Strength Through Peace: A Titillating Talk on Nonviolence by Dr Michael Nagler

Nonviolence, argues Dr Michael Nagler in the above talk (well worth its 46 minutes), always makes things better, even when we who practice it get hurt or killed. I have to agree. For the more skeptical, think of it this way: at least it’s not making things worse. Consider this: in India, where nonviolent resistance was chosen, only 3,000 out of 300 million people were killed in the struggle against the British. Yet, in Algeria, where violent resistance to French colonialism was selected, 900 thousand out of 9 million perished.

Nagler describes an experiment in which violent Rhesus monkeys are placed in an environment with the more peaceful Stump-tailed monkeys. The Rhesus monkeys, he explains, have a habit of settling disputes with violent bites. The Stump-tailed monkeys, on the other hand, settle their disputes without violence. So you can see how the interactions between these two species might lead to interesting insights on facing down aggression via nonviolent resistance.

What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy? – Mohandas Gandhi

The Stump-tailed monkeys neither fought back nor ran away when challenged by the Rhesus monkeys. And this, Nagel argues, is precisely the way to handle human aggressors. Neither flight nor fight. The Rhesus monkeys did not know what to do! In fact, over time, they were drawn into the Stump-tailed culture and ceased their violent ways. Their adoption of the more peaceful culture continued even after their Gandhian mentors were removed. This is absolutely remarkable!

When faced with a threat, the brain’s fight or flight response kicks in. This is the offer made by an aggressor to a victim: fight or run away. We must break this paradigm and select a third way, one that reminds the aggressor that his intended victim is a fellow human being, perhaps not too much unlike himself. What Nagler calls “Re-humanization” is a highly promising, if dangerous, tactic.

In fact, I think my use of this tactic helped de-escalate the April 8th, 2010 jury rights outreach in Philadelphia, where 17 state employees came out to harass us pamphleters and videographers. This tactic is perhaps so potent that even my bumbling attempt provoked the video’s trademark outburst. (“I’m going to take that camera out of your hand and ram it down your throat.”) Aggressors’ spurious justifications for violence dissolve in the face of friendly tones, smiles and neighborly greetings. My hypothesis is that the gentleman in question sought to restore that justification by provoking me to anger.

I encourage my libertarian friends to investigate his work, and indeed the entire volume of thought on nonviolent resistance. What you learn will come in handy at protests, pamphleting events, when you suddenly find yourself involuntarily toe to toe with a violent person, in your writing and in your speaking. The solution to our current problems will not come through more violence, but through an indomitable will and steadfast brotherly love in the face of state aggression. We must show those who do business as the state that they are our fellow human beings, that we deserve the same respect they demand from us and that a nonviolent culture is the best means to achieve their ends.

Dr Nagler, Professor Emeritus at University of California, Berkeley, has two courses available free online (Introduction to Nonviolence and Nonviolence Today) and a book, The Search for a Nonviolent Future: A Promise of Peace for Ourselves, Our Families, and Our World, which is for sale at

By George Donnelly

I'm building a tribe of radical libertarians to voluntarize the world by 2064. Join me.

4 replies on “Strength Through Peace: A Titillating Talk on Nonviolence by Dr Michael Nagler”

“What Nagler calls “Re-humanization” is a highly promising, if dangerous, tactic.”

That really struck me — not accepting the relationship on the aggressor’s terms.

Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *