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  • Mary L. Hanna

"Nonviolence Explained to My Children"

🔵 A Review of the Book by Jacques Sémelin 🔵

Have you ever considered how to explain the profound concept of nonviolence to a child? In

book cover

a world often filled with conflict and discord, Jacques Sémelin's Nonviolence Explained to My Children offers a refreshing perspective that not only simplifies this complex idea but also instills hope for a more peaceful future.  Sèmelin, a French professor of political science, has spent his career analyzing mass violence around the world, and looks at nonviolence resistances surrounding these. Nonviolence Explained to My Children serves as a heartfelt dialogue between the author and his 8 and 14-year-old daughters, offering a gentle exploration of the concept of nonviolence. Through this conversation, Sèmelin delves into the rich history and practical applications of nonviolence, inviting his daughters to consider its relevance in their own lives.

Sémelin's exploration of nonviolence begins with a fundamental principle: It is more than just the absence of physical aggression; it is a mindset. He articulates this notion succinctly when he states, "I wanted to tell them that nonviolence is not passivity. It's a way of being and behaving which seeks to resolve conflicts, fight injustice, and build lasting peace." (Sémelin viii).  Expanding on this, he delves into the interconnectedness of nonviolence and respect. In instances of violence, the fundamental respect for human life is stripped away. Individuals subjected to violence are dehumanized, stripped of their dignity, and treated like objects rather than human beings, susceptible to exploitation. This lack of respect doesn’t only show in physical or verbal abuse but can also manifest silently through acts of humiliation and deprivation of resources.  In contrast, nonviolent approaches prioritize the cultivation of mutual respect. Sémelin asserts that gaining respect from the opposing side is a central objective of nonviolence, as respect is far more powerful than violence itself.

Sèmelin also speaks to misconceptions in nonviolence, clearly outlining what it is and is not.  He emphasizes throughout the book that nonviolence is not passivity.  Rather, it requires individuals to cultivate a strong sense of self-confidence, empowering them to speak out against injustices and refuse to fall to negativity perpetuated by others. This involves the difficult task of advocating for oneself and asking others to listen—an essential skill in navigating conflicts effectively.  He explores the scenario of a child being physically harmed by another peer, emphasizing the importance of seeking support from a trusted individual who will listen, understand, and help hold the aggressor accountable. This narrative exemplifies what Sèmelin terms "strength in numbers," highlighting the collective power that emerges when individuals unite against violence and injustice.  Often, we overlook instances of violence for various reasons: Perhaps the conflict seems too overwhelming to address, or we perceive the perpetrator as too damaged to be held accountable.  Sèmelin swiftly dismisses this notion, asserting that it's imperative to hold individuals accountable for their harmful actions to prevent a snowball effect over time. He illustrates this point with an example where a student strikes their teacher, with no repercussions due to the student's troubled background. This response, Sèmelin argues, is the opposite of what should be happening. Instead of excusing violence, society should offer individuals, regardless of age, the opportunity to rectify their actions. By doing so, we can steer them away from a potentially destructive path that threatens their well-being and future.


To close, Sèmelin leaves us with five distinct principles of nonviolence:

1.    Know exactly what goals you want to accomplish

2.    Fight with others to be heard, and create strength in numbers

3.    Design a nonviolent action that allows the group to show its strength

4.    Use the power of words

5.    Remain nonviolent even when provoked

These five principles can all be prevalent in the smallest or biggest nonviolent movements, whether it be a playground dispute or organizing against war


In reading "Nonviolence Explained to My Children," I found myself appreciating how Jacques Sémelin skillfully simplifies such a complex issue, making it accessible and beneficial to readers of all ages. His gentle approach and use of storytelling not only serve to educate but also inspire a sense of hope for a more peaceful future. I found the examples provided throughout the book particularly effective in illustrating the principles of nonviolence in action. They not only make the concepts tangible but also demonstrate their relevance in real-life scenarios, making them easier to grasp and apply.

As someone deeply immersed in youth advocacy, community development, and anti-violence initiatives, my journey has been shaped by my understanding of the devastating effects of violence on individuals and communities. These experiences have fueled my unwavering belief that tackling violence at its roots is essential for our communities to thrive. Upon delving into Sémelin's "Nonviolence Explained to My Children," I found myself not only reaffirming this belief but also discovering invaluable strategies for fostering positive change. Sémelin's insights resonate deeply with my own experiences, highlighting the transformative power of rejecting violence and cultivating respect and empathy. As I reflect on the book's teachings, I'm compelled to translate its principles into actionable steps within my work and community. By empowering individuals to embrace nonviolence and championing a culture of respect and understanding, I am committed to fostering safer, more inclusive environments where everyone can flourish.

C. Conner Holguin, Meta Peace Team Intern and MSU Scholar

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