Barbara Deming (1917 – 1984) is probably the least well known of all the great theorists of nonviolence in U.S. history. She certainly deserves to be better known, because she holds a very important place in the history of the idea of nonviolence. She is the most influential thinker who developed a systematic argument for nonviolence with no religious basis. More than anyone else, Deming made it intellectually plausible, and even respectable, for non-religious people to commit themselves to nonviolence. She developed her ideas while participating in the peace and civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. For the first time, large numbers of people with no Christian commitment embraced, or at least seriously explored, nonviolence. So she helped make a place in the nonviolence movement for many people who might otherwise have been unsure whether they could embrace nonviolence.

It was a rare moment in U.S. history, when it seemed that organized nonviolent movements could reshape society in substantial ways. This confidence was clearly evident in Barbara Deming's interpretation of nonviolence, and it was directly related to her strictly secular approach. With no religious belief as foundation or criterion, she was inclined to base nonviolence on its ability to achieve practical results. For Deming, the crucial question about nonviolence was not whether it brings us closer to God or improves our souls, but whether it could actually achieve concrete improvements in society, especially for those who are oppressed. In the years when she wrote her most influential statements, many people were willing to answer that question in the affirmative. And even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the era's greatest voice for religious nonviolence, gave great weight to issues of practical success. So it seemed to make sense to base nonviolence on its potential for achieving results.


Deming argued quite explicitly that nonviolence does not need a religious basis. There is no need to assume the existence of a spiritual higher power that will inevitably support nonviolent action and help it to succeed. In fact, religious belief can easily undermine efforts for social change. Religious people tend to assume that, as Dr. King often said, some cosmic force guarantees that the universe bends toward justice. They also tend to assume that everyone is somehow aware of this, that everyone has some degree of conscience, no matter how deeply buried it may be. Therefore religious people too often view nonviolence as an appeal to the conscience of the oppressors. They expect too much from the oppressors. They use petition and prayer, rather than force, to achieve their goals: "The challenge to those who believe in nonviolent struggle is to learn to be aggressive enough." Belief in God, or any religious belief, can make it harder to learn this vital lesson.

On this point and on others, Deming shared some basic ideas in common with Reinhold Niebuhr. They agreed that the fundamental goal is not to avoid violence but to bring justice to the victims of the profoundly unjust U.S. system. The value of any work for justice should be judged by its results. They saw justice as essentially a secular value, set apart from the realm of religion. Their fundamental question was how to get more justice. Their answers always involved some kind of compulsion or force. They assumed that unjust people will change their behavior, and the ideas they use to justify their behavior, only when they feel that their interests are threatened.

But Deming disagreed with Niebuhr on the most effective way to threaten the unjust. He assumed that some degree of violence (or at least a threat of violence) is most often necessary. She argued that nonviolence is always likely to be the most effective way to force social change. Thus she took ideas that Niebuhr used to criticize nonviolence and turned them into arguments in favor of nonviolence.

Deming understood Gandhi's term satyagraha to mean clinging to truth with one’s entire weight, acting out the truth with one's body. That means relying on force to achieve one's goals. In fact, said Deming, all nonviolent activists assume this in practice, though they usually write as if they are appealing to moral factors in people and in the universe. Not that moral factors are irrelevant: "The most effective action both resorts to power and engages conscience…It can in effect force [opponents] to consult their consciences—or to pretend to have them…It can face the authorities with a new fact and say: accept this new situation which we have created." But if the only question that really matters is the tactical question, "What works?", there is no reason to rule out violence in principle. Moreover, since no person is perfectly morally pure, there can be no absolute prohibition on violence.

Why, then, choose nonviolent tactics rather than violence? Barbara Deming's answer was based on her answer to a more basic question: Why fight for justice? Her answer to that question rested on the premise that every person deserves respect, simply by virtue of being a person. Respect means, above all, allowing each person to be fully himself or herself. That means respecting every person's right to make free choices and exercise free will. No matter what form injustice takes, it always consists of oppressors trying to deprive oppressed people of their freedom to be themselves by making free choices. Insofar as the oppressors succeed, they exercise illegitimate freedoms because have taken away others’ legitimate freedoms.

When we speak about social change, we mean creating or restoring a situation in which all people are equally respected, a society in which everyone can exercise their own legitimate freedoms because no one has illegitimate freedoms. That means creating new kinds of persons out of both oppressors and oppressed. The oppressed must change both their own status as victims and the other’s status as oppressors.

