Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation 

Working for peace, social justice and principled nonviolence since 1976

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Effective Nonviolent Action Requires Empowering Ourselves and Rejecting Fear and Despair.

~ Glen Anderson

Essay #3 in the “Building an Effective Peace Movement” series:

This is the third of a series of articles exploring various ways the peace movement can strengthen itself and become more effective.  These articles recognize that:  (1) The way to win peace and social justice is through grassroots organizing to build an ever-larger movement of the general public;  (2) To win public opinion, nonviolence is both necessary and powerful;  (3) We need to strategize carefully to build this movement through a variety of smart campaigns and activities;  and (4) Details that might seem small can mean the difference between success and failure.  Articles are  posted on the Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation’s website, www.olyfor.org

In every aspect of our society – foreign policy, domestic policy, economics, environment, human rights, global climate disruption, peak oil, electoral processes – even democracy itself – our society is in a severe crisis.  We’d be in even worse crisis if the peace & justice & nonviolence movements had not been working hard over the decades to prevent and solve the problems that confront us now.

Public opinion polls show that most Americans think our country is headed in the wrong direction:

·      People want peace but are frustrated that Bush and Congress just keep giving us more war.

·      People worry about a variety of environmental and climate problems.

·      People fear that we’re headed for an economic collapse.

·      People know that big corporations and an arrogant federal government are undermining democracy.

The list is endless.  What serious crises would you add?

How much of the general public carries these fears below the level of conscious awareness?  How much of the public is in denial about how serious these problems are?  How many people feel powerless to solve these problems?

An old saying asserts that “power corrupts,” but we must also recognize that powerlessness is even more corrosive, because people who feel powerless lose the ability to act – and lose the ability to solve the problems confronting them.

Learned Helplessness:

Psychologist Martin Seligman was experimenting with conditioning dogs and got unexpected results.  He placed a dog in a box with side-by-side compartments divided by a low wall.  When he ran an electric shock through the floor on one side, the dog jumped to other side.  Then he ran the electricity again, but this time with the dog restrained by a harness that prevented it from jumping over the low dividing wall.  After doing this for a while Dr. Seligman removed the harness and shocked the dog again, but now the dog would not jump to other side.  The dog just cowered in the corner.  The dog had learned to become helpless.

This can happen to us.  Terrible things happen in the world (wars, injustices, environmental catastrophes, massive layoffs, etc.), but the governments and other powerful entities allow them to continue.  When people try to solve the problems, the governments and other powerful entities stifle our attempts to solve them.  Repeated shocks to us with no way to escape the problems train us to become helpless – to cower in the corner – to become cynical about democracy – to stop trying – to become clinically depressed – to become passive consumers and TV viewers.  These fatalistic responses make it easier for oppressors to grab more power and oppress us further.

People have discovered that Bush, Cheney, Karl Rove, and others have deliberately tried to make people feel afraid and powerless.  Public feelings of powerlessness have allowed manipulative politicians to do whatever they want because the public felt too powerless to stop them.

At the end of the experiment, Martin Seligman had to actually train the dog how to escape the shocks.  Likewise, we need train the public – and our fellow political activists – that we do have power to counteract the political repression.  We need to help the public discover and understand how to empower ourselves and how to devise smart, nonviolent strategies so we can turn things around.

This might be a long and difficult struggle – perhaps requiring great sacrifices.  Many people who want peace and other progressive political goals have become discouraged and have stopped believing that success is possible.  As a result, some parts of the peace and progressive movements now exude pessimism and cynicism.  Who would want to join a movement so glum, depressed and pessimistic?  No wonder the peace and progressive movements are not growing as rapidly as we should.  Some activists are shooting ourselves in the feet with pessimism and cynicism – or with antagonistic tactics that “turn off” the very public we need to reach.

Reject Fear and Despair.

Fear is closer to the bottom of animal instincts rather than a higher-level cognitive or spiritual quality.  Fear demands simplistic responses to complex situations.

Make a conscious choice to reject living in fear.  All of the forces that seek to dominate us try to provoke and manipulate fear – fear of communism, fear of terrorists, fear of foreigners, fear of criminals, fear of poverty, fear of losing our jobs, fear of racial minorities, fear of young people, fear of unconventional ideas, fear of being different, fear of being out of style, and fear of our own inner wisdom.

They want us to be afraid so we will be easy to manipulate – to support a huge military, to give up our civil liberties, to help the powerful suppress the powerless, to let industries destroy our environment, to be obedient employees, to be mindless consumers, to stop asking the serious questions, to stop making waves.  And on and on.

