Nonviolence and Nonviolent Direct Action

Máire A. Dugan

Originally published in September 2003 with Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in September, 2020

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

We are living in an era in which spontaneous, large-scale protests are arising in many parts of the world.[15] In the United States, the summer of 2020 was rife with protests over the horrifying death of George Floyd and several other cases of police brutality directed toward Black men. These were met with counter protests supporting "law and order," as well as other protests over pandemic-related health restrictions.  More...


If asked for an example of nonviolent action, one is likely to mention Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr., and maybe Rosa Parks. Strong and courageous people whose effective movements resulted, respectively, in Indian independence from decades of British rule, and the initial steps toward freeing African-Americans from decades of discrimination.

Such well-known cases notwithstanding, most of us tend to think of nonviolence as ineffectual, the weapon of the weak. We stand with Mao in presuming that "power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

Fundamentals Seminar
Home | Syllabus / Other Posts


This post is also part of the
Constructive Conflict
MOOS Seminar's

exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


The source of the problem lies partly in the way the words are structured -- defining the concepts in terms of what they are not. Nonviolence and nonviolent action, by their appearance, simply mean "not violence" and "not violent action." It is a short mental jump to presume that they are everything violence and violent action are not. And, since the latter are associated with force, power, and strength, the former must be the absence of these attributes.

The situation is further complicated by a confusion of like-sounding terms -- nonviolence (as a philosophy or lifestyle) and nonviolent action. Before discussing the potential contribution of nonviolent action to the constructive termination of intractable conflict, it seems helpful to clarify our central terms and their relationship to one another.

Nonviolence as Philosophy and Lifestyle

Pacifism is a philosophy which, in its absolutist form, proposes that "all forms of violence, war, and/or killing are unconditionally wrong. The proposed ideal is that social intercourse should be completely nonviolent and peaceful..."[1] In conditional pacifism, nonviolence is still the ideal, but violence may be justified under certain, typically extreme, circumstances. Self-defense in the face of attack may be justified, but one should nonetheless do what one can to minimize the harm inflicted on the perpetrator.

While pacifism may simply be part of a broader humanist philosophy, it is most often associated with a large number of religious traditions. The Christian peace denominations such as the Quakers and the Mennonites have a rejection of violence as a core component, as do a number of non-Christian traditions such as the Jains. The Great Peace of the Iroquois is based on values of caring, citizenship, co-existence, fairness, integrity, reasoning, and respect.[2] Additionally, there are significant pacifist traditions in more mainstream religions such as Judaism, Islam, and Catholicism.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to describe the pacifist traditions of the world's religions individually, let alone in detail. But they share a key central value -- that life is precious and that it is not the right of any person to take the life of another. Some extend this mandate beyond human life to all animal life forms. This results in a range of behavior from vegetarianism to soft-spokenness, from withdrawal from society to active involvement against war and the death penalty.

Additional insights into nonviolence are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

The focus of religious nonviolence is not necessarily directed at the broader society. The main concern is often with one's own spiritual wellbeing. This may simply require one to avoid engaging in violent behavior oneself, maybe even at the extreme of not defending oneself from attack. On the other hand, many pacifist traditions encourage believers to work to end war and other forms of violence.

Indeed, the directive to "Love thine enemy" is often married to a hope of affecting the opponent. "If through love for your enemy you can create in him respect or admiration for you, this provides the best possible means by which your new idea or suggestion to him will become an auto-suggestion within him, and it will also help nourish that auto-suggestion."[3] For Gregg, the goal of nonviolence is to convert the enemy.

The opponent, caught off guard by one's refusal to initiate violence or even to reciprocate violence, may come to question his/her own behavior or stance. Gregg calls this "moral jiu jitsu." While it may seem fanciful to think that one's commitment to nonviolence can have this impact, many case studies have shown that this is sometimes the case, particularly when the commitment is constant over time.

