Embracing tension in non-violent uprising

XR Australia
'Successful movements are not ones which do not contain tension, but ones which are able to move forward together whilst holding this tension.'


A high level of emotional investment can cause difficulties when things do not quite go as we would have hoped. In the heights of frustration, it can feel tempting to walk away, self-sabotage or allow infighting to prevent us from achieving our aims.

But tension is inherent to non-violent uprisings. Successful movements are not ones which do not contain tension, but ones which are able to move forward together holding this tension. 

2020 is set to be a vital year for the climate movement and our planet as a whole. In order to help our movement thrive, here are some key principles of nonviolent uprisings and common areas of tension we should be aware of.

Non-violent uprising

The environmental theory of change for many years has been to appeal to peoples’ better nature through campaigns, petitions or marches.

We need to acknowledge that this strategy has not been effective enough and the situation we are in is one where we need large scale changes, fast. The relative success of the climate rebellion has been underpinned by certain principles – the core ones being non-violence, disruption, sacrifice and bifurcation.

Research shows the power of nonviolence – that active non-violent resistance movements are more effective than violent ones. The book Why Civil Resistance Works argues that over the last century, non-violent uprisings have been around twice as effective as violent ones.

Disruption is important because it gets peoples’ attention and forces them to emotionally grapple with the issue. It also pushes those in power to make the necessary changes by imposing economic costs to inaction.

Disruption can manifest in many different forms, such as blocking roads, shutting down buildings or disturbing a company’s AGM. When the costs of the disruption exceed the costs of doing what is being demanded, those in power often give in.

Dynamic process

Sacrifice is the willingness to suffer for what is right - embodied through acts such as striking from school, being arrested or going on hunger strike. It is effective because a willingness to suffer for a cause conveys to people the sincerity of those taking action and emotionally engages people with the issue.

It is not the aim of a nonviolent uprising to have everyone support us. The aim is getting a small proportion (around 3.5 percent) of people on the streets and causing disruption.

We do this through a dynamic process - starting with a small proportion of people telling the truth about the crisis and taking high intensity actions. This causes a sub-proportion of the wider population to take notice and realise the intensity of the issue at hand. This new group is moved by the sacrifice of the protestors to take action themselves.

While these intense actions do activate some, they also deter large numbers of the population – a process known as bifurcation of the population. While it might intuitively seem unhelpful having large numbers of people turned off from the movement, these people were probably never going to be the ones making up the 3.5 percent needed.

It is through a repeated rhythm of escalating actions and bifurcation that the uprising grows.

Areas of tension

Due to the dynamic nature of nonviolent uprisings, tension inevitably arises between different members, groups or factions taking part. Some of these tensions may include difficulties with bifurcation, as a natural by-product of bifurcation is a lot of people turned off from the movement.

Disapproval from people or the press can feel hard and can be especially difficult for members who feel less comfortable with the bifurcation process.

Another area of tension can be difficulties with disruption. Disrupting someone’s day causes people to become unsettled, irritated or even angry. This can be a difficult experience emotionally and can lead to feelings such as guilt or fear. There can also be different views amongst individuals as to what form disruption should take and who it should target.

The unevenness of sacrifice can be a source of difficulties. The level of sacrifice attached to an action is inherently higher for some people in society than others.

For example, an individual with health difficulties is risking more by sleeping outside during an uprising and individuals from BAME communities are risking more putting themselves in a situation of arrest. How this inherent unevenness is communicated, understood and managed in a group can be a source of tension between group members.

Uncharted territory

Much of the tension encountered surrounds escalation actions. People taking part in escalating actions are putting themselves in unchartered territory.

It can be difficult to predict how the actions will plan out. For example, whether the action will be executed safely and receive a positive response from the press.

Individuals who are willing to carry out these high intensity actions are often low in number and so people may feel a burden to carry out escalating actions themselves even when they do not feel comfortable doing so. These individuals may feel anxiety about the level of risk they are holding – including risks to their own safety, reputation and relationships.

This can cause difficult emotions towards others in the group not participating in escalating actions. In a situation where an escalating action maybe did not receive very good press coverage, this can be very emotionally difficult for those who took part, especially if other group members are unsupportive at this time.

On the flip side, individuals not carrying out escalation actions may feel as though the escalation process is moving too fast or that they don’t have control over what these actions entail. Those not involved in the high intensity actions group may become aggrieved when escalating actions get negative press and feel as though they have no way to stop this from happening again.

Going forward

Finally, individuals may also become frustrated with those carrying out low intensity actions - feeling they are taking up time and resources without creating disruption or an impact.

However, others can perceive these as being a helpful first step, which may later lead to people taking up a support role or engaging in other, easier forms of civil disobedience.

Successful movements are not ones which do not contain tension, but ones which are able to move forward together whilst holding this tension. While the above is by no means an exhaustive list of potential tension areas, hopefully outlining them will reduce confusion and frustration for the year ahead and allow open communication to take place between group members.

Doing this will allow us to foster cohesion between members and groups, even in emotionally turbulent situations.

2020 is going to be an incredibly important year for our climate. The world needs us to move forward together.

This Author

Holly Petersen works in mental health and holds an MSc in psychology. She is an Extinction Rebellion activist. 

Image: Helena Smith, XR.