There is a direct link between justice and nonviolence, according to Deming, because injustice is always a form of violence. Violence is essentially the attempt to dominate another person and deprive that person of their own free will. This violence may be done through war or physical attack. But it can also be done by an economic system that denies people their basic material needs, or by a political system that denies people full participation, or by a social system that denies them a sense of their own worth. These forms of structural violence are just as violent as any physical attack. Oppressed people who use violence to remove degrading conditions are using a lesser violence to end the greater violence of the system that degrades them and deprives them of their legitimate freedom.

The question naturally arises: If the goal is to put an end to people forcing their will upon others, why is it justified for the oppressed to use force, whether violent or not, to compel their oppressors to change? One of the advantages of nonviolence, in Deming's view, is precisely that it allows a justified use of force. Indeed, her definition of nonviolence is action that does not deprive anyone of the freedom to do anything they are entitled to do. Nonviolence can and does deprive the opponent of the freedom to do some things. But those are things the opponent had no right to do in first place, because they involve depriving others of their due freedom:

Some freedoms are basic freedoms, some are not. To impose upon another man’s freedom to kill, or his freedom to help to kill, to recruit to kill, is not to violate his person in a fundamental way.…The man who acts nonviolently insists upon acting out his own will, refuses to act out another’s—but in this way, only, exerts force upon the other, not tearing him away from himself but tearing from him only that which is not properly his own, the strength which has been loaned to him by all those who have been giving him obedience.

In other words, nonviolence is a way of taking back one's own free will, which has been blocked by another. It may be necessary to coerce that other to achieve the goal, but it never involves depriving the other of their legitimate exercise of free will. So it is morally justified to prevent people from making decisions, if those are decisions they have no right to make in the first place.

The question, for Deming, was not whether to force the unjust to change their ways, but how to do it most effectively. Her answer was that, in virtually every case, nonviolence is more effective than violence for ending, or at least reducing, the greater violence of injustice: "This is the heart of my argument: We can put more pressure on the antagonist for whom we show human concern." She made her case by breaking down any nonviolent movement or action into the several steps it must follow in order to succeed. Nonviolent activists must gain control of the situation. They must make it clear that they have the power to force a lasting change in the injustice they oppose. They must, at the same time, compel the oppressors to at least consider accepting that change willingly, rather than merely under compulsion. They must also gain sympathy among the wider public audience. They must do all this while keeping violence to a minimum. Finally, they must change themselves so that they begin to act out the new kind of society they want to create for the future. Let us consider each of these steps in turn, to see why Deming believed each is best achieved by nonviolence.

Activists must gain control of the situation, as they confront their oppressors. The oppressors always have superior force, and they often try to gain control by using that force. A nonviolent response neutralizes that advantage, for it denies them the chance to win a contest of force versus force. But the advantage of nonviolence for control goes deeper than this. To get and keep control, the oppressed must be poised and balanced, like skilled martial arts warriors, ready to deal effectively with every unexpected change in the situation. Deming's principal argument against violence is that those who use it in the service of justice and social change undermine their own balance. They realize, whether consciously or not, that their means contradict their ends. They want to create a society based on justice, and most often on love, for all people. To do that, they must change people's consciousness as well as public institutions. If they try to create that change by killing people, they deny the inalienable right to life and liberty they are trying to secure. That makes them feel confused, dizzy, off-balance, and certainly not fully in control of themselves or the situation.

The way to get the balance needed for control is to make the means match the ends. The end is a society in which every person's worth and freedom are fully respected. So the means must never violate the inherent worth or freedom of any person. Few people can really feel love for their oppressors. But everyone can act on the essential assumption of nonviolence¾ "that all men’s lives are of value, that there is something about any man to be loved, whether one can feel love for him or not. It happens that, if one does act on this assumption, it give one much greater poise in the situation."

When activists combine care and respect for their opponents lives’ with a stubborn defiance of their actions, it gives the activists a uniquely effective control over the situation. Balancing self-assertion with love and concern for the other is the way to avoid dizziness: "The injunction that we should love our neighbors as ourselves means to us equally that we should love ourselves as we love our neighbors. We believe, in fact, that the one act of respect has little force unless matched by the other—in balance with it…The acting out of that dual respect I would name as precisely the source of our power." (Of course it is important for activists to remember that loving an opponent does not necessarily mean¾ and usually should not mean¾ trusting that opponent.)

Just as nonviolence gives more balance to those who use it, it also throws their opponents off balance. "People who attack others need rationalizations for doing so. We undermine those rationalizations." The opponents expect a threat of losing everything, including their physical safety. When this ultimate threat is obviously taken away, they become confused; they hesitate in their response; they have to think before they act: "We undo their minds. And it is at this point that they become vulnerable to receiving a new idea."

