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Nonviolence is Active, Courageous Struggle

Updated: Jun 9, 2019

by: Barbara Peterson March 6, 2019

The Norwegian Teachers’ Defense of Education was a movement that successfully defeated Nazi demands to promote fascist ideology. Nearly two years after the invasion of Norway, Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian collaborator of the occupation government, tried to force teachers to join his newly formed Teacher’s Union as a way to get them to promote Nazi propaganda in their schools. His demands, however, were met with massive noncooperation; teachers refused to comply. As a result, Quisling shut down the schools for a month, causing hundreds of thousands of parents to respond with angry letters.

To appease parents, help accommodate the educational needs of the students, and in defiance of Quisling’s orders, the teachers provided instructional classes for groups of students in people’s homes. Quisling responded by jailing 1,000 male teachers, many of whom received brutal treatment by the Gestapo in prison. As is often the case when rulers initiate harsh punishments to peaceful protesters, Quisling’s actions, meant to intimidate and subdue his opponents, only strengthened the resistance. Desperate to win control by instituting even harsher penalties, in April, Quisling had nearly 500 teachers sent to concentration camps. These teachers were subjected to even more ruthless treatment and harsh living conditions than they received in prison. In fact, one teacher died and several were seriously injured in the camps. Despite the inhumane reprisals brought down on them, the teachers still refused to teach fascist ideology. By November, Quisling realized he was defeated. He had no power over a group of teachers who refused to obey his demands.

If a group of teachers, ordinary citizens rather than trained soldiers, could openly defy a powerful Nazi collaborator, even in the face of severe retaliations, any group of citizens can do the same. Easier said than done, of course. But nonviolence, when used to make systemic, large-scale government and cultural changes, requires a degree of commitment and courage similar to those of soldiers fighting violent wars. When the people are struggling to revolutionize how their government operates, they are engaged in war. Those who hold high positions of authority don't give up any of their power willingly; it must be effectively challenged by people who engage in a coordinated campaign that includes methods of noncompliance.

World renowned nonviolent theorist and activist, Gene Sharp, warned us that we cannot rely on symbolic protest alone to leverage power away from governments so it is more equitably shared by the people. He wrote:

A firmly established regime need not take serious note of … opposition which is restricted to verbal dissent while continuing passive submission and cooperation with the regime. If even a majority dissents only in words, while refraining from any action which the regime would have to take seriously, there is nothing that requires the regime even to consider the advisability of a change. (Sharp 1980, 119-129)

Marches, rallies, political lobbying, social media posts, and performances are all important ways to help build a movement by making the public aware of the issues that ought to concern them. None of these methods alone, though, ever caused systemic change. Even FDR’s New Deal policies were created in response to massive acts of nonviolent noncooperation via labor strikes supported by workers as well as other oppressed cultural groups and the intelligentsia. People are best served if they are ready, willing, and trained to engage in organized, strategic campaigns employing dozens or more methods of nonviolence, sequenced strategically and tactically to escalate over time in their disruptive nature. This is the best way for a movement to affect significant, institutional change.

Verbal dissent and symbolic protest can and have earned improvements in state and federal policies. It is also an effective way to change the cultural and political narrative so the norms reflect the new ideology. That is no small thing. Yet, ideologies are subject to change with a new wave of ideas and passionate advocates. To leverage enough power to affect change at the systemic and institutional levels, change that builds organizational structures that implement and successfully sustain a more balanced distribution of power, requires a movement where people expand beyond symbolic methods of protest. It includes methods that make it clear that a government's power is dependent on the people's willingness to cooperate and support that power.

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