The award winning documentary film, A Force More Powerful, is a six part series that tells the stories of nonviolent movements that took place around the world in the 20th century – the US Civil Rights Movement, India’s Independence Struggle, Chile’s Anti-Dictatorship Struggle, Danish Resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II, Poland’s Solidarity Movement, and South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Struggle.



The film is inspired by the book, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, which looks at nonviolent movements in Denmark, Chile, the United States, El Salvador, Mongolia, Poland, among other countries. Read the introduction to the book, where Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall lay the groundwork for why nonviolent resistance has been a too often forgot method of struggle.

“At the end of the last century, the world’s airwaves and bookstores were full of material that looked back at what was called the most destructive hundred years in history. In reel after reel, and on page after page, we were shown the carnage, the awful cost, it was said, of defeating evil. But told only that way, the history of the century’s conflicts would reinforce a terrible fallacy: that only violence can overcome violence, that the struggles with the highest stakes have to be settled by force of arms. Yet if that were true, how was it possible that in the same century, rulers and oppressors having every conceivable advantage in violent force were pushed aside on every continent by people who did not resort to violence?” (Ackerman & DuVall, 9)

Reflection Question: Do you think there is an overemphasis on violent conflict in history when compared to nonviolent conflict? If so, why do you think this is? Why a greater focus on violence? If not, what kinds of nonviolent movements have helped shape your understanding of history?

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13 thoughts on “7.3

  1. There is most definitely an overemphasis on violent conflict in history, at least as it was taught in my public schools. One of my favorite courses was AP European History, taught by a very engaging and reasonable teacher who became a big influence in my high school years. Granted, European history is really violent, but it is the celebration of that violence that – looking back – seems questionable. In between wars, history is portrayed as either a buildup to the next war, or as crisis in the aftermath of conflict. I think this is the case because history gives importance to the perpetrators of conflict – usually powerful male leaders. The historical narrative, then, is from their perspective and aligned with their usually violent values.

  2. There is definitely an over emphasis of violent conflict in history. In my own educational experience, I have rarely learned about non-violent movements. Even more, when I did discuss these movements we focused on the violent aspect of the movement. For the most part, I tend to believe that most people see humanity as inherently selfish, rather than peace loving. As a result of this, I think people focus on this violence simply because their is a lack of acknowledgement of successful non-violent movements. I also think people tend to believe these movements are outliers, even though they certainly common.

  3. There is definitely an overemphasis on violent conflict but I think one of the reasons for this is because history education, at least the way I experienced it in Florida, started in the ancient west (we rarely learned about the east) and barely made it into the 20th century where most of the nonviolent movements arose. Then, for the small amount of time dedicated to modern history, there are two epic wars to cover leaving very little room for anything else. One piece of nonviolent history that always did make it into the curriculum was about the fight for civil rights and Martin Luther King Jr.’s incredible power to move people.

    I think another reason why violence is more often taught is because there is an element of excitement to it, especially in our American culture. We have action movies, video games and the nightly news; violence is ingrained in our society’s understand of how the world works and when it’s presented in a fictional way (like the movies and games), it’s entertaining. Keeping kids attention in history sometimes takes a lot of work, so maybe focusing on violence adds some “stay awake” power to the curriculum.

  4. Maria Schneider–

    Yes I do think that there is an overemphasis on conflict in history. When I think of conflicts that are taught in class I am reminded on the various battles, wars and riots that according to many “have brought the U.S. and other nations to where we stand today.” I think that this overemphasis is because of the thought that war, revolution, colonialism, and slavery–the majority of which were violent–are makers of history that have made us more diplomatic, and “civilized”. Another reason why violent conflicts are given more attention than nonviolent ones is because they often are in response to oppression, slavery, discrimination from one group to another. The wars, battles and conflicts that history focuses on are those where there is victory in the eyes of those who have power. It is important to note, that these are the ones that “make” history.

    Martin Luther King’s actions during the civil rights, and non violent protests during the Vietnam Ware have helped shape my understanding of history. I’m not sure if they have made me look at history in a positive way, but they have impacted me. If anything these series of protests have made me frustrated with how the is and they motivate me to make positive change in the way I live and interact with others in my own life.

  5. I believe that I have retained more information about nonviolent movements than violent movements because of my personal disposition. However, if I actually paid attention to most of what was going on around me, I think I would know much more about violent movements. For example, I visited Ford’s theater yesterday. All of the displays were focused on the events leading up to and during the civil war. I realized that I didn’t know anything about anything- I couldn’t even add to my base of knowledge because I didn’t have one. There was a wall all about the generals in the war and it was like watching football to me- I couldn’t pay attention at all. I don’t think most people are like me. There is a preponderance of violence in our history because that is what most people are interested in. As others have said, it is flashy, exciting, and elicits a physical response in us. I do think that there is an overemphasis on violence in our society, but I am also concerned that some people, myself included, try to ignore it to preserve their own inner peace. I am more afraid of that than it being overemphasized.

