New Heroes Of Transformation

Imagining a framework for the power of nonviolence

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Justice (IC#38)
Originally published in Spring 1994 on page 43
Copyright (c)1994, 1997 by Context Institute

Arthur Kanegis is founder of Future WAVE: Working for Alternatives to Violence in Entertainment. As president of 2020 Productions, Inc., he is co-producing a film called "Astrocops: Peacekeepers of the Future."

Interpreter of mythology Joseph Campbell observed that since the beginning of civilization, the behavior of every society has been largely molded by its storytellers.

In the days of old, stories of the heroic warriors were used to inspire young men to become soldiers and young women to marry them. The warrior would either win – building an empire of power, seizing a bounty of riches, and securing safety for his society – or lose, bringing shame, subjugation, and poverty to his people. The old myth that we have only two choices – fight or flight – is deeply ingrained in many cultures.

There is another way – an awesome power that has proven itself in dramatic confrontations on the personal, national, and global scale. However, we are often so locked into the old mindset that we fail to see what is before our very eyes.

For example, when the people of Moscow stood up to the Red Army during the 1989 coup, the world braced for what it believed to be inevitable. The tanks would roll, the KGB would assassinate the leaders and the people would be massacred. The US Marines, the CIA, even our 26,000 nuclear weapons stood by, impotent and obsolete. No force seemed powerful enough to stop the onslaught.

Instead, the unexpected occurred. The people of Moscow introduced their babies to the tank drivers, put flowers in their gun barrels, and appealed to them as human beings. In a dramatic, nonviolent confrontation, Moscow was liberated and an empire crumbled.

We watched it all on TV – but did we see it? Did commentators marvel at this awesome display of nonviolent power? Did producers rush out to be the first with the "movie of the week," replaying the emotion of this dramatic nonviolent confrontation? Not at all. Newscasters failed to even notice the world-shaking force that had just been displayed. Rather, they chose to focus on questions like: "Why did the coup leaders lose their nerve? What was their weakness?"


The mass media stories in our culture are imbued with the warrior ethos, which focuses on good conquering evil, not with goodness but with superior violence. We are so conditioned to accept the power of violence that we don’t have a framework to see the emerging power of nonviolence.

For decades we have witnessed dramatic nonviolent revolutions that have swept the old guard out of power, first in India, then the American South and more recently in the Philippines, Poland, and elsewhere. But these nonviolent dramas are usually seen as aberrations, not reasons to re-examine our cultural myths.

Part of the problem is linguistic. The word "nonviolence" is inadequate for the alternative force we are discussing. It implies the passive acceptance of abuse and injustice. In fact it is just the opposite. The courage required for a nonviolent confrontation with force is incalculable.

When Medgar Evers was shot down in Mississippi on his "march against fear" through the South in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders picked up the banner, non-violently facing rocks, knives, and guns.

Leaders of the movement knew that a physical confrontation was exactly what the white power structure of Jackson, Mississippi, wanted. Violence would have taken the battle into an arena where police and city leaders had the upper hand. The reality is that armed conflict is a weaker, less effective, more cowardly, more fear-based response than facing violence with unarmed courage. These acts of courage can be inspiring and contagious, and I think they make great stories.


All the stories of effective nonviolent action contain three elements.

  • Courage. Don’t be afraid. Attackers smell fear; they are full of it themselves. If their opponents are not afraid, attackers’ weapons lose much of their power.
  • Humanity. See the human being behind the violent deed. Treat the person with love, respect, and understanding, taking time to listen to what’s exploding inside. Speak to his or her condition.
  • Initiative. Originate a reframed situation; don’t play into their violent game. Draw your opponent into a nonviolent interaction you have set up in which both sides win.

These three steps – Courage, Humanity, Initiative – create the acronym "CHI." In oriental philosophy, Chi is the soul energy that can turn around a dangerous situation – rather than fight an opposing energy, you embrace it and turn it so it is going your way.

Have you had an experience of countering violence with CHI? I believe it is time we started telling our stories. I believe we can all help develop new kinds of heroes and heroines who resonate creative action and transformational power. And when we do, we can help kids – and presidents – learn to play a better game than war.

This article was adapted with permission from an article that first appeared in Media & Values #63, Center for Media Literacy, 1962 S. Shenendoah, Los Angeles, CA 90034.

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