"The means are the ends in embryo." -- Mohandas K. Gandhi

"Not peace at any price, but love at all costs." -- Dick Sheppard

One such case concerns Vykom in Travancore Province , India.[4] Under India's caste system, Brahmins (the upper caste) and Untouchables (the lowest caste) were kept apart in a variety of ways. In this case, Untouchables were not allowed to walk on a road that passed in front of a Brahmin temple, but had to walk a lengthier route to their own homes. At its outset, Hindu reformers walked with Untouchables down the road and stood in front of the temple. Protestors were beaten, arrested, and jailed. The Maharajah ordered the police to prevent reformers and Untouchables from entering the road. They shifted their tactics to standing prayerfully in front of police, seeking entry, but not attempting to disobey the directive. Participants stood on the road in shifts of several hours each, weathering the monsoon season during which the water level reached their shoulders. After 16 months, centuries of segregation came to an end as the Brahmins announced simply, "We cannot any longer resist the prayers that have been made to us and we are ready to receive the Untouchables."

A less-cited case, which demonstrates moral jiu jitsu on a personal level, involved a young man named Eddie Dickerson. Dickerson joined a group of other young men in attacking a group of CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) protestors who were attempting to integrate lunch counters in a nearby town on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Returning home after the beating, he found himself haunted by the nonviolent response of those whom he had beaten. He left his friends and walked several miles to the church at which the CORE volunteers were staying to pose the question, "Why didn't you hit back?"

Their behavior and their answers to his question caused him to begin to question both his violent behavior and even segregation itself. His family kicked him out of the house, but he continued his exploration, ending up working for CORE himself. "I don't have any doubts no more. I feel pretty strong that everyone -- no matter what color skin he has -- should have equal opportunities. God meant it that way. And it don't make sense to beat them up so they'll believe it. It has to be done by nonviolence if it's going to work..."[5]

In some faith traditions, nonviolent action becomes a moral imperative in the face of rampant social injustice. Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff discusses the need to resist that form of violence, which he labels "originating violence."

  • Originating violence has its roots in the elite institutions of power, in a social structure that protects the interests of the dominant groups, and in the extreme right, which will not tolerate any social change out of fear of losing its privileged status. As a result many countries of the Third World are in the grips of state terrorism.[6]

Such structural violence demands a response; it is morally imperative to strike against it. Rather than retaliatory violence or even revolutionary violence, however, Boff suggests nonviolent action. Through it, we avoid becoming accomplices of injustice by refusing the status quo; yet retain our own human dignity by refraining from violence. He propounds a mistica underlying nonviolent struggle:

  • The mistica of active nonviolence implies changing ourselves as well as working to change the world. We must live the truth. We must be just, our integrity transparent. We must be peacemakers. It is not enough simply to confront external violence. We must also dig out the roots of violence in our own hearts, in our personal agendas, and in our life projects. In both a personal and a political sense we must seek to live today in miniature what we are seeking for tomorrow.[7]

Gandhian Nonviolent Action

Gandhian nonviolence is based on religious principles drawn from a diversity of scriptures, particularly the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, and the Koran. Gandhi looked toward higher authority for absolute truth. His central concept, Satyagraha, translated both as "truth seeking" and "soul force," presupposed that the activist could learn from the opponent and vice versa. Truth could neither be achieved nor disseminated by force. Therefore, the concept of ahimsa was also key to the satyagrahi (the person engaged in truth seeking). While ahimsa is typically translated "nonviolence," it is not encumbered in the original transcript by the negative construction and connotation of the English word.

The Indian independence movement lasted over a period of almost three decades, and involved thousands of Indians from all walks of life. Despite its size and duration, it remained almost uniformly nonviolent. Even when law enforcement agents resorted to violence, even when protestors were beaten and/or imprisoned, they themselves eschewed violence.

According to Paul Wehr, Gandhi was able to keep the Indian independence movement from lurching out of control (and possibly becoming violent) through a number of strategies:

  • A "step-wise"[8] process. Gandhian campaigns began with negotiation and arbitration, during which he worked not only on the issues in dispute, but also on developing a cooperative relationship with the British officials involved. If the conflict was not resolved at this state, the satyagrahis prepared for nonviolent action including "agitation, ultimatum, economic boycott and strikes, noncooperation, civil disobedience, usurpation of governmental functions and the creation of parallel government."[9]
  • Commitment to nonviolence. Each participant in a Gandhian campaign had to make a personal and absolute commitment to nonviolence. According to Wehr, "[i]t was primarily because of this personalized self-control that such a massive movement developed with surprisingly little violence."[10]
  • Controlling the dynamics of escalation. Gandhi avoided common precipitators of escalation. For example, he tied each campaign to a single issue and thus avoided proliferation of issues or parties. He put an emphasis on developing personal relationships with opponents, and thus refrained from the tendency to move from confrontation to antagonism. By announcing all intended moves, he minimized the possibility of information becoming distorted.

