Bandy X. Lee, M.D., M.Div., is an assistant clinical professor in law and psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and an international expert on violence.
“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” asked a lady. “A Republic, if you can keep it,” responded Benjamin Franklin.
You can imagine the lady, taken aback by the sudden realization that the Republic depended on her. Yet it is true, to our day, perhaps more than ever. Recent months have all but shown that our trusted institutions, be they the Department of Justice, the Courts, the Constitution, and even our democracy, are not set in stone but can be vulnerable. Without civic consciousness, the Republic would collapse.
The last weekend of March, when students led one of the largest protests in American history in March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, and many other supportive cities, we witnessed a powerful demonstration of civic consciousness. The students were marching against gun violence, calling for a change in legislation for their own protection. It was a powerful testament to how a nonviolent movement can arise from a few individuals—even children—into a groundswell of a movement that is shaking up a nation.
Nonviolence is perhaps the most potent antidote to violence, and it comes from a state of health. Nonviolence derives from the Sanskrit word ahimsa, or “lack of desire to harm or kill.” However, it is not merely an absence of something. Mohandas Gandhi, leader of the Indian independence movement and pioneer of nonviolence in the twentieth century, preferred the word satyagraha, Sanskrit for “holding ﬁrmly to truth.”
Is nonviolence really effective? History abounds with examples of nonviolence ending violence, which is often far more successful even in achieving social and political ends. Nonviolence is not at the margins of history but a source of movements that brought down empires and reshaped the globe. An enormous nonviolent wave in the last century brought about independence and democratic governance in India, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Philippines, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Chile, and Argentina—and in about two dozen more countries around the world. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan point out in Why Civil Resistance Works that people’s movements have been critical in 50 of 67 transitions from authoritarianism to democracy from 1966 to 1999.
However, we do not recognize these successful examples because of our dominant, violent worldview. What we are more likely to “see” is the counter-movement of violence. The current recourse of our civilization for maintaining order, for operating the economy, and for its overall structure is through violence or the threat of violence. In other words, our framework of how the world works revolves around violence, and we are more likely to believe in and to use violent methods, no matter how little success they have shown. However, just as research has revealed that the prevention of violence turns out to be not only possible but eﬀective and cost-eﬀective, nonviolence has proven to be not just utopian but powerful and enduring. A vast portion of the world’s population now enjoys the beneﬁts of nonviolent action, even if we are yet uncertain how to recognize this power in history, to characterize it, and to apply it systematically to future situations.
Furthermore, they are taking hold in new ways in the current century, just as the younger generation is showing us. Nonviolence takes courage—far more than violence. Especially in the current state of poor collective mental health, countering forces to health are exceedingly common. Violence, in particular, is a good barometer of societal health: it is seldom an indication of individual mental disorder but is almost always a societal disorder. Since violence begets violence, corruption, oppression, and exploitation have bred conditions for violent behavior. Standing up for nonviolence and being a force of health can even mean putting one’s life at risk—not to mention being subject to threats, taunts, and insults. It entails sacrifices: in small ways as well as large. Taunts, efforts to discredit, intimidation, and even threats can become commonplace. Like the resistance of the body’s own healing powers against the spread of disease, the flare-up can be painful as well as exhausting—but it is our hope for survival, and we persist.
Nonviolence then becomes a powerful act of renewal: as Gandhi noted, if the government does not receive the active support of its citizenry, police, soldiers, and ultimately high-ranking oﬃcials, it cannot endure. Of course, this does not happen easily, as each citizen may need to withstand the risk of being jailed, injured, or even killed. However, when everyone ceases to participate in that government, the leaders are just left barking into a void, and that would be the end of any oppressive regimes. As Gandhi observed, the support that people give states and institutions generates power, but with the withdrawal of that support, institutions collapse. As David Hume noted in his On the First Principles of Government, the power is on the side of the people.
Resistance can manifest in many forms. It can function as noncooperation or civil resistance, by purposefully withholding our physical or practical support, our activity, time, ﬁnances, and verbal allegiance to authorities in order to halt or hinder their abuse of power. We may practice civil disobedience, stop paying taxes, march, sit-in, boycott, or resign from key posts. While we cannot actively ﬁght against all the injustices of the world, we can at the very least let our sentiments be known, and we can participate in withdrawing the resources that might be given us by an unjust system. This is what is collectively occurring with the corporations that are cutting ties with the National Rifle Association.
As we pull energy out of a system we do not support, we have it available for investment elsewhere. As a life-affirming force, nonviolence is creative; it shifts to diﬀerent battlegrounds and diﬀerent goals. The students at the March for Our Lives have shown this through their use of social media, tears, wit, silence, and innocence.
States prefer violence, since states have a monopoly on it: no matter the amount of violence protesters use, the regime will use more. The power of the people is, instead, in popular mobilization and in nonviolence, and that power is greater. While this truth of nonviolence has been in existence since the dawn of humankind, a change of consciousness is necessary for full adoption of a diﬀerent paradigm. It may be happening: in the Palestinians who are now startling authorities as they embrace nonviolence, among South Koreans who through candlelight vigil impeached a mentally unstable president and imprisoned two former corrupt ones, and countless others who are tapping into a powerful tradition they have never experienced before.
Finally, few make the connection between the breakdown of a democracy and our collective psychological health, but the link is fundamental. Just as a proper functioning of a person, whatever one’s choices in life, depends on a healthy, functioning body and mind, we need a healthy body politic in order to function properly. If something is ailing society, and if we are to turn the tide back to a life-affirming course, the healthy segment of the body must rise up. No less than the survival of our Republic depends on it.