Response to the Sharp Debate

To refrain from “taking sides in any conflict,” is not necessarily a nonviolent position. To assume a position of “ideological indifference” may actually result in contributing to harm. In fact, while people are being oppressed, such neutrality is ‘not an option’ if one’s goal is democracy.

The very possibility of being neutral is a myth, and the above positions only beg the question: what are the unstated or unquestioned values that are being overlooked that may be influencing one’s thoughts and actions, and furthermore, what are the results of one’s actions? If nonviolence does not have as its stated goals the well-being of persons, freedom from oppression, and the end of tyranny, then its results may be contrary to these fundamental human needs.

The mere absence of overt physical violence does not equate to nonviolence. Likewise, a seemingly smooth running neoliberal economy does not equate to peaceful coexistence. A society that denies food, shelter, healthcare, education and freedom from manipulation to the majority, in favor of the privilege of a few, is a violent social structure. Nonviolent techniques and strategies should not be implemented to support such a social structure, regardless of the intentions of the actors involved. One road in particular may be recalled that is paved with such intentions.

As Gene Sharp reminds us, nonviolence is a technique that may be used for good or bad. Unfortunately, his actions in regard to Venezuela by some accounts have landed squarely in the lap of the latter. Rather than sinister intent on the part of Mr. Sharp as some suggest, it may be the myth of neutrality, a neoliberal co-opted definition of democracy, and a failure to critically examine the situation prior to acting, that are the issues at hand.

Those who teach the techniques of nonviolence to oppressors have a responsibility for the results their efforts produce. If the strategies of nonviolence result in structural violence, then those strategies cease to fall under the rubric of nonviolence. If efforts utilizing the techniques of nonviolence, conflict resolution, etc, result in furthering the ends of the neoliberal economic agenda, then those efforts have been violent in their result. This is true whether the practitioner intended the violent result or not. Certainly one cannot abdicate one’s responsibility for the product or service one provides by claiming innocence in only selling a product, or in not having sought out one’s customer. The result is the same, and responsibility must be owned.

Proponents of nonviolence are culpable if their techniques are used to oppress. One cannot absolve one’s responsibility by claiming neutrality or ‘ideological indifference’ for oneself. Proponents of nonviolence are culpable, even more so, if they are knowingly aiding the efforts of an elite few to the detriment of the majority. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is a democracy, and Hugo Chávez is its democratically elected president. To aid those who want to dismantle that democracy, contrary to the wants of the majority of the citizens, would result in expanding the privilege of the few over the needs of the many. This would not be a nonviolent result. Quite the contrary, this would be a violent and undemocratic result. Simply stated, if one’s actions contribute to structural violence, then one’s actions are violent.

Many on the ‘left’ have lost their ability to distinguish between democracy for the majority, as opposed to the neoliberal pro-democracy economic agenda that benefits the few elites and multinational corporations. Just because those in Venezuela who oppose the multiple-times democratically-elected government call themselves ‘democratic’ does not make it so, anymore than does the National Endowment for Democracy truly intend to benefit the majority of the people in our world.

While the discussion and debate regarding Gene Sharp and the anti-Chávez oppressor-elites in Venezuela have been somewhat interesting, the larger issue that begins to emerge may be even more so. To a great extent, the ‘left’ in general, and nonviolence in particular, have been co-opted by ‘neoliberalism under the guise of democracy’. With the concept of democracy having been twisted and intertwined with neoliberal free-market ideology, many would-be leftists have succumbed to the false concept of neoliberalism being equated with freedom and democracy. While in fact, neoliberalism and democracy are not compatible. In today’s world, ‘nonviolence’ is often used to further structural violence, and the neoliberal free-market results in the denial of freedom to the majority. Many on the left have fallen prey to the sleight-of-hand smoke and mirror trickery of the purveyors of the neoliberal economic agenda. The field of Conflict Resolution is in danger of collapsing into the black hole of neoliberalism. Major academic programs with seemingly liberal intent, are displacing liberal ideals with activist-destroying concepts of neutrality resulting in the neutral-minded ‘liberals’ having no foundation from which to discern help from harm. This “ideological indifference" and “taking no sides in conflict” attitude only serves to allow the status quo to continue, and the status quo is the neoliberal economic agenda.

As Stephen Zunes states in his August 28, 2008 contribution, “…most of the charges which have appeared on this web site regarding Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution… for their alleged involvement in such sinister efforts are categorically false.” Since it is the position of Mr. Zunes that “most” of the charges regarding Mr. Sharp’s “sinister efforts” are false, this seems to imply that it is his opinion that not all of those charges are false. Mr. Zunes states that “ideological indifference on the part of Sharp and his institution of meeting not just with progressive activists but right-wing activists as well has been troubling for many of us on the left, including those of us who have been long-time admirers of their work.” Since Mr. Zunes objects strongly to Mr. Sharp’s “willingness to meet with anti-Chavez elements and other right-wingers…,” perhaps Mr. Zunes would be interested in mediating a solution to this matter, rather than just continuing in his attempts to defend Mr. Sharp.

Here is a possible approach to resolution of this matter. Now that there seems to have been ample discussion, ample time to decipher the facts, and ample time to identify the players, perhaps Mr. Sharp would be interested in taking a stand for democracy. Perhaps he would be interested in stating that his techniques of nonviolence were utilized by persons in Venezuela in ways they shouldn’t have been used. Perhaps this situation could be used as a teaching tool to help others to understand what to watch out for. Perhaps Mr. Sharp could state that he knows that Hugo Chávez is the democratically elected president of Venezuela, and that democracy is more important than the oppressive neoliberal economic agenda. Perhaps instead of this situation being a blow and blight on his decades-long work in nonviolence he could stand up, accept responsibility as far as he has responsibility, and be a guiding example to others so that their efforts do not produce results that are contrary to the spirit of nonviolence. While such an act by Mr. Sharp may not be ideologically indifferent, it could go a long way toward respectful, honest, nonviolent relations.