People who are afraid are more likely to do what the authorities tell them to do.  Rejecting fear is a revolutionary act.  Rejecting fear is a big step toward liberation.

When we were little kids, most of us were taught, “Don’t talk to strangers.”  This is what causes people to be afraid of homeless people downtown.  One of the Olympia FOR’s peace vigil signs boldly urges, “Talk with strangers.”  Another sign says, “Make friends across races, religions, nationalities, ...” 

If more Americans had Arab friends, Muslim friends, Iraqi friends, and Palestinian friends, we would not have the foreign policy we do now.  During the 1980s people-to-people exchanges between Americans and Russians helped to end the Cold War without animosity toward the Russian people.  If during the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, more Americans had close friendships with people in Vietnam, we would not have killed two million Vietnamese people and destroyed their environment during that war.

To help the two journalists investigate Watergate, Deep Throat advised them to “Follow the money.”  In our case, the peace and progressive movements should “Follow the fear.”  Who is promoting fear?  What fears are they promoting?  How could we put those fears in perspective and counteract them?  What positive messages could we substitute?

A lot of people feel powerless already, even if they don’t use that term, and even if they don’t consciously recognize their feelings of powerlessness.  We can help them understand why – and point to the actual political and economic reasons for their feelings of powerlessness.  But we must be sensitive to their feelings, or else we’ll push them away.

Do we really think we can turn things around , or do we just go through the motions with a defeatist attitude in the backs of our minds?  Sometimes the peace movement seems to exude pessimism – as if we really don’t believe we can succeed.  Some elements of the movement lash out at the general public with anger and contempt.  When we speak disparagingly of the middle class and the mainstream public, we push away the very people we need to recruit as allies in the movement.  Who would want to join a movement that is angry, glum, pessimistic and depressed?

We can’t afford such negativity!  We have a choice!  Our future is teetering and could tip either way.  The choice is up to us.  

During the 1980s the risk of nuclear war was very high.  Often someone would ask me whether we thought we’d destroy the planet or whether we’d figure out a way to survive.  I always responded by asking the questioner, “What do you think?”  My question for the questioner would produce a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If that person said we were doomed, then we would be doomed, because a hopeless person does not take smart and effective action.  But if that person said we’d stop the nuclear arms, then I knew we would be able to survive, because a person committed to solving a problem creates hope and opportunities.  This is our situation now regarding our foreign policy, the global climate crisis, Bush’s steps toward dictatorship, and the other big problems facing us.  You decide!  Whatever you decide will become the next reality.  The good changes in society and politics come only from the bottom up!

Consider these two systems.  One occurs commonly.  The other is an effective alternative:

·      System #1:  Violence causes fear, which causes the fearful person to retaliate violently.  Current examples include Israel & Palestine, the US & “Islamic terrorists,” and Olympia’s discomfort with homeless people leading to more repression of poor people and a wider gap between “us” and “them.”  This cycle of violence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the problem gets worse.

·      System #2:  Violence and fear are recognized as revealing gaps that exist between groups of people.  We sense that the remedy for healing these gaps would be to generate more compassion and understanding in order to bridge the gaps.  This cycle too would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the problem gets solved.

How can we start to connect with people?  We typically start by throwing a lot of facts at people.  But many people are not yet ready to hear and absorb facts.

Perhaps we’d find people more able to deal with the hard realities if we were to begin by asking them what they feel about the world situation.  We might acknowledge our own worry about some issues and ask whether they worry about them too.  After they feel OK about acknowledging their fears, frustrations, despair or other feelings, perhaps they’ll be better able to hear and absorb facts – and join us in working to solve the problems.


Our community, nation and world do face serious problems.  Everybody knows that.

Nonviolence does not sugarcoat the problems that exist.  The theory and practice of nonviolence do give us some grounding, some confidence, and some methods for dealing with the problems effectively.  First steps must include understanding the problems and rejecting the feelings of fear, powerlessness and despair that paralyze our society.

So rather than begin by assuming that people are apathetic and just don’t care, let’s assume that people are feeling pain for the world’s problems.  Our job is to help people become aware of their feelings, to graciously allow them to express their feelings, and to help them empower themselves to act constructively – even in small ways – toward solving the problems.  Throughout this process, we need to treat the other person with compassion rather than in a self-righteous or elitist way.  Each of us learns from the other.

Nonviolent action has a tremendous track record of success, as the next installment of this series will show.



For more information, resources and workshops

on effective grassroots organizing – contact

the Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation at

(360) 491-9093 info@olyfor.org   www.olyfor.org


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