When I first contemplated activism, I thought it meant going from doing nothing to throwing every last ounce of energy into direct confrontation with the unjust opponents: ‘hit ‘em with everything you’ve got.’ When I began learning about nonviolence, however, my understanding shifted somewhat dramatically. Conflicts can escalate as they can de-escalate when we apply one or the other pressure. And if we choose a form of pressure that is incommensurate with the situation, say fasting right off the bat, before we’ve even tried to dialogue, we can do more harm than good, actually weakening ourselves when we need our energies to grow.
Maybe you’ve seen the model we use at Metta called “the escalation curve” (I almost wrote ‘cure’ and perhaps that is not too far off…). It’s an upward saddle curve on a graph where the y-axis represents the degree of dehumanization and the x-axis time. As a conflict becomes more intense, new tools are required to deal with it, and that can be broken down into three segments: conflict resolution, satyagraha (meaning in this case direct resistance), and “the ultimate sacrifice,” the willingness to lay down one’s life for the cause. This is where dehumanization has become so intense that the resister has little room for any other form of action, a rare but by no means unseen occurrence.
Before things get this bad there are many possibilities for nonviolent action, and not every tool that we have will be right for a given stage. A key example is when some twelve million people worldwide came out into the streets to protest the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, but then-President George W. Bush dismissed them (us) as a mere “focus group.” It was a clear signal that the time for protest was over and the time for satyagraha had arrived. We did not understand that, nor were we prepared to escalate, and we all know the result.
The lesson is this: when we can get beneath our initial adrenal response to injustice, we can access our reason and make strategic choices that utilize the most of our personal energies for maximum effect. As MLK famously explained, their movement did not lead to outbursts of anger, nor did they repress it: they “expressed anger under discipline for maximum effect.” Add timing into the mix and you’ve got an unstoppable movement.
Analyze a personal conflict where you escalated before it was necessary and it caused more tensions instead of lessening them. Now analyze a personal conflict where you successfully de-escalated tensions. What helped that process?
The Metta Center for Nonviolence, PO Box 98, Petaluma, California 94953 707-774-6299 email@example.com