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Nonviolent Movements for Social Change Considered More Moral and Supportable

The following analysis appears in Volume 4, Issue 2 of the Peace Science Digest.

Citation: Orazani, S. N. & Leidner, B. (2019). A case for social change in Iran: Greater support and mobilization potential for nonviolent than violent social movements. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 25(1), 3-12.

Keywords: nonviolence, Iran, social movements, social change, nonviolent civil resistance

Large-scale nonviolent movements for social and political change include famous historical cases like the Indian independence struggle, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and the movement to end Apartheid in South Africa. More recently, the Arab Spring movements in 2011 have reminded us that nonviolent resistance movements are not just anomalies from the past recorded in history books but ever-present forms of mass organizing for social change. Contemporary studies increasingly shed lighton nonviolent movements and what makes them succeed or fail.

In this study, the authors conducted an experiment to examine whether the use of nonviolence compared to violence would influence the attitudes of Iranians toward an imagined new Green Movement. The 2009 Green Movement in Iran challenged election results and advocated for a more secular system. Despite the fact that nonviolent movements have a better chance of success than violent movements, the Green Movement was ultimately unsuccessful and unable to persist in the face of violent government repression. The Iranian Green Movement is an ideal context for examining whether people disillusioned with the outcome of a previous movement are more open to the use of violence when nonviolence wasunsuccessful the first time around.

Successful nonviolent movements, according to the authors, require both popular support and the potential for people to mobilize (to become part of the movement). With these underlying metrics, the authors hypothesize that when a movement uses nonviolence (as compared to violence), people’s support and willingness to join will increase because the movement is perceived as more human and moral. Simply stated, observers of the movement believe that members can distinguish between “right and wrong” and therefore are more likely to support and join.

In this study conducted in 2015 (six years after the Green Movement), 120 participants (Iranians on the left side of the political spectrum considered “Reformists”) were asked in a questionnaire to imagine that the Green Movement would reemerge in the future. One group was told to imagine a violent movement, including the destruction of government buildings, rioting, and interfering with security forces. The other group was told to imagine a nonviolent movement, including tactics such as holding rallies, staging sit-ins, and organizing strikes. The questions asked about perceptions of the movement’s effectiveness (can the movement achieve its goal?), power (can the movement resist against government repression?), and morality (is the movement right and the government wrong?); the level of support respondents would give to the movement (donating money, social media advocacy, or even joining?); and attitudes toward joining. The authors expected to find perceptions of morality and levels of support to be greater for the nonviolent movement than for the violent one.

The study found that “[r]eformists were more willing to support and join the Green Movement in the future if it were to use nonviolent rather than violent strategies.” The findings are significant in various ways. First, already existing non-experimental research on political movements, which finds that nonviolent movements attract more support than violent movements, was corroborated. Second, even within corrupt and repressive systems, nonviolence garners more support than violence. And, third, even with a real history of a failed nonviolent movement (the 2009 Green Movement), nonviolence is still considered the preferred option. This study also demonstrated how nonviolent movements could attract more public support. People want to be associated with groups that are perceived as moral because they want a positive self-image and adopting nonviolent strategies led to positive perceptions of the movement’s morality. Nonviolent movements were also considered more human, meaning they are more sensitive to pain and suffering. In addition to being perceived as more human and moral, nonviolent movements were perceived as more powerful than violent movements.

Contemporary Relevance:

The research here shows how nonviolence can be perceived as powerful, even after it has failed. Despite a previously unsuccessful nonviolent movement in Iran, people are still inclined to support nonviolence in the future. This experimental study sheds light on some key mechanisms of popular support and mobilization for contemporary nonviolent movements. Nonviolent movements have learned a lot about the strategic value and many possible tactics of nonviolence — but so have the authoritarian regimes being challenged, and they are becoming more astute in their responses to these movements. It is crucial for movements to continuously assess and re-assess what works, what does not, and what makes people support and even join nonviolent movements. Ultimately, while one can agree or disagree with the objectives of a movement, one should always recognize that nonviolence does not cause physical harm to people. Nonviolence therefore must always be viewed as a constructive formof conflict transformation.

Talking Points:

  • Reformists in Iran were more willing to support and join a hypothetical Green Movement in the future if it were to use nonviolent rather than violent strategies.
  • Reformists in Iran were more willing to support nonviolent movements because they perceived nonviolent movement members as more sensitive to pain and suffering.
  • Reformists in Iran were more supportive of a future hypothetical nonviolent movement than a violent one, even though the 2009 nonviolent Green Movement failed.
  • Nonviolence is seen as an effective way of waging social change even in corrupt and repressive contexts.

Practical Implications:

Studying a context where a previous nonviolent movement failed can provide valuable insights into the reasons for continued and renewed interest in nonviolence. It would be easy to argue that nonviolence failed and that it is therefore appropriate to fight violent repression with violence. Yet, even those who would like to see changes in their countryare more supportive of a new nonviolent movement than a violent one. It appears that consideration for what makes people “human” — like the mental capacity for morality, pain, and suffering — outweighs support for violence.

If these dimensions are so central to people’s support of a nonviolent movement, nonviolent actors can consider using them strategically in their movement-building efforts. In other words, if movements want to shift public opinion, achieve popular support, and mobilize the public — the preconditions for movement success — they can deliberate on how to demonstrate their morality and sensitivity to suffering to the broader public. For many movement actors those capacities are obvious, but makingthem explicit can further alter public perceptions of a movement in a positive way.

Continued reading:

Stephan, M. J. (2018, January 9). Why nonviolent protest is the best hope for Iran. The Washington Post. 

Yousefi, M. (2018, December). Protesting corruption in Iran: Real demands for real change. Retrieved April 23, 2019, from ICNC website: 

Organizations/Initiatives:

International Center on Nonviolent Conflict www.nonviolent-conflict.org

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