Communication Technology and Nonviolent Action

Published in Media Development, Vol. 43, No. 2, 1996, pp. 3-9.

Brian Martin


In struggles against aggression and repression, communication and legitimacy are key elements. Indeed, communication and legitimacy are central to the method of struggle called nonviolent action. By analyzing the nature of communication in nonviolent action, it is possible to assess the value of different types of communication technology against aggression and repression.

Nonviolent action refers to methods such as strikes, boycotts, rallies, marches, fasts, sit-ins and setting up of alternative institutions. These are all techniques of social action that do not involve causing physical harm to people. Gene Sharp in his classic book The Politics of Nonviolent Action lists 198 different types of nonviolent action, with historical examples of each one (Sharp, 1973). Nonviolent action has been used throughout history and, arguably, is much more common than the exercise of violence, but it receives much less attention from historians, the media and the public. Heads of state and military commanders who threaten or use violence to obtain desired goals receive lots of attention. Only a few leading campaigners, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are known for their advocacy of nonviolence.

It is no surprise that communication is central to many of the methods of nonviolent action. Sharp divides nonviolent actions into three categories: symbolic actions; noncooperation; and intervention and alternative institutions. Symbolic actions include such things as writing letters, making speeches, distributing leaflets, holding vigils and running teach-ins. They are inherently about communicating both to opponents and supporters. Writing a letter may seem innocuous but, in a dictatorship, can be a potent challenge. The content of the letter is important but so too is the act of writing and openly challenging a ruler. Other symbolic actions, such as the wearing of paperclips by Norwegians during the Nazi occupation to signify their opposition, communicate without words.

Methods of noncooperation, intervention and alternative institutions also involve a communicative dimension. Working-to-rule, for example, is designed to hamstring an organization even though the workers are ostensibly doing their job, but it also offers a powerful message to the employer or boss, namely that the cooperation of the workers is essential to make things operate smoothly and that the workers have withdrawn that cooperation. In a work-to-rule campaign, workers also communicate with each other, to organize and sustain the campaign and also through their very participation, which demonstrates to others their support for the action and the workers' demands.

Communication is essential to successful nonviolent action. Nonviolent activists must communicate with each other about their goals and methods; they attempt to communicate to the opponent both directly and through their actions; and they also attempt to communicate with third parties, those not directly involved in the dispute, to win them over or prevent them joining the other side.

To be sure, violent action also relies on communication in all these ways. For example, military commanders must communicate with each other and their troops; governments signal some of their intentions to their opponents via military build-ups; and shows of military strength and terrorism can be used to impress third parties (Schmid and de Graaf, 1982). Nevertheless, there are some key differences between the role of communication in nonviolent and violent action. Killing someone is a denial of further communication with that person, though it may provide a powerful signal to opponents and third parties. By contrast, nonviolent action never closes down communication entirely. More generally, violence is a denial of dialogue. Torture and imprisonment, or just the threat of superior force, reduce the possibility of free and equal speech. Methods of nonviolence are much more likely to open up dialogue, especially when, as is common, nonviolence is used by the less powerful to challenge policies or practices of domination.

The relationship between communication and nonviolence is a large and fundamental issue. Yet within peace studies generally, there is relatively little attention given to communication (Roach, 1993, pp. xvi-xvii), and this relative neglect of communication is replicated within the nonviolence literature. Here, a particular aspect of this relationship is addressed: communication technology and nonviolent action. Technology is seldom discussed in the nonviolence literature, perhaps because most nonviolence researchers are social scientists. In any case, technology plays an important and growing role in many nonviolent struggles. Conversely, the communication literature seldom addresses nonviolence, and hardly ever in relation to communication technology to serve nonviolent struggle. To motivate the discussion, the next section gives a number of examples of the use of communication technology in nonviolent struggles. Then some theoretical perspectives on nonviolent communication are sketched. This leads to some implications for analyzing the role of different media for nonviolent action. 

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