Looking at the Indian independence movement from the vantage of the 21st century, it may not seem to be as significant an achievement as it was at the time.Colonial governance is an anachronism in our time, scorned for its non-recognition of peoples' rights to self-governance. Things were must different in the early 20th century, however. Half of the world's peoples lived in territories controlled by other powers. In the 1940s, Britain took great pride in its empire, the result of almost three centuries of conquest, acquisition, and effective colonial administration.

King's Nonviolent Action

It is not surprising that, like Gandhi's, Martin Luther King Jr.'s decision to utilize nonviolence was based on religious principles. In fact, King discovered the use of nonviolent action as a political tool through learning about Gandhi's success in India.

King's approach was specifically Christian in orientation, drawing on his own status as a minister and the centrality of the Church in the lives of the Montgomery, Alabama, African-Americans who were the first protestors he led. His speeches utilized the inspirational crescendo structure of African-American sermonizing and he typically used biblical themes in them. This provided a deeper source of unity than the specific issue at hand and his able lieutenants were drawn from the rolls of black preachers.

Like Gandhi's, King's methods were also "step-wise." The King Center lists six:

  • Step One. Information gathering
  • Step Two. Education
  • Step Three. Personal commitment
  • Step Four. Negotiations
  • Step Five. Direct action
  • Step Six. Reconciliation[11]

As with Gandhi, the process is step-wise, creating opportunities for resolution without confrontation and ensuring that both proponents and adversaries have sufficiently accurate information to make decisions both about the issue and the process.

Nonviolent Action as a Political Strategy

While faith- or philosophy-based nonviolence often leads to political change, one can also look at nonviolence from a purely strategic vantage point.This is the view of Gene Sharp, the preeminent cataloguer of nonviolent action. As described above, moral jiu jitsu operates by generating questions within the adversary who comes to a change of heart in the course of this process. Sharp, on the other hand, refers to "political jiu jitsu."

By combining nonviolent discipline with solidarity and persistence in struggle, the nonviolent actionists cause the violence of the opponent's repression to be exposed in the worst possible light.[12]

According to Sharp, non-violent action acts in three ways to change opponents' behavior:

  • Conversion
  • Accommodation
  • Coercion

Conversion involves a change of heart in the opponent to the point where the goals of the protestors are now her/his own. At the other extreme, in coercion, the opponent has had no change of heart or mind, but acquiesces to the demands of the protestors because s/he feels there is no choice. In between is accommodation, probably the most frequent mechanism through which nonviolent action is effective.

In the mechanism of accommodation the opponent resolves to grant the demands of the nonviolent actionists without having changed his mind fundamentally about the issues involved. Some other factor has come to be considered more important than the issue at stake in the conflict, and the opponent is therefore willing to yield on the issue rather than to risk or to experience some other condition or result regarded as still more unsatisfactory.[13]

A Gandhian approach suggests that conversion is the appropriate goal of nonviolence. Not all nonviolent action proponents, however, adhere to this standard. On the other extreme there are those whose only concern is achieving the desired goal and the most effective and/or expeditious way of getting there. In between are those who prefer conversion where possible, but not at the cost of significantly prolonging the struggle or participants' suffering.

Sharp defines three major categories of nonviolent action:

  • Protest and Persuasion. These are actions that highlight the issue in contention and/or a desired strategy for responding to the situation. Specific methods include petitions, leafleting, picketing, vigils, marches, and teach-ins.
  • Noncooperation. Protestors may refuse to participate in the behavior to which they object socially, economically, and/or politically. Specific methods include sanctuary, boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience.
  • Nonviolent intervention. This category includes techniques in which protestors actively interfere with the activity to which they are objecting. Specific methods include sit-ins, fasts, overloading of facilities, and parallel government.

In general, the level of disruption and confrontation increases as one moves from protest and persuasion to intervention. If the protestors' goal is to convert, "protest and persuasion" is likely to be the most appropriate category from which to choose. If the protestors wish to force their opponents to change their behavior, they will probably need to include nonviolent intervention methods in their overall strategy. Those who are seeking accommodation might best mix protest and persuasion tactics with noncooperation if the former are not having the desired impact.