  6. I think that the majority of teaching history in school focuses on violence versus non-violence. The few great examples we have of non-violent activists include big names such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King. A lot of non-violent action comes not just from one leader but from groups of people perhaps making it harder to highlight. It is easy to remember names but harder to remember movements, and perhaps some people don’t think of these movements as being examples of non-violent history. History unfortunately involves a lot of violent acts such as wars and genocides that are important to remember but in remembering it seems to lose emphasis on non-violent acts usually aroused because of such violence. It is important to emphasize these movements as much as the wars they are related to in order to make them stand out as important events and parts of our historical timeline. Wars have an outcome and that seems to be remembered more-so than the events leading up to and contributing to that outcome.

  7. I definitely think that there is an overemphasis of violent conflict in history. I agree with what was said in the introduction – as well as what Leah was saying – that people see history as a spectacle and not a process. I see the violent events fitting nicely into the “spectacle” category, while the nonviolent events are more “process”.

    I also believe that a lot of what we are taught about nonviolent conflict isn’t as memorable as what we are taught about violent conflict for different reasons. I think, at least for me, conflicts that are violent often trigger a strong emotional response. At the end of the day, none of my students discuss the two students were almost fought but worked it out. The topic of conversation is the fight that actually happened. Now I don’t think the vast majority of my students are predisposed to be violent, but I do think those actual incidents trigger a more emotional response and are then remembered.

    Because of this, I also think that we perceive that nonviolent conflicts happen far less often than they actually do – to me this is similar to people thinking that you are more likely to die in a plane crash than a car crash (notice how the first example that came into my mind was pretty violent) because of the media attention that a plane crash gets as compared to a car crash. I agree that the sensationalism of violent conflict in the media contributes to this perception.

  8. I think that violence does tend to dominate our history and how we tell it. I agree with others on here that in many ways it boils down to the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality. I certainly don’t think this is limited to the U.S. If you look at many of the Greek stories preserved today they will almost inevitably include violence as a method of evaluated a character’s nature, ability, or role in society. Moreover, Shakespearean plays are filled with war and violence. Regardless of the time or the historian I think that even today violence plays a larger role in history for several reasons:

    1. It’s often more exciting. Maybe we as humans just have an awful desire to learn about violence, see out groups hurt or punished, and use violence as a deterrence.

    2. Violent conflict is more measurable. If you ask a random adult in the U.S. (and I’d assume many parts of the world) what happened in World War II they would be able to give you a relatively accurate number of Jewish people who lost their lives. The same can be said for people who died on 9/11/2001 and perhaps even with the current conflict in Afghanistan. Nonviolence is much harder to measure. It’s harder to show and provide impact to the amount of people who were save from violence because of nonviolence or who were persuaded to change their mindset or action because of nonviolence.

    3. Violence perhaps just has more of an impact. I think that people are hit much harder when they or someone they know is a victim of violence. While I would assume that people might be positively impacted by nonviolence, I have yet to hear someone say “my brother was saved because of nonviolence”. Certainly that could just be my lack of exposure to enough people or my personal ignorance. But people seem to be more eager to share trauma, try to prevent violence, and to remember victims of violent conflict.

  9. I think there is an overemphasis on violence in history as opposed to nonviolence. First of all, we live in a country that prides itself on its militaristic strength above most else, and most Americans have been instilled with glorified ideas of war. For instance, we didn’t conquer the British through civil resistance. We had a violent revolution and that revolution has shaped our country’s ideals. So, I think pride in our military has a lot do to with it. I also think that on some levels, it’s easier to teach violence because there are more instances of violence than nonviolence in the world. Also, teaching nonviolence sometimes requires debunking some of the glorification myths which can be sensitive to some.

  10. When reflecting back on lessons in history and courses I have taken in school, I recall a majority of instances of violent conflict. Only when I begin to pick through my education do I remember lessons about nonviolent conflict, and when those lessons were taught it was as if that form was such a rarity, the teacher could only find one instance of nonviolence to teach about. I think there is an emphasis on violence because of the sensationalism in the media and the sense of power attached to it. Like Ackerman and DuVall write, “violence generates more news because, for many, history is perceived as a spectacle.” — it is only when people see history as a process that they can learn from it and see that nonviolence is a strategy for success, not just a moral decision. I think more people would gravitate towards learning about nonviolent conflicts in history when these movements are framed with the same sense of power and strength that is associated with violence, and I think nonviolence would receive more attention in the news if it is presented as a way of fighting back, not just sitting still.

