change ourselves, and to be willing to back up that belief by, as Gandhi says, “being the change that we want to see in the world.” This is not a superficial change. You likely won’t know how to do it just from reading this essay. It will take discussion, learning, deep reflection, and practice.
The course of Gandhi and MLK requires learning how to think and speak about what matters in a way that totally honors the passion of our convictions and at the same time also honors the humanity of our opponents. This is totally possible -- and yet highly unfamiliar. I know from personal experience that it’s possible, because I’ve spent years studying a practice called Nonviolent Communication that teaches a practical way of doing this. It’s transformed my personal life. I think it offers a template for how one can cultivate the sort of fearless heart implicit in radically inclusive nonviolence.
In summary, I suggest that if the Occupy movement is to have a lasting positive impact, it would do well to deepen its understanding of and commitment to nonviolence in its most profound sense. This will support the broadest possible cross section of the public in feeling admiration and inspiration, which is the key to their being motivated to collaborate in the hard work of clarifying a beautiful shared vision and making it real.
Respectfully offered for your consideration, and coming with a willingness to learn, Bob Wentworth - Trainer certified by the Center for Nonviolent Communication, speaking only for myself.
Postscript: A Few Examples
Since writing the preceding essay, I talked to someone who works for Fannie Mae. She told me, “We’ve heard that Occupy is planning to come here. People feel really torn about that: a lot of us support the goals that Occupy stands for, yet we don’t want to be treated as villains.” She went on to share that many people had originally gone to work for Fannie Mae out of an idealistic sense of wanting to do something good for the world. When it started, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were seen as being about helping create more equal access to housing. As things have played out in recent years, public perceptions of the organizations have shifted, and it’s painful to people who work there that they are identified with things people don’t like about the organizations and that their personal deeply felt good intentions aren’t seen. It’s also painful to them to be perceived as being part of the 1%, when many of them are suffering economically just like others—some are even losing their own homes.
What would it be like if, in any hypothetical direct action at Fannie Mae, there were a willingness to embrace the humanity of the people who work there, an acknowledgement that many of them likely long for the same things that Occupiers want, and that we’ve all been tragically caught up in a system that’s not working well for most of us? How might such an attitude change the way the action is carried out? And how might it change the way that the action is received?
Deep nonviolence is about trusting in the humanity of people everywhere, wanting their well-being as well as our own. The sort of humanity we value most may be buried or hidden in some people, due to their life circumstances, or may simply be invisible to us because of our own preconceptions. Yet, there is something radically hopeful, empowering, and transformative about acting from a commitment to honoring every person’s humanity, even if they’re currently perceived as an opponent.
From a Dec 2 comment at another website:Speaking as a "channel" for a "typical" cop, I want Occupy Everywhere to hear that every time they shame me, every time they deny my humanity with name-calling, they miss an opportunity to exercise THEIR full humanity and gain powerful allies. I am not my uniform! If I had a sense that their compassion extended to me, a sense that my oppression was included in their solidarity, I would join them in a heartbeat. Why? Integrity and dignity are so important to me; I am attracted to people who ARE the change they want to see in the world.
To me, these sort of examples highlight how inclusively honoring everyone's humanity can produce and sustain broad support for the movement.