Estey, George, and Doris Hunter — Nonviolence: A Reader in the Ethics of Action

Estey, George, and Doris Hunter. Nonviolence: A Reader in the Ethics of Action. Waltham: Xerox College Publishing, 1971. Print.

Published in 1971, this book argues that nonviolence is an active and complex set of actions rather than a form of passivity. In an introduction to the nonviolence of religion, the authors demonstrate that nonviolence is “not a passive concept to these religious traditions [Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Taoism]” (xvii). The authors go on to place nonviolence in three categories.  The first category is “view[ing] nonviolence as nonresistance” (xix), or passivity of place, time, and circumstance. The phrase, “The meek share inherit the earth” comes to mind with this particular strand of understanding nonviolence. The second category of interpretation is “passive resistance” (xix), which can include such things as “the use of the walkout or the boycott” (xx).  The third category, then, is “nonviolent direct action” (xx), which can be used to challenge oppression and violence.  The authors explain nonviolent direct action as follows:

The proponent of this approach takes the initiative and moves into the problem area rather than withdrawing from it. Ideally, he challenges the opponent in order to make him change his mind or to make him take an active stand against the direct nonviolent action and resist it […] This type of action is called civil disobedience and as such, it entails all the difficulties associated with legal and moral issues. The dramatic confrontation of civil rights marches and war protest marches—with or without marching permits—illustrates this type of nonviolent direct action. (xx)

After the introduction, the work delves into essays written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and other thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth century. While these essays are valuable, they concern themselves mainly with the nuts and bolts of nonviolent resistance—or what is being said about those actions as they are being done—instead of the theory behind these actions. However, understanding nonviolence as an active and complex set of actions instead instead of passivity should be fully noted.  If not, nonviolence can be discounted as a form of laziness or lack of will power.

Some quotations from the collection that I find useful include the following: 

From Timothy Leary’s “Violent Governments, Nonviolent Hippies”

“Man, and only man is violent […] Man is the only species who violates by distance weaponry.” (247)

“Each individuals must disarm himself. Any author or reader of this book who possesses a machine-weapon designed to rend flesh is violent.” (253)

These quotations, some of the more tame of this essay, display a very certain stance: weaponry is the result of man’s violence, and man must disarm himself (and his entire world) in order to become nonviolent. This is an interesting stance in view of today’s “drone warfare.”

From Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society”

“Both the temper and the method of non-violence yield another very important advantage in social conflict. They rob the opponent of the moral conceit by which he identifies his interests with the peace and order of society. This is the most important of all the imponderables in a social struggle, is the one which gives an entrenched and dominant group the clearest and the least justified advantage over those who are attacking the ‘status quo.’”

“Non-violent coercion and resistance, in short, is a type of coercion which offers the largest opportunities for a harmonious relationship with the moral and rational factors in social life. It does not destroy the process of a moral and rational adjustment of interest to interest completely during the course of resistance.” (228)

Here, we see that Niebuhr asserts that nonviolence places the power of the exchange into the hands of the nonviolent resisters because it exposes the immorality of the oppressors. Without this social contract, the oppressors must come to terms with their own power; even in instances in which the oppressors did not necessarily see the oppression in their day to day lives, this can come as quite a shock to the system, and they may resort to even more violence as a result. I am thinking of outspoken feminists and women’s rights activists being attacked online, often by being threatened with rape and murder by anonymous male users. In the face of losing one’s kingdom, and at the risk of one’s life being changed when stripped of power and perceived dignity, most people seem to grow more vocal and violent.

I see works such as this as a stepping stone to my own personal understanding of nonviolence and peace studies. Studying the words of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been done long before me, and to a much higher degree, but studying the great influences of the twentieth century’s nonviolent resistance movements can help me view other individuals’ works with more clarity. Additionally, I have never read something on nonviolence and violence prevention that has not sparked some sort of inner discussion, even if I completely disagree with the premise or argument presented.

—Emily Blair


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