Fear, Fearlessness and Nonviolent Action

As physical beings, we live in fear of losing our existence. And we live in an environment that provides some circumstances that help us live, and some circumstances that threaten our physical or psychological survival (that is, we may continue to exist physically, but be too afraid to be ourselves).

When our physical or psychological existence is threatened we have emotional responses that tell us what is happening – fear, sadness, anger and/or pain. If we are scared out of being aware of and feeling these emotions, we lose our capacity to know when we are being threatened, or when we are threatening others.

When we feel our natural emotions, these motivate us to act to functionally defend ourselves. When we are afraid to feel our natural emotions, we find ourselves defending a state of unconsciousness which papers over real conflict that has occurred and prevents it from being resolved.

The aim of nonviolent action is to genuinely resolve conflict so that the true existence of both you and your opponent is preserved. As a social and environmental activist, your opponent is most likely to be someone who is behaving abusively – that is, they have lost awareness of real threats to their and your existence, and believe that their destructive behaviours are functional and necessary. And they will therefore feel scared when you tell them otherwise and ask them to stop. They will often defend their dysfunctionality with violence in response to your challenge.

However, there is a difference between exposing someone’s irrational fear through nonviolent challenge and causing someone’s natural, genuine fear. And it is being able to distinguish between these two things that gives nonviolent action its extraordinary power. As activists, we need to be ready for the ‘freak out and retaliate aggressively’ stage in our opponent and not be intimidated by this. If we are not totally fearless we will need to spend some time feeling our own fear, pain and anger about their unjust behaviour before being able to proceed effectively. Then, when we take action to stand up for ourselves, we need to do everything possible to behave in ways that do not threaten the genuine physical or psychological survival of our opponent. Creating a safe environment for everyone participating in the conflict is crucial to opening space for change, whether this be in your opponent, or in third parties who you are asking to support you (including the police and security contractors).

There will be people who remain afraid of you, and of acknowledging the truth, regardless of how fearlessly, calmly and amicably you behave (the fear inside their own head will be stronger than their capacity to respond to their currently safe environment). However, most people will have at least some positive response to your behaviour, and that is where the shift in their attitudes and behaviour begins.

It will take time. Building trust, particularly where there has been antagonism and distrust previously, is a gradual process. But if you consistently behave in ways that are honest, open and reliable (for instance, you tell all players exactly what you are going to do, and do it), and you remain relaxed, calm and friendly in your dealings with people, you may be surprised how quickly some seemingly intransigent people will change. If you behave in ways that engender distrust and fear (such as using secrecy, which increases the fear of both opponents and activists, and feeds an antagonistic relationship), you will entrench and increase negative attitudes and behaviours.

For most people, it is not easy to be calm in the face of others’ aggression – so this is an ideal to work towards honestly rather than a state of mind you should feel under pressure to achieve. However, the more you are conscious of your own fearful, frustrated reactions to aggression (extreme or bureaucratic), and the more you allow yourself safe spaces to express these, the more capacity you will have during actions to choose a calm, sane response, remain strong and clear in your intentions, and achieve your aims.

Anita McKone
14 February 2017