I just came across the work on nonviolence by the University of Denver’s Erica Chenoweth. In this TED talk, she says that she began as a skeptic about the ability of nonviolence to make meaningful change. Someone challenged her to look into the topic further, and she says she was shocked by the results. I am too, in a good way.
“From 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns worldwide were twice as likely to succeed outright as violent insurgencies. And there’s more. This trend has been increasing over time, so that in the last 50 years nonviolent campaigns are becoming increasingly successful and common.”
Below is the key figure from Chenoweth’s presentation, illustrating the percent of violent and nonviolent movements that succeeded in overthrowing a government or liberating a territory. It’s clear that nonviolent movements are not a panacea to reducing violence in the world. They aren’t always successful, and sometimes violent movements may be necessary.
But the results aren’t what most people would expect (me included), which is why empirical data like these are so important — they run counter to the narrative that nonviolent movements are rarely successful. In fact, nonviolence may not be just pie-in-sky idealism; it may also be more effective. We can even marry the two. I remember reading a collective of Gandhi’s correspondence and writings, where he referred to his view of nonviolence as “practical idealism.”
And there’s more, according to Chenoweth. The achievements gained in violent movements are more likely to be short-lived, creating enduring resentments that can backfire. In contrast, nonviolent movements can lay a more stable foundation for the future. She concludes optimistically:
“In both the short- and longer-term, civil resistance tends to leave behind societies in which people can live more freely and more peaceably together… I see it as our shared responsibility to spread the word so that future generations don’t fall for the myth that violence is their only way out.”
She put a hop in my step.