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Arguments For and Against
Non-Violence Guidelines

Billy Ray Boyd
Offered by the National Office of NOHARMM, P.O. Box 460795, San Francisco, CA 94146

NOTE: Links with a right-facing blue arrow will take you off this site.

Before an action, make sure that every participant receives a copy of the Non-Violence Agreement


1. It is all too easy for a few people to change the tone of an action in the direction of violence and/or verbal abuse. That gives a great deal of power to violent and abusive people, at the expense of those (usually the large majority) who don't want the action to be either violent or verbally abusive.

2. The movement - any movement - if and when it starts to become effective and a threat to the established order, is highly vulnerable to agents provocateur who join groups and either convince the group to do things that will endanger or discredit it, or individually do things under cover of others at a demonstration that will discredit the group in the eyes of the general public and thereby undermine its effectiveness.

3. If a group sponsoring an action wants it to have a certain tone, it is responsible to plan for what happens if some who show up don't go along. Not to plan for this is to abdicate responsibility for the action, and to risk becoming swept helplessly away with the manipulations of a few.

4. In the heat or an action, emotions flow differently than in planning meetings. Therefore the planning meetings should take this into account, and figure out how to deal with emotions that may in the heat of the moment seem natural but in perspective be detrimental to the action and the goals.

5. It's important to give a relatively unified message to the opposition. If some people at a demonstration are calling the people in the opposition of the cops "butchers," "despicable," etc. while others are calling for dialogue, the opponents (and the media) get a very mixed message.

AGAINST - with responses:

"We shouldn't be telling anyone how to fight against genital mutilation."  People are free to choose however they want to do their genital integrity activism. What the Non-Violence Guidelines say is that for this action the tone is to be a certain way and that people attending are expected to refrain from certain behaviors even if they don't agree with the guidelines.

"It's impossible to enforce the guidelines." Demonstration organizers should not tolerate anyone attending the action and sabotaging it by being verbally abusive to the opponents or violent toward property or persons. It doesn't matter if such a person is a member of the organizing group, or someone unknown. The results are equally devastating. Again, if the group decides that any of these things detracts from the effectiveness, then it is incumbent upon the group - for the sake of the babies - to do what it can to prevent such sabotage.

"I like the idea, but I don't like the part about asking police to make an arrest. I don't want to use police power to enforce our views." Because it's easy for a few people to ignore the wishes of the whole group, it's important to have sanctions to deal with them. In the overwhelming majority of cases, it's sufficient to talk with the person or, very rarely, to distance from them. But if the person in really flipped out (or if they're actually out to sabotage the action), that presents us with a choice: Which is more important: the success of the action or letting the person continue their disruptive behavior? (Actually, we already use police force, otherwise pro-circumcision people could get a gang together, get drunk, and bust ass with the demonstrators. If we're willing to protect ourselves, are we not willing to use it to protect the integrity of an action on behalf of the babies?) I have never seen the necessity arise for dissolving an action or asking police to arrest a disruptive demonstrator. But it's important to have that in the printed guidelines as a deterrent, to let potential disrupters know that the group has a clear way of dealing with disruptive behavior.

"Sure we can do this for our demonstrations, but when other groups organize something, there's no control." If people start calling the sponsoring groups of actions beforehand and asking "Will nonviolence guidelines be in effect, and will they be passed out to everybody present?" they will start to get the message that in order to get more people out they should start using the guidelines. This is of course most effective if the caller bases their decision on whether they're in effect and lets the group know that. It may not be effective immediately, but over the span of several demonstrations, groups will start to get the message, and they will begin to understand and appreciate that the guidelines are a way to discourage disruption. If we go to a demonstration organized by another group and violence or verbal abuse happens and is tolerated, then we can simply leave, letting the organizers and others present know in no uncertain terms why: "When the group starts taking responsibility for the tone of its actions, I'll start coming to them."

"But I feel so powerless, I could scream! And sometimes I do!" Exactly. It is when we are powerless that we scream, and so screaming is naturally seen as a sign of helplessness. If we want to be perceived by our opposition and the media as helpless and desperate, then we should tolerate name-calling and verbal abuse of the opponents and the police. And remember: there's a huge difference between screaming out one's pain ("No! Don't cut them!") and putting our pain into name-calling ("Butcher!").

Additional thoughts:

It's important for an action to somehow embody in the microcosm of the demonstration the essential difference between us and our opponents. When blacks and whites sat down together at a lunch counter in Alabama while racist whites poured catsup on them, it made it clear to people who saw the pictures of it - people who might not have understood very well the violence of institutionalized segregation - who the "good guys" and who the "bad guys" were. In terms of basic human interaction, it furthers our cause to appear passionate but respectful, not close-minded, emotionally immature and self-righteous.

Political action is very effective therapy in dealing with our feelings of hopelessness, frustration and rage. And it's important not to let the therapy function of an action interfere with its effectiveness - assuming that we're planning the action primarily to educate the public and thereby directly or indirectly decrease genital mutilation, not primarily to unload our pent-up feelings. We as a community very much need other outlets for the feelings that would be disruptive in a political action.

I assume that our goal in political action is to educate and/or inspire the public in order to change their attitudes and behaviors. We are asking them to be open to the possibility that their past ideas or behaviors may be wrong, that what their family's livelihood may depend on is wrong, perhaps their whole professional identity would be questioned. We are asking them to consider making a very major change that is extremely stress-producing. There is natural resistance to such change and to letting in information that would dictate it. If we're asking others to let in extremely disturbing information, then what do we ask of ourselves in the process? I suggest, that at a minimum, it's important to observe the basic preconditions to human communication:

Q: Is it possible for this community of genital integrity and children's rights advocates, posing the deep moral challenge it does, to keep from falling into the trap of self-righteousness?

A: I have my doubts, but I believe that every time we fall, the babies pay the price because our effectiveness on their behalf is undermined. I also believe that we have to find ways to express our feelings more powerfully than with mere words, in ways that bypass defenses instead of reinforcing them, and ways that pierce people's hearts instead of hardening them.

Before an action, make sure that every participant receives a copy of the Non-Violence Agreement

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Last updated: 22 February, 2008
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