When arranging nonviolent action, it is particularly important to consider the audience. A rally may serve to inspire the already committed (sometimes it is important to "speak to the choir"), but is not likely to change minds; a boycott of a service provided by someone who has not been educated about the issues in question is likely to produce an unnecessary level of resentment.George Lakey and Martin Oppenheimer offer a particularly helpful way of looking at this issue. They point out that any person or group can be categorized according to where she, he or it stands in regard to the issues:

  • Active proponents
  • Active supporters
  • Passive supporters
  • Neutral
  • Passive opponents
  • Active supporters of the opposition
  • Active opponents[14]

They then make the point that one's aim in any action should be to move the target population up one notch.

Whatever criteria are chosen to assess possible tactics before embarking on them, nonviolent actionists would do well to imitate their military counterparts at least in the following categories: careful planning and discipline of participants. With that, nonviolence may be just as likely to be successful in a conflict as violence, and it is much less likely to cause much increased hostility, escalation, and backlash.

Current Implications

We are living in an era in which spontaneous, large-scale protests are arising in many parts of the world.[15] In the United States, the summer of 2020 was rife with protests over the horrifying death of George Floyd and several other cases of police brutality directed toward Black men. These were met with counter protests supporting "law and order," as well as other protests over pandemic-related health restrictions. 

While most of the protestors were peaceful, a few were not, resulting in substantial amounts of property damage as well as injuries and a few deaths. Law enforcement response to these protests was often militaristic, severe, and contributed to (and, often initiated) the violence. In Portland, for example, President Trump sent in Federal agents ostensibly to protect the federal courthouse, but some commentators observed, the goal was actually to stoke violence in order to bolster Trump's "law and order" bona fides in an election year.  Regardless of intent, that did, indeed, transpire—violence increased dramatically once the federal troops arrived.[16] 

Much discussion has ensued — among protestors, other activists and advocates as well as scholars — about whether violence or nonviolence is a better strategy for addressing instances of racially-motivated police brutality  and, more widely, and for highlighting "systemic racism" throughout the United States.

This article, written in 2003, is still worth reading when one is considering one's answer to that question. It describes two different kinds of nonviolence: principled nonviolence as practiced by Gandhi and King, and strategic nonviolent direct action, as studied and advocated by Gene Sharp, among others. Gandhi and King were both very successful in their nonviolent campaigns—winning major victories against formidable opposition.   (Gandhi's movement won Indian independence from Great Britain; King's movement significantly diminished discrimination and contributed to the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act.)  Sharp's works have reportedly been followed extensively around the world—most notably in Egypt during the protests and eventual overthrow of Hosnai Mubarak, but also in Serbia, a large number of former Soviet states), Iran, and Northern Ireland [17]

Dugan ends her article by saying "nonviolence may be just as likely to be successful in a conflict as violence, and it is much less likely to cause much increased hostility, escalation, and backlash."  Research released after this was written suggests a stronger conclusion:  nonviolence and nonviolent direct action is more successful than violence in attaining the actors' interests and needs. 

Most noteworthy among such research is that done by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan.  In their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Chenoweth and Stephan conclude: 

Though it defies consensus, between 1900 and 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts. Attracting impressive support from citizens that helps separate regimes from their main sources of power, these campaigns have produced remarkable results, even in the contexts of Iran, the Palestinian Territories, the Philippines, and Burma.[18]. 

And directly relating to U.S. race relations, Omar Wasow has published an article explaining the effectiveness of Black nonviolent protests in the 1960s.

Evaluating black-led protests between 1960 and 1972, I find nonviolent activism, particularly when met with state or vigilante repression, drove media coverage, framing, congressional speech, and public opinion on civil rights. Counties proximate to nonviolent protests saw presidential Democratic vote share increase 1.6–2.5%. Protester-initiated violence, by contrast, helped move news agendas, frames, elite discourse, and public concern toward “social control.” In 1968, ... I find violent protests likely caused a 1.5–7.9% shift among whites toward Republicans and tipped the election. [19]