    • Sex sells. People can’t help but watch. You slow down to look at the accident on the side of the road. Choose your cliche, but studying violent conflict in history is the same principal. Students become interested in lunch counter sit-ins not by the act itself, but by how it was met. Ed King praying on the steps of a Jackson, Mississippi church isn’t as interesting to a student as his swollen face after he was beaten for such actions.

      In my opinion, violent conflict in history is the focus of many studies because it is obvious. There was a great big fight and this was the result. I like how Richard referred to this as “abbreviated” history for mass consumption. It is much easier to accept entertainment (or textbook) as fact rather than to dig deeper. History is messy. History is complex. History is filled with multiple experiences of the same event. History is people and it takes time to truly understand – or come closer to understanding.

      As is probably obvious by now, my understanding of non-violence in history takes place in a place called America – not too long ago. My studies in history have spanned the globe, but my most passionate interest is the history of race in the American South and in the nation at large. This includes the uses of violence and non-violence. The interaction between the two is fascinating.

  11. Do you think there is an overemphasis on violent conflict in history when compared to nonviolent conflict?

    Answer: absolutely

    If so, why do you think this is?

    Answer: As an English teacher, I spend a lot of my day talking about stories. The commonality of every story, I tell my students, is that they are all about a protagonist on a quest to solve his/her conflict. Without conflict, I remind them, there is no story. Conflict creates change. No struggle no progress. Aphorisms such as these bind my curriculum together. This is because literature is generated from the essence of human nature. At the core of all humans is some kind of conflict. Whether it’s man vs. self, man vs. society, man vs. man, man vs. nature – there is conflict.

    Why a greater focus on violence?

    Answer: Violence is exciting. It is destructive, cruel, and horrific. But it is exciting. It creates a physical response in our bodies just watching it. It affects our neurology and stimulates hormones in our brains. It is exciting. While nonviolence is what we all seek, and certainly what I try to practice in my life each day, it does not hold peoples’ attention. The writing said nonviolence is not spontaneous and it requires “establishing a sustaining democracy.” This takes time and anything that happens over a long period of time quickly becomes dry and lackluster to those who crave stories. His-stories.

  12. Four separate questions have been raised for reflection. My responses are as follows:

    I would agree that the writing of “modern American History” I.e. from the birth of the nation to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has overemphasized violent conflict. American Historians and others of course know that history is much more that a series of battles, wars lost or won, armed rebellions and revolutions, and other dramatic acts of violence. However, when history is abbreviated to texts for all ages, for television, video (games) and cinema, the visual and dramatic is highlighted, and this is often violent and violence. The fact is that for the most keen readers and students of history, historical biographies are replete with the mundane and everyday work of individuals who work to avoid the conflict which have come to characterize “history”.

    I think this over emphasis on violent conflict is present in the USA for a variety of reasons. I am not sure that the same is true in other parts of the world. As Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall have written, the “history” basically starts with the end of the Second World War. This coincides with the ascendancy of the USA to be the preponderant World power and Pax America. The rapid evolution of cinema and television to the demise of radio and newspapers also affected how history was reported, recorded and shared with the public. In countries where radio and newspapers still hold sway, the news and “history” is different than where television (film at 6 p.m;
    ! Breaking News) dominates. Imagine ever seeing a Breaking News which states “nonviolence has broken out in Country X”
    Also, other than demonstrations/marches, how can television report on a go-slow, or a boycott? There is a problem of making these things visual. The overemphasis on violence also is linked to a generation of leaders whose philosophies have been formed by war. For a long time, no leader could think of running if he/she did not have a military record.

    Why a greater focus on violence? Dwight Eisenhower warned of the pervasive power of the military-industrial complex. When this development is coupled with the telecommunication revolution and its impact on the media (television, videos, cinema over newspapers and radio), and the mind set of WWII and Cold War leaders, violent conflict will be overemphasized.

    Despite much rhetoric and reporting of wars and revolutionary struggle in several countries, the vast majority of countries which were decolonized by France and Great Britain, was sone through nonviolent means. The Portuguese had a different experience with their former colonies in Africa. Nonetheless, the forms of anti-colonial agitation for the most part, were some variation of the Gandhian approach of nonviolent agitation and onfrontation. The decolonization movement was largely nonviolent and has shaped my understanding of history

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