A burning issue: musings on nonviolence

One part of what we do here at Rhizome is to work with activists to explore what it means (for them) to take nonviolent action for change. We’re also practitioners of nonviolence in our own activism. After you’ve been around a while it’s easy to get complacent and to think you’ve heard all the arguments and know the answers.

But then events trip you up and you’re left scratching your head about what it means to be nonviolent.

The media tell us that the spark (forgive the pun) for the uprising in Tunisia was the self-immolation of a young protester. To quote the BBC website:

A desperate act by a young unemployed man on 17 December triggered a much wider series of protests and clashes with the police.

Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself when officials in his town prevented him from selling vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid without permission.

It’s one thing to risk your safety in protesting – something that many activists do day-in-day-out: protesting in oppressive regimes, locking themselves to moving vehicles, placing themselves between whale and harpoon and so on. That serves to give their action power and integrity, and is sometimes the only option. But isn’t it another to make the taking of your own life the protest?

Others have followed in Mohamed Bouazzi’s footsteps. And he isn’t the first to adopt this form of protest. Other examples include members of the banned spiritual Falun Gong movement setting themselves alight in Tiannamen Square; and perhaps best known the use of self-immolation by buddhist nuns and monks. There’s a whole list of political self-immolations on Wikipedia.

Is this nonviolent? How can it be as it ends in death or severe injury to the protester. Does the fact that it’s self-immolation make it nonviolent? And what about accounts like that of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc who was filmed and photographed burning himself to protest the treatment of buddhists under a Roman Catholic regime? The whole event was highly ritualised. Thich Quang Duc was encircled by fellow monks who facilitated his self-immolation, and bowed to him as he set himself alight. He’s reputed to have sat calmly throughout the experience. With that level of self-control how can it not be nonviolent?

Often I come back to intention as my yardstick – if there’s an intention to be selfless, compassionate and to avoid harming others then the act is nonviolent. How does that sound to you?