On the spread of non-violence

Maria J. Stephan explains how she can be optimistic, even in the face of ongoing systems of oppression.



Maria J. Stephan explains how she can be optimistic, even in the face of ongoing systems of oppression.

I’m optimistic because I see how much these campaigns and non-violent struggles are inspiring people around the world, and how much they’re turning to, you know, the examples of the US Civil Rights Movement, of the ’89 revolutions in Europe, of the anti-apartheid struggle, of the powerful movement in Chile that ousted the dictator Augusto Pinochet. Activists and civil society leaders know these examples. They recognise that their own situations are unique, their oppression is unique, the context is unique, but there’s a greater awareness now, I believe, than ever before that there actually is an effective method to challenge these systems, laws, rules, and the like effectively without the use of violence.

And what gives me hope in this situation, which … there’s a lot to be pessimistic about, what’s going on around the world and the rise of right-wing populism and all the things that are happening globally. But the one thing that gives me hope is that you see time and time again that people, when faced with incredibly difficult circumstances, somehow find the courage to be able to organise and challenge those systems of oppression. And they find a way to do it, and you wonder where their courage and where their tenacity is coming from, and there’s a belief and there’s now evidence that this actually works. 

And that’s actually ammunition for activists – they can use the fact that historically we know that this has been an effective method of struggle, and we need to think through how to apply it and use it in our context. So for that reason … and mainly, let me take another angle on that. The reason I’m hopeful is because non-violent resistance is a skills-based activity that can be learned and improved upon. People can do it better, and they can learn from others how to do it. They can learn how to apply these hundreds of non-violent tactics to their circumstance. So the idea that people can learn and get better at it and make mistakes and improve always gives me hope, even in the bleakest of situations.