Geir Grung Memorial Lecture: How to topple a dictator

Geir Grung Memorial Lecture: How to topple a dictator Lina Halvorsen

On Friday, 22 April, Studentersamfunnet held one of its annual ‘Grung-lectures’ with guest speaker Srda Popovic, on how one can ‘topple a dictator’ through peaceful revolution and non-violent movements.

Srda Popovic is a previous leader of the student movement Otpor!, which contributed to the fall of the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. As co-founder of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), Popovic has sought to educate activists from over 50 countries on nonviolent strategies when advocating against repressive regimes.

It is not necessarily bravery that leads to movements and revolutions, but necessity. There is no other alternative. It is a flight or fight situation, Popovic says. However, the question remains how to make democratic change durable. It is easy to motivate people to occupy the main areas outside the financial or government districts, but without long-term tactics that are replicable such actions will eventually fizzle out. Therefore planning is essential and often the smaller non-violent acts are more effective.

Popovic laments the fact that non-violent movements are given minimal attention in history and popular culture. The focus still remains on violent conflict. However, what truly matters in history is consequence. Non-violent movements have had the broadest and most influential consequences throughout from the Civil Rights Movement in the USA - and later in South Africa, India’s quest for independence spearheaded by Gandhi and so on. What actually really matters in history is the stuff we know very little about, claims Popovic. The fact also remains that non-violent campaigns are ten times more likely to end in durable democracy than violent campaigns.

“Why isn’t anyone looking at the hobbits of the world?” Popovic explains that the reason why he loves non-violent movements is because it is always the common people who start it. Wherever you look, it is the 'political nobodies' who drive the world.

Even within the most repressive regimes small tactics can have an effect. The concept of ‘laughtivism’ can breed such useful tactics, where you make your object of fear into the punch line of a joke. Humour breaks down fear, Popovic explains. People in power tend to take themselves far too seriously. And therefore when they are made fun of they tend to act rather stupidly, making the joke even more effective. However, there is no such thing as a copy/paste function for a non-violent movement. Different tactics can be of inspiration, and as an outsider you can help to equip people with the necessary tools to form a movement, but inevitably people have to take action themselves. Tactics and movements have to be specified to contexts and particularities.

Therefore, understanding and focusing your tactics on the ‘bread-and-butter issues’ is key. Non-violent movements are also dependent on support in the masses rather than just certain groups. Thus, unity is essential and whatever unity is most complicated to achieve is the one you should focus on, according to Popovic. Non-violent movements may seem spontaneous in some of their actions and tactics, but actually do require quite a lot of planning and discipline as well. Finally, Popovic explains, in order to increase participation it is vital to attempt to minimize the element of risk.

Indeed, the main difference between violent and non-violent movements is that violent movements push to be heard. Non-violent movements pull. These movements seek to pull people out of the institutions that protect them and into the public debate where they can be held accountable to the people.

By Lina Halvorsen

Studentersamfunnet holds annual ‘Grung-lectures’ focused on different aspects of conflict resolution and international relations. Geir Grung was a Norwegian ambassador in Italy and has been both a contributor and a great source of inspiration to Studentersamfunnet.


Geir Grung Memorial Lecture Podcast

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