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Book Review: “The Nonviolence Handbook” by Michael N. Nagler

By Cynthia Kipkorir       October 18, 2017

What stands out to you most when you hear the word non-violence? An absence of violence? Well, Michael N. Nagler in his book “The Nonviolence Handbook” argues that referring to nonviolence as an absence of violence – or more so, a safer option to violence – robs the nonviolence endeavor of its power.

What nonviolence means, as well as the tenets embodying nonviolence, are examples of topics Michael discusses in his book. “The Nonviolence Handbook”, therefore, is a good primer to the concept of nonviolence and therefore a good read for anyone who is remotely interested in understanding the nonviolence phenomenon.

Michael starts by informing his audience that nonviolence is a trait inherent in all of us–this is a message borrowed from Gandhi who proclaimed nonviolence to be “…the law of our species.” Nevertheless, the author opines that as much as humanity has nonviolence ingrained in its nature, it cannot manifest it until it fully understands the nonviolence concept. In the subsequent chapters, the author thus explicitly explains to its audience how to invoke nonviolence and how to ensure they are using nonviolence ‘correctly.’

The trap you and I fall into (often if not always), when dealing with a perpetrator of an injustice (i.e. a government, institution, individual etc.), is conflating the perpetrator and the evil/oppression that they are inflicting. Nagler, however, advises his audience to separate the evil and the evildoer, thereby imploring readers to not cooperate with the evil and not the perpetrator of the evil per se. It is easy to see why this is a strong argument; only when we separate the evil and the evildoer will we able to see the oppressor as an individual who is just like us (human) and thus in need of our help to be ‘delivered’ from the evil.

Another illuminating concept, arguably one of the most fundamental principles of nonviolence in the book discussed by the author, is the concept of “how much nonviolence is too much nonviolence?”. The reader is introduced to the different stages of nonviolence, namely: Conflict resolution, Satyagraha and ultimate sacrifice. Ergo, depending on the level of violence/oppression inflicted, nonviolent actors can invoke the above stages. As can be conjectured from the meaning of the word, conflict resolution is the 1st stage and this essentially involves tools such as negotiation and mediation. Conflict resolution is thus useful when both parties are willing to lend each other an ear. Nevertheless, if the conflict cannot be resolved in the first stage, satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) is invoked. Satyagraha therefore uses tools such as strikes and civil disobedience. Yes, don’t let the sophistication of the word fool you, Satyagraha is something most of you have taken part in. Lastly, the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ is the third stage, and one we should resort to if the first two stages have emerged unsuccessful. As the stage implies, ultimate sacrifice is the do-or-die stage whereby the nonviolent actors are willing to risk dying to oblige the oppressor to adhere to their demands.

The discussion of the different stages of the nonviolence movement is arguably the most important part of the book because of the author’s success in spelling out clearly what we readers already know and have taken part in numerous times, albeit sometimes unknowingly. While we might have taken part in the stages in a different order, for example putting our lives in danger before trying to negotiate with the oppressor, the author reminds us that it is important to invoke the stages depending on the extremity of the oppression. This is what the author has referred to as proportionality. Invoking the wrong stage for a wrong stage of the oppression might risk us alienating the oppressor even further.

Another important point raised in the book that is worth mentioning is the importance of constructive programs. Nagler underscores the importance of having a good replacement program after an old repressive regime is brought down; this is imperative in ensuring that no power vacuum is left and therefore eliminating the possibility of another undesired regime taking over. The constructive program discussed by Nagler is a phenomenon largely adopted by organizations such as the United Nations, and one that has been successful in many conflict-ridden countries.

The book’s power, therefore, lies in it convincing its readers that nonviolence actually works and that it is the right way of ensuring its actors get their demands. It spells out clearly how to practice nonviolence and reminds readers of their innate nonviolent nature, thereby beseeching them to rid themselves of the notion that violence is the answer to all problems. It also warns its audience of the bias towards violence depicted by the mass media – – Imagine all of the instances of belligerent behavior depicted by the media in any given day. It is thus easy to see why this continuous depiction of violence in the media has the tendency to normalize violence and therefore our need to shun such media.

The author does a good job of informing his readers that the fruits of nonviolent endeavors may not be instantly tangible, and urges readers not to confuse lack of an immediate response with failure. This is a particularly good reminder for those of us who tend to throw in the towel easily.

All in all, this is a must book for those who are interested in knowing and understanding how nonviolence works and how they can implement it in their everyday life.

N.B. Though nonviolence is more often than not discussed in the context of ‘full blown’ activities like protests and going to war, we can always invoke nonviolence in our everyday relationships too.

“It is not me against you but you and me against the problem.”
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