To use this advantage, nonviolent activists must always oppose unjust actions rather than the people who do the actions. They must separate the unjust person from his or her role in society: "Seek to destroy not the abusers of power but the sources of that power, which are certainly not their particular bodies." By separating individuals from their roles, it is easier to establish communication with them. The more they are engaged in conversation, the more they can be influenced by nonviolent action. In all these ways, nonviolence makes the opponent the one who gets dizzy. And that gives the nonviolent activists more control of the situation.

Nonviolence also offers more control of a situation because it offers more control of the anger evoked in the situation. Both sets of antagonists will bring anger to any conflict, and their conflict will usually heighten the anger. But Deming distinguished between two kinds of anger. Unhealthy anger, or "affliction," is based on fear of the other. It despairs of making any meaningful change as long as the other exists. Since the other will probably continue to exist throughout the conflict situation, people motivated by unhealthy anger will continue to be afraid. Their fear will distort their perceptions, make them more dizzy, and prevent them from making the balanced rational decisions needed to gain control.

Balance and control come from healthy anger. This is just as aggressive as the unhealthy kind. But it is based on a belief and hope for change in social roles and institutions. Healthy anger demands change and creates the confrontations needed for change to occur. It also gives the other an opportunity to help make that change. "Our task, of course, is to transmute the anger that is affliction into the anger that is determination to bring about change. I think, in fact, that one could give that as a definition of revolution." Deming recognized that at the beginning, when hope for change is just being born, people exercise their rights tentatively and feel unsure about them. Anger is bound to come out. It will be difficult to control at first, so it may be unhealthy.

The challenge for nonviolence is to transform unhealthy into healthy anger. The way to do that is to confront one's own unhealthy anger; to stop repressing it; to recognize that anger at injustice and oppression is natural, especially for the victims of oppression. Admitting one's own unhealthy anger makes it easier to develop healthy anger and resist oppression nonviolently, which means more effectively: "If we are willing to confront our own most seemingly personal angers, in their raw state, and take upon ourselves the task of translating this raw anger into the disciplined anger of the search for change, we will find ourselves in a position to speak much more persuasively to comrades about the need to root out from all anger the spirit of murder." Once anger is healthy and disciplined, it is no longer an obstacle to control. Rather, it becomes yet one more useful vehicle for taking control of the situation.

Once control is demonstrated, the activists must make it clear that they have the power to force a lasting change in the injustice they oppose. The fundamental goal is to make the opponents recognize that they must cease their injustice. But it is far preferable if the opponents can be brought to the point where they want to cease their injustice. By confronting the oppressor nonviolently, "one tries to shake him out of former attitudes and force him to appraise the situation now in a way that takes into consideration your needs as well as his." The goal of nonviolent resistance is to force that new appraisal, to get everyone to see not just the immediate protest, but the entire prevailing system, in a new way. Resistance aims to show up the evil of the system. It aims to show that everyone living within an unjust system is actually a victim of that system, even those who seem to benefit most from it.

Nonviolence evokes this new perspective in several ways. Since the opponents cannot make violent protest the issue, they cannot easily shift the focus away from the main issue: their own injustice. The attack is clearly on their unjust actions rather than on their persons. This distinction urges the opponents to see themselves as whole persons, distinct from their roles in the social system. It creates a struggle between their minds and their bodies. So they are more likely to acknowledge the reality of what they have been doing. Then they can begin to think about changing their roles. They can begin to see the possibility of a society in which all people are respected and have full rights. Violence, on the other hand, makes it unlikely that the opponents will change their attitudes. It puts the focus on the immediate battle, not the long-term goals.

Violence also motivates people to react violently, out of fear. But if the opponents feel reassured about their safety and are no longer motivated by fear, they can assess their own best interests more objectively. They can see that their own long-term interests will be best served by changing the status quo. "They never can see it in their interest finally to accommodate themselves to the changes we are forcing unless we give them the liberty to do so. And they will only believe that we offer this liberty, only be able to imagine new lives for themselves, if we have refused to threaten them with any personal injury." So all tactics should be ways of insisting on change while easing the immediate fears of the opponents.

Of course the opponents have long-term fears of change too. It is usually the case that even oppressors fear the system of which they are a part. But they fear changing the system even more. Nonviolence is the only effective way to release them from that fear, to show them that what is really frightening is the status quo, not the activists who are demanding change. "It is not possible to affirm our own rights as inalienable simply by acting out: they are mine. We can affirm this only by acting out: they are ours—yours, and therefore mine; mine, and therefore yours—with a stress upon ‘yours,’ so that the minds of our antagonists and of their allies will attend."

