Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Difference between passive aggressiveness and nonviolence

They say, 'means are, after all, means'. I would say, 'means are, after all, everything'. As the means so the end - Mohandas Gandhi

Non-violence requires great patience. - Mohandas Gandhi

A dear friend of mine after learning of my commitment to nonviolence as a method of resistance confuses (I hope ) the terms passive resistance and passive aggressiveness . October 2 is Mohandas Gandhi's birthday and it has been designated by the United Nations as the International Day of Nonviolence what better day than today to reflect on nonviolence contrasting it with passive aggressive behavior?

While on the surface the terms passive aggressive and passive resistance may appear similar.  The only characteristic that they share in common is stubbornness. Otherwise they are polar opposites.

Passive aggressiveness is a type of violence and is considered a personality disorder. Passive resistance better known as nonviolent resistance or civil disobedience is a rejection of violence both in action and in its Gandhian aspect in spirit. Mohandas Gandhi along with other Indians in South Africa coined the term Satyagraha which has as its root meaning "holding on to truth." Gandhi stopped using the term passive resistance because although nonviolent there was nothing passive about it.

Mohandas Gandhi's nonviolent resistance is also the antithesis of communism because it rejects class struggle as violent which is why during his life time Soviet writers dismissed him as a reactionary utopian. Presently many honor Mohandas Gandhi the icon but reject his cause as impractical.

Why this obsession with nonviolence, Gandhi and his followers? The short answer is that looking back over the past century and a half of Cuban history the way of violence and political intrigue has led Cuba into a cultural and spiritual death spiral that threatens to destroy the Cuban nation. Furthermore, recalling that the definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior over and over again while expecting a different result one should try something different.  The previous paragraph is a negative appraisal but there is also a positive one where nonviolent resistance has achieved concrete results that have benefited millions over the past century.

It is for that reason that nonviolent resistance and the path of Mohandas Gandhi makes sense. At the same time others over the decades following Gandhi's death in 1948 have carried on the struggle in defense of human dignity and freedom. It has been my good fortune to read their works briefly meet with two of them: the late Vaclav Havel and this past week with Aung San Suu Kyi. At the same time the truths that are told can be difficult to digest for what it says about ourselves and the societies we live in. For example Havel's observation in 1990 holds true today as freedoms slip away throughout the West: 
When I talk about the contaminated moral atmosphere, I am not talking just about the gentlemen who eat organic vegetables and do not look out of the plane windows. I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all - though naturally to differing extents - responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.
The struggle for freedom is ongoing everywhere and when individuals cease to struggle and to be vigilant those freedoms are lost not only in places like Cuba but right here in the United Stats. The first step to confront the challenge is to live in truth by making an accounting of one's virtues and defects and work to free one self. The second is to speak the truth as one sees it while willingly suffering the consequences. It is to attack the root causes of the totalitarian rot and not contribute to it.
Vaclav Havel explained it in his 1984 essay Politics and Conscience:
It surely makes much more sense to operate in the sphere of causes than simply to respond to their effects. By then, as a rule, the only possible response is by equally immoral means. To follow that path means to continue spreading the evil of irresponsibility in the world, and so to produce precisely the poison on which totalitarianism feeds. I favor "anti-political politics," that is, politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the utilitarian, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them. I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in daily life. Still, I know no better alternative.

 This is an implicit rejection of Machiavellian power politics. This past week at the San Francisco Freedom Forum participants heard an explicit rejection of power politics from Aung San Suu Kyi who affirmed:
I do not believe that means can be separated from ends.The means that you use to achieve your ends will in the end color those very ends themselves. If we are to march along the road to freedom full of hatred and full of the instincts of violence what we find at the end of the road will not be freedom but another kind of prison. A prison that we have constructed for ourselves through our own feelings of hatred and violence.
 How would this anti-political politics manifest itself? The late Vaclav Havel in the above cited 1984 essay provided an answer, referencing his martyred mentor:
When Jan Patočka wrote about Charter 77, he used the term "solidarity of the shaken'. He was thinking of those who dared resist impersonal power and to confront it with the only thing at their disposal, their own humanity. Does not the perspective of a better future depend on something like an international community of the shaken which, ignoring state boundaries, political systems, and power blocs, standing outside the high game of traditional politics, aspiring to no titles and appointments, will seek to make a real political force out of a phenomenon so ridiculed by the technicians of power the phenomenon of human conscience?
Havel later demonstrated in action not only with the nonviolent Velvet Revolution of 1989, but with his Presidency and afterwards organizing gatherings of Forum 2000 and maintaining solidarity with dissident movements around the world until the end of his life.

Mohandas Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, Aung San Suu Kyi and thankfully many others serve as exemplars for nonviolent activists to learn from.  Nonviolent resistance is about first recognizing then resisting and overcoming the defects in ones own character while at the same time using moral and ethical means to achieve moral and ethical ends.


  1. The blog post is titled to suggest that it explores the differences between passive aggression and passive resistance, but in reality, the comparison is just five sentences long: "While on the surface the terms passive aggressive and passive resistance may appear similar. The only characteristic that they share in common is stubbornness. Otherwise they are polar opposites. Passive aggressiveness is a type of violence and is considered a personality disorder. Passive resistance better known as nonviolent resistance or civil disobedience is a rejection of violence both in action and in its Gandhian aspect in spirit." This comparison is flawed, of course, and the author does not seem to understand what passive aggression even is. The rest of the article simply details passive resistance on its own.

    One claim that the author makes is that "passive aggressiveness is a type of violence and is considered a personality disorder." According to the Wikipedia article to which he hyperlinked, "Passive-aggressive behavior is the indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, stubbornness, sullenness, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible." Violence would be a direct expression of hostility, and it would in no way be passive. The second sentence of the same Wikipedia article states that 'For research purposes, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) revision IV describes passive-aggressive personality disorder as a "pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations".' Hence even the source cited (DSM, via Wikipedia), confirms that passive resistance is part of passive aggression.

  2. First Joshua, thank you for your thoughtful comment and critique. There needs to be further development on exactly what violence is and how passive resistance can cross over into passive aggressiveness and away from nonviolence. Michael Samsel, in a page on abuse and relationships offers a definition of violence citing Gandhi: "'Anytime we impose our will on another, it is an act of violence.' A crucial distinction needs to be made between submission and consent. Consent can only occur where refusal is safe and respected." Here is the link: http://www.abuseandrelationships.org/Content/Basics/violence.html

    Please let me know your thoughts on the matter.