“We often make terrible mistakes by copying bad examples.”
–Gandhi (Young India, February 16, 1921)
There, he said it and I’m glad.
People, especially if they’re new to activism, have a tendency to copy tactics that they see others have used, but it’s harder to look beneath those tactics to the strategy they are enacting. Why is that? Unfortunately, this inability to understand strategy, is due, quite often, to a lack of one. In place of clear long-term, nonviolent strategies, people in a rush to stop the latest atrocity find themselves just imitating tactics. Whenever we act without a strategy, we might be doing a disservice to our goals and weakening other movements who would try to copy our actions in turn. ‘See a problem? Protest!’ Is that what the situation calls for? How do you know?
The Occupy Movement did not have an overarching strategy. Occupying public spaces is a tactic. Even general assemblies (GAs), even People’s Mics — these were not strategies, but tools. That didn’t last. I’m not saying that Occupy didn’t accomplish anything; not at all. But imitation can’t keep a movement going for long, as we saw. Only a strategy can do that, and might I add, a strategy that is based in principled action where one never sacrifices one’s values or the well-being of others to secure one’s own. That formula pulls at the heartstrings, in a good way.
Let’s look at an extreme, but unfortunately very real example: self-immolation. I mean, not in Gandhi’s sense of immolating one’s self-will, but the death of the body. Unfortunately, it can often be a tactic to draw extreme attention to a specific cause. Without context and strategy, the brave person who sacrifices him or herself in this way sometimes merely commits public suicide. It might draw attention to a cause, or the frustration one feels in a seemingly hopeless situation, but it often draws attention to the spectacular tactic itself and not the issue.
Same goes with public fasting.
Instead of copying tactics, we can take the time to learn, really learn from other movements, whether successful or not. We can ask ourselves: What could they have done with a clearly articulated strategy? If they did have a strategy in place, when did they escalate? What was the signal to change tactics? Armed with a strategy, educate your coworkers about it: This is what we are doing, and this is how we are doing it. These are our principles. This is our Plan B. And Plan C. Even Plan D. Spell it out. Don’t be shy. Invite them to join you, and make that part of your strategy, too: give people a way to opt-in and maintain nonviolent discipline when they do.
It’s time for more good strategies in for nonviolence, is it not?
Experiment in Nonviolence:
Articulate the difference between a strategy and a tactic.
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