International Communities for Active Nonviolence, North America

Basic Concepts

International Communities for Active Nonviolence
Basic Concepts

What is Violence?
We define violence as any self-serving, controlling action or attitude that causes pain and suffering in others or oneself.

Forms of Violence
Violence takes many forms. Besides the obvious, physical violence of war and assault, there’s also economic violence (exploitation, degrading work, robbery, corruption…); psychological violence (not listening, not allowing participation, imposing meaningless activities, discrimination…); religious violence (rejecting people for their beliefs, imposing one’s own beliefs…); sexual violence (rape, sexual harassment, discrimination against LGBT people…); domestic violence (authoritarianism, machismo, beating one’s spouse, child abuse…); etc.

A Plan for Change
In proposing a comprehensive plan for change, the Nonviolent Cities Project looks at where we are, where we want to be, and how to get there:

  • From the violent culture we live in
  • To the nonviolent culture we want
  • By building Communities of Active Nonviolence and Nonviolent Cities.

Three Levels
Our lives take place on three distinct levels at once:

  • Social – our community, local and global
  • Institutional – family, work, school, etc.
  • Personal – our individual experience or “inner world”

In this approach to change, we take into account all three of these levels as they interact with and feed back into one another.

The Vicious Circle of Violence
These levels work together, so violence on one level generates violence on the other two, creating a “vicious circle of violence” that we seldom escape.

An example: Because of cuts in government spending (social level) I find out that I’m about to be laid off (institutional level); the tension gives me a headache (personal level), so when I go home I argue with my daughter (institutional level), which upsets her (personal level), and the next day when she goes to school (institutional level), she picks a fight with her best friend, who feels very hurt (personal level) and therefore does poorly on her math exam (institutional level) (etc., etc.)…

Because of this vicious circle, we live with many kinds of violence on all three levels every day of our lives. We’re so used to this violence that we usually don’t even think of it as violence. We may not like what’s happening, but we see most of it as unavoidable, “normal” and “natural.”

Contrary to popular belief, this violence is not some unchangeable part of who we really are, deep down. It’s not our personal fault, or anyone else’s. It comes from our culture. Which is something we can change. Whether we actually do change it depends on our perspective, and on how much we really want to change it.

The Perspective Our Culture Teaches Us
If we don’t question the way things are, we just take for granted what our culture teaches us:

  • That we are separate, isolated individuals – that our problems are “personal,” it’s our own fault if we aren’t happy with the way things are
  • That we are victims of our own “violent human nature” – that violence is “just the way things are,” it’s something we can’t change
  • That therefore we need bosses and rulers to keep us in line – thus our authoritarian society, institutions, and personal attitudes

Another Point of View: Change Is Possible
However, if we step back and look at our lives as a whole, seeing all three levels and the way they work together, we can see that:

  • Our problems and the violence in our personal lives come from our environment – our family, our work, our school, our community, our world.
  • This violence is not “human nature” but started long ago, far back in human pre-history, and evolved to create the culture of violence that we live in today.
  • Even though it may have been “natural” for our ancestors to fight over a deer carcass, we are no longer in that situation. We no longer “have” to fight, but can choose to work together and build a new culture of nonviolence.

How Violence Works on the Three Levels

  • Social Level: The minority in power controls what happens to the majority, exploiting them to keep the system running – a system that enables a few to have more than they need, while most people struggle to have enough.
  • Institutional Level: Our institutions are designed according to this same authoritarian model: a few at the top make decisions and everyone else does what they’re told. This way the system keeps running, with disproportionate benefit for the few in control.
  • Personal Level: Individuals are taught that the way to happiness lies through possession, though having wealth and power; therefore every individual has to win the endless competition for “success,” which makes people fear each other and destroys the bonds of friendship and caring…

The Way Out
The system may look watertight and unchangeable, but if you step back and see the whole picture, it’s clear that it’s just a scheme, a violent pattern we’ve learned to live by – and patterns can be changed.

Fortunately there are a lot of people who want to change things – which is lucky, because no one can change anything alone. So the first step is to find some of the others and decide to do something together.

That’s the basis of the ICAN model: building small communities of people who share a common vision of a nonviolent world, and developing networks of these communities throughout the city, the region, the world.

Here’s the plan in a nutshell:

  • Find other people in your institution or community who are interested in change, and invite them to learn more about the Nonviolent Cities Project.
  • With those who are interested, begin to “de-normalize” the violence in daily life: learn to see the violence in our lives on the social, institutional, and personal levels.
  • Get in touch with our fondest hopes and dreams of a better world, talk about those aspirations, and come up with a shared vision of the future we want to build together.
  • Start working together on projects for change on all three levels – in our personal lives, our institutions (family, work, school, etc.), our community.
  • Tell more people about this process, so new communities start growing in other institutions all around the city, and all the communities start networking, sharing their experience and supporting each other, and the process spreads…

Objectives – the Big Picture
The final outcome of all this – although there really is no “final” until everyone in the world is living in peace and nonviolence – looks like this:

  • Social level: real democracy, with everyone participating in decision-making at the local, national, and international government levels
  • Institutional level: democratic institutions (family, work, school, etc.) where everyone participates in decision-making, finds meaning in what they are doing, and feels cared for and valued by the whole
  • Personal level: everyone living meaningful lives, giving to the whole by doing what inspires them, participating fully in the decisions that affect their lives, caring for and being cared for by other individuals and the community.

The “Virtuous Circle”
Now, instead of a vicious circle of violence sucking all three levels in a downward spiral, we have a “virtuous circle” of nonviolence and cooperation buoying all three levels in an upward spiral. With everyone participating in decision-making, the rules of the game can be changed to make equal opportunity a reality on all levels. Equal opportunity means each person can choose meaningful work, which makes their personal lives much more fulfilling; and when people are doing what they love, institutions and society also become stronger, making a better environment for everyone.

A Culture of Nonviolence
Only a culture of nonviolence can make this kind of real democracy possible. Here the human being and life itself are the central value, and individuals, organizations, and society are guided by the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you want to be treated.” Here all people have the opportunity to discover the true meaning of their lives, and to live according to that meaning.

Active Nonviolence
To build such a culture of nonviolence, we need to apply the approach of Active Nonviolence to our lives.
In Active Nonviolence we:

  • Reject all forms of violence and discrimination
  • Refuse to go along with violent practices
  • Denounce all acts of violence and discrimination
  • Support everything that favors active nonviolence
  • Overcome the roots of violence inside us by developing our strengths and getting in touch with our deepest aspirations

When applied to positive change in individuals, institutions and communities, Active Nonviolence means building awareness about violence, getting in touch with our profound aspirations, building cooperative and nonviolent environments on all the three levels at once, and taking our proposal out into the world.