For all these reasons, nonviolent activists "have as it were two hands upon [the oppressor]—the one calming him, making him ask questions, as the other makes him move." The hand that makes him move may even move him to switch sides and support the protestors' cause. If they treat their opponents as potential allies, explaining how all will benefit together from social change, there is a greater chance that some of the opponents will eventually become allies. This may not happen often. But it is far more likely if the protestors show genuine concern for all people, including their opponents.

Nonviolence also gives activists the best chance of gaining allies among the wider public, who are observers and bystanders: "Nonviolent tactics can move into action on our behalf men not naturally inclined to act for us." On the other hand, "violent tactics draw into actions that do us harm men for whom it is not at all natural to act against us." Violent protests frighten the public; they make the public more willing to accept repression in the name of law and order. That is why the oppressors often try to goad protestors into violence. Nonviolence prevents the opponents from gaining public sympathy, as they might if they were victims of violence. And the opponents' violence against unarmed people can eventually get their allies and supporters to stop giving support. Nonviolence is the best way to cultivate a positive public image.

Another obvious advantage of nonviolence is that it breaks the cycle of violence and counter-violence. The oppressors may well escalate their violence at first, since they face no violence in return. The nonviolent activists will probably take more casualties than their opponents. But nonviolence does not count its victories in terms of who receives fewer casualties. It defines victory as a change in the opponents' policies and behaviors. And in the long run, nonviolence will de-escalate the violence and there will be fewer casualties.

Finally and very importantly, according to Barbara Deming, nonviolence is the only way that activists can change themselves, so that they begin to act out the new kind of society they want to create for the future: "The free man must be born before freedom can be won, and the brotherly man must be born before full brotherhood can be won. It will come into being only if we build it out of our very muscle and bone—by trying to act it out. And this cannot be put off." The goal is a society in which every person is accorded equal rights, in which every person respects and cares for every other. One can claim an inalienable right to life and happiness only if one grants this to all others, too. Nonviolence is "the only mode of battle that does, implicitly, respect this fact." It is the only mode of battle that makes its vision of the future a present reality. It is the only way to demand one's own rights and respect the rights of others at the same time: "We assert the respect due ourselves, when it is denied, through noncooperation; we assert the respect due all others, through our refusal to be violent."

Nonviolent respect is a way of acting out human solidarity. It sends the message that the oppressed are not out to defeat their oppressors; they do not see the conflict as a zero-sum or win-lose contest. Rather, they understand that either everyone wins or everyone loses. This message is not totally disinterested. Treating others as fully human makes the most powerful demand that others treat oneself as fully human. Indeed, the best way to protect one's own rights is to grant the same rights to even the most unjust opponent. So the best way to build a better future turns out to be, at the same time, the best way to protect one's rights in the present.

Nonviolence works precisely because it combines practical pressure in the present with utopian visions of the future. It uses obstruction and noncooperation to prevent the present system from functioning. It uses independent constructive activities to create an alternative system. Because economic pressures are often the most effective kind, nonviolent activists should be especially creative in devising an alternative economic system, so that the existing system and all its injustices can be shut down simply by being ignored. As a feminist, Deming added one more very important comment to her analysis. Nonviolence combines masculine self-assertion with feminine sympathy for all people. Thus it begins the journey to a more androgynous society in the future.

Beyond changing society, nonviolence also changes the individuals who employ it. Because they must separate individuals from their social roles, they see the social issues more clearly and they create new attitudes in themselves as well as their opponents. They learn to set aside (or overcome) their learned desire for revenge. Instead, they learn to take satisfaction in a new kind of bold, heroic action. And they learn to feel in control of a situation without using violence. Nonviolence does require that people give up the seemingly "natural" desire to strike back and get revenge. It requires that this desire be subordinated to the overriding desire to improve society: "The point is to change one’s life. The point is not to give some vent to the emotions that have been destroying one; the point is so to act that one can master them now." The desire for revenge is one kind of unhealthy anger. The way to master it is to face one's own anger, accept it, and begin to get control over it. In this way, too, nonviolence in the present creates the kind of society that activists want to create for the future. It is not a society devoid of anger. It is a society where anger is healthy, a sign of hope, and a constructive step toward justice.

Can this kind of society ever exist in the future? Can nonviolence be put into practice on a large enough scale to overcome the massive injustices that the past has bequeathed to the present? Deming pointed out that we cannot know for sure, because nonviolence has never really been tried on large scale. The movements led by Gandhi and King were only small beginnings. The actual practice of nonviolence is still being invented. It is like an experiment that has just begun, when it is far too soon to say anything about the results. If people give up on nonviolence too soon, we will never discover its full potential. On the other hand, if enough people join in the experiment, we will discover its full potential. And Deming, for one, was convinced that we will be surprised to discover just how enormous that potential is.

Notes to Chapter 12: Barbara Deming