Editorial: The Science of Nonviolence

By Mattaini, Mark A. | Behavior and Social Issues, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Editorial: The Science of Nonviolence


Mattaini, Mark A., Behavior and Social Issues


The science of behavior analysis, often with minimal confirming data, claims wide-ranging applicability, but has generally focused only in quite limited domains. At a time when violence is a world-wide concern, there are, for example, a small number of behavior analysts working in violence prevention (e.g., Embry, in press; Mattaini, 2001; Mayer, 2001; Metzler, Biglan, Rusby, & Sprague, 2001), but almost none examining terrorism, or the alternative mechanisms of nonviolent action for social change. Can behavior analysis help to understand the mechanisms of such action, and perhaps in that way contribute to improving the effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns for social justice and human rights? Is this a meaningful and viable area for behavior analytic scholarship and action? (BSI plans to publish a special collection of papers related to contributions of behavior analysis to understanding and preventing terrorists acts in a future issue.)

Campaigns of nonviolent action for producing cultural change (as opposed to passive acceptance, an entirely different repertoire) and nonviolent approaches to maintaining working relations among groups have a long, but not extensively known, history (e.g., Aspey & Eppler, 2001; Bacon, 1999; Easwaran, 1999). The early Christians, who refused both military service and violent responses to some of the most brutal repressive measures in all of human history, ultimately won over even the Roman Emperor. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) League, torn by violence, adopted and maintained a set of personal and tribal practices for resolving issues without violence after a nonviolent campaign under the leadership of Skennenrahowi (called the "Peacemaker") long before the coming of the Europeans. Unlike other European groups, the Quakers almost universally adopted nonviolent (and fair) practices in their relations with indigenous peoples, and almost no violence occurred between them. Relatively better known figures in the history of nonviolence include radical abolitionists like John Woolman and William Lloyd Garrison; Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi; Martin Luther King-and, yes, Malcolm X; Cezar Chavez; and Corizon Aquino, but there are other important examples whose names few may recognize. For example, Badshah Kahn, a close ally of Gandhi and a Pashtun from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, organized and led a nonviolent army 100,000 strong, the world's first professional nonviolent army, as part of the successful effort to end British colonial rule in South Asia. This despite the fact that the two "supreme arts of Pathan [Pashtun] life," according to one cultural insider, are said to be "how to kill and how to die" (Easwaran, 1999, p. 100). There are also many examples of at least partially effective nonviolent action in World War II, including the organization of Norwegian teachers against Quisling and Hitler, as well as efforts among the Dutch, Czechs, French, and others.

This very partial history suggests that under at least some circumstances, nonviolent action can be effective within and among cultural groups. Important questions include under what circumstances this is true, what repertoires may be associated with instances of meaningful change, how programs of nonviolent action are most effectively initiated and designed under what circumstances, and, ultimately, how widely applicable are nonviolent strategies? Historically, nonviolence has been the strategy of the oppressed. I have identified no complete examples of organized nonviolent action by cultural groups with greater relative coercive and financial power toward groups with relatively less. (I would appreciate hearing about any such examples from readers.) For example, if nonviolent action has a place in resolving the crisis in the Mideast, history would suggest it is more likely that the Palestinians would adopt this strategy than that the Israelis would. Perhaps the relative short-term response costs involved are part of the reason for this pattern. …

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