Get Involved When It’s None Of Your Business

peace through non-violence, take a stand on violence, intervene in conflict, conflict resolution,

 Working in a retail job, you think you’ve become accustomed to bad behavior on the part of children as well as parents. But you are appalled to see a mother use an umbrella to spank a small boy.

Will intervening threaten the child or endanger your job?

Walking through a grocery store parking lot, you notice a crying toddler in the grocery cart and a woman screaming at the child as she loads packages in her car. She slaps the child’s face and arms as you walk past.

If you say anything will you make it worse?  


Looking out your apartment window you see a young man standing next to a motorcycle, pushing and yelling at a teenaged girl from the building who seems to be his girlfriend.

Would the police consider this abuse if you called?


Leaving work later than usual on a wintry evening you have the feeling you’re being followed. As you turn a corner you see an ill-dressed youth close behind you. He holds out a gun and asks for money.

Are there any options that don’t leave a victim?


Driving past a cluster of youths on a city street, you realize that they are clubbing a boy with a piece of wood. It’s safer for you to continue in traffic, but you want to defend this teen from his aggressors.

Can your heart and head agree on a course of action?

peace through pacifism, tactics of non-violence,

Violence is familiar. It’s highlighted in news, movies and video games. It erupts in our homes or homes nearby, even if few people admit it. It’s insidious and damaging. Violence at all levels, from the personal to the global, is highly ineffective in creating lasting positive change.

Yet we know very little about nonviolence. We may be aware of Mohandas Gandhi’s satyagraha. This philosophy, which Gandhi called “soul force,” inspired the passive resistance successfully used in the U.S. civil rights movement and the healing honesty of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But most people don’t think these approaches are relevant. In fact, pacifism is often confused with those who are passive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nonviolence requires a level of conviction and inner strength that makes violence look easy.

Nonviolence doesn’t imply lack of anger or conflict. Strong emotions like anger can be a catalyst for change; rallying us to become more aware, to take action or to seek help. Conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction. Dealing with conflict constructively, creatively, and with mutual regard lets conflict serve a useful purpose.

The tactics of nonviolence have worked throughout history. But, as it’s often said, history is written by the victors. Scholar Antony Adolf writes in Peace: A World History, “The champions of peace, momentous and everyday, intellectual and activist, expert professional and lay, have for too long been considered exceptions that prove this rule, when in actuality without their efforts there may not have been a history to live, let alone write.”

Nonviolent principles work today, although they continue to be little known. According to the Human Security Report, from the University of British Columbia, peacemaking efforts by the United Nations as well as voluntary activism continue to have a powerful impact. Although little reported by the media, the world has seen a significant decline in violence. The overall number of armed conflicts has declined by 40% in the last 16 years with the deadliest conflicts dropping by 80%. Three decades ago 90 countries were governed by authoritarian regimes; now fewer than 30 suffer this oppression.

volunteers save the world, non-violence in action, peacemaking, pacifism tactics,

The efforts of individuals may make the biggest difference. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World about the efforts of caring people everywhere around the world. Before the abolitionist movement there were pitifully few groups working on behalf of others. Since that time the number of people collaborating for the greater good has grown at an unprecedented rate. Now there are over a million organizations seeking environmental sustainability, social justice, cultural preservation, and peace. Hawkin says that never before in history have there been so many people working on behalf of others.

In fact the success of humankind is based on peaceful person to person, group to group interaction. The unwritten span of prehistory makes up 99% of our time on earth. Most anthropologists affirm that cooperation was pivotal for survival during this long stage, when people lived in nomadic hunter-gatherer bands. A lone human would not last long. No claws, fangs or heavy fur protected them. Interdependence was key. Together our forebears developed language, healing arts, and methods of procuring food. Cooperative efforts in child rearing, protection from predators, and shelter from the elements gave them a survival edge. This entire period of our development was characterized by generally peaceable human interactions. There’s minimal evidence of warfare in this span of prehistory. Planned aggression against others likely developed around the start of agriculture.

From the larger perspective of time we are barely out of prehistory, still adjusting to the complexities of civilization. As anthropologist Douglas P. Fry notes in Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace, cooperation and empathy accurate represent our species. Violence is not “human nature.” We flourish best with gentle nurturance and continued cooperation.

violence tends to escalate, non-violent tactics,

So what’s the first nonviolence principle we should know? De-escalation. A major characteristic of violence, verbal as well as physical, is that it tends to escalate.  It is most easily reversed at the beginning and becomes progressively more difficult to stop as it spirals into more intense violence. Those who study the effects of intervention in violent situations have found when others object or actively intervene, their efforts tend to slow or stop the violence.  Dr. Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule, reports in The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, that the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Nazis in Germany began their campaigns of genocide with small persecutions which citizens allowed to continue.  He reports that action by “bystanders” (those who are not victim or perpetrator) empowers the victim and diminishes the power of the aggressor. But ignoring the suffering of others allows the violence to escalate.

That’s true in our daily lives as well. When we deal with signs of conflict right away, firmly and with compassion, we don’t permit problems to get worse. That’s just one principle of nonviolence. The more we know about nonviolence, the wider the range of options we have to choose from in each situation.


Comparison of violent versus nonviolent responses, developed by the late John Looney, founder of the Peace Grows course, Alternatives to Violence.

What about situations you might encounter at work, in a parking lot, in your neighborhood, while driving or walking down the street? All of the circumstances described at the beginning were actual experiences. Fortunately the people facing these situations had studied nonviolence and they decided to take a stand.

The store clerk who witnessed a mother using an umbrella to hit a child intervened quickly. She stepped next to the mother and said quietly, “You have to stop that right now.”

The mother was furious. She protested that she had the right to discipline her child. The clerk agreed, keeping her voice low and calm, “Yes, you do. But how you do it makes a difference.”

She listened as the child’s mother continued to argue with her, then said, “Can I tell you something? I’m sure my mother took good care of me. But she got mad easily and hit me a lot. Not one person ever stuck up for me. When I grew up I decided I’d never speak to her again and I haven’t. I’m not saying it’s the same for you and your child, but I just had to say something.”

The mother responded by describing to the clerk the many ways she was a good mother to her son. The tone of the woman’s voice as well as her attitude changed as she focused on her parenting strengths. On her way out of the store she picked up the child and said, “Momma loves you even when she’s mad, you know that don’t you?”


The man about to walk past the woman slapping her toddler in the parking lot had an idea. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a ten dollar bill and covertly dropped it near them. He made a show of leaning over and finding the bill.  He held it out to the woman and asked if it might be hers.

Although she insisted it was not her money he gave it to her, considering it money well spent. As they spoke he made some positive observations about her child. He sympathized with her difficulty, mentioning that when his kids were young he found it easiest to take along a few snacks and small toys to keep them busy. They talked and by the time he walked away the woman and toddler were both smiling. His