February 18th, 2011

Gene Sharp and the Science of People Power

It’s a happy day when good ideas—and the people who create them—get their due. Today was one of those days. Thanks in large part to The New York Times‘s feature on the backdrop of the revolution in Egypt, and then a profile devoted to him (which as I write is still #1 on the most-emailed list), interest in the work of Gene Sharp, the foremost living strategist of nonviolent action, has been exploding. Today, as well, I had the opportunity to talk with him, for an interview that just appeared at The Immanent Frame.

In preparation for the phone call, I looked back at the Times‘s previous coverage of him, and noticed that, over the years, whenever some big uprising flares up somewhere, the world seems to rediscover all over again the unusual man who works out of his own home to create the blueprints for transforming the world. I asked him if this time—after successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia—he feels that something truly different is happening, or if it’s just the same thing he’s seen before all over again. “No,” he said. “Maybe some things are being repeated. But this phenomenon, and the interest in it—what they did, the response, and the interest in that, that’s new. That’s quite new.”

Here’s a bit of the interview:

NS: What was the first thing that crossed your mind when you heard that President Mubarak had fallen from power in Egypt?

GS: That it can be done. In past years, there have been a lot of misconceptions about nonviolent action. People used to think that it was very weak and that only the violence of war could remove extreme dictators. Here was another example that shows this myth isn’t true. If people are disciplined and courageous, they can do it.

NS: Did anything surprise you about how the events unfolded? Did it teach you anything new?

GS: One thing that surprised me were the numbers, and the spread of people participating—that’s just amazing in itself. A second thing was that, in Egypt, people were saying they had lost their fear. That’s a step Gandhi was always calling for, and one that even I thought was a little too hopeful. But that seems to have been what happened in Egypt. When people lose their fear of an oppressor’s regime, the oppressor is in deep trouble. A third thing was how well they maintained nonviolent discipline. We heard reports on television that, when there was an area where things were getting a little difficult and might break out into violence, people were chanting among themselves, “Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful.” That was quite amazing too.

Continue reading at The Immanent Frame.


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