Other scholars are not as convinced about the superiority of nonviolence, arguing that it was actually the combination of nonviolence with the threat of, or actual use of violence that brought about U.S. civil rights progress. For instance, in "Violence and/or Nonviolence in the Success of the Civil Rights Movement: The Malcolm X–Martin Luther King, Jr. Nexus", August Nimtz asserts:

that it was the combination of that course [non-violent action] and the threat of violence on the part of African Americans that fully explain those two victories [the Civil Rights Act (CRA) and the Voting Rights Act (VRA)]. A close reading of the texts and actions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X is indispensable for my claim. The archival evidence, as well, makes a convincing case for the CRA, its proposal by the John F. Kennedy (JFK) administration and enactment by Congress. For the VRA, its proposal by the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) administration and enactment by Congress, the evidence is more circumstantial but still compelling. The evidence reveals that for the threat of violence to have been credible, actual violence was required, as events in Birmingham, Alabama, demonstrate. Such violence, the “long hot summers” of the 1960s that began with Birmingham, probably aided and abetted subsequent civil rights gains—a story that has potential lessons for today’s struggles for social equality. [20]

If one is considering the efficacy of violence over nonviolence, however, Guy Burgess suggests one do a thought experiment.  "Pretend you are being confronted by two people whose beliefs are polar opposite your own, and who are trying to get their policies enacted, which would greatly harm you. One approaches you with threats, saying if you don't let them have their way, they'll burn down your business or your house or send protesters out to harass you.  The other one approaches you and asks to sit down with you, explain their concerns, get your reactions, see if there are areas of common ground, and find a constructive way of dealing with differences.  How would you react to each?"

Guy also points out that Trump and his followers are trying hard to create the impression that violent Antifa thugs are coming to ransack conservative communities.  The goal is to frame the Antifa and the Left, in general, as violent adversaries.  If violent threats are so effective, then why would Trump be trying to make his opponents appear more violent (and, hence, more effective)?  The answer: he isn't.  He knows that most people don't like others who are violent—they turn against the violent actors and towards those who promise law and order. (Just as Wasow said.)

So we (Guy and Heidi Burgess) come down on the side of nonviolence, and urge you to read about the theory behind it, and its past uses in Maire Dugan's original article. 

--Heidi Burgess, Sept 15, 2020

Back to Essay Top


[1] Moseley, Alex. "Pacifism," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed 10/15/02.


[3] Gregg, Richard B. The Power of Nonviolence. The Rev. Ed. Nyack, NY: Fellowship Publications, 1959, p. 50.

[4]; Sharp, Gene. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1973.

[5] Robbins, Jhan and Rune Robbins. "Why Didn't They Hit Back?" in A. Paul Hare and Herbert H. Blumberg, eds., Nonviolent Direct Action; American Cases: Social and Political Analyses, Washington, D.C.: Corpus Books, 1968, pp. 107-127, p. 126.

[6] Boff, Leonardo. "Active Nonviolence: The Political and Moral Power of the Poor. Forward to Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America. Philip McManus and Gerald Schlabach, eds., Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 1991, pp. vii-xi, p. vii

[7] Ibid., p. ix

[8] Wehr, p. 57

[9] Wehr, p. 58

[10] Wehr, p. 59

[11], accessed Oct. 30, 2002.

[12] Sharp, Gene. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1973, p. 657.

[13] Ibid., p. 733

[14] list modified from Oppenheimer, Martin and George Lakey. A Manual for Direct Action. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1965. A similar (though somewhat different) list is presented in the ICKB essay Intra-Party Differences

[15] Yasmeen Serhan "The Common Element United Worldwide Protests." The Atlantic.  November 19, 2019. 

[16]  Chris McGreal and Martin Pengelly "What is happening in Portland and what does Trump hope to gain?" The Guardian. July 26, 2020.] and 

[17 ] Wikipedia article on Gene Sharp:  

[18] Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, August 2011).

[19] Omar Wasow. "Agenda Seeding: How 1960s Black Protests Moved Elites, Public Opinion and Voting" American Political Secine Review. June 25, 2020.

[20]  August H. Nimtz "Violence and/or Nonviolence in the Success of the Civil Rights Movement: The Malcolm X–Martin Luther King, Jr. Nexus" New Political Science Volume 38, Issue 1, Feb. 5, 2016.


Use the following to cite this article:
Dugan, Máire A.. "Nonviolence and Nonviolent Direct Action." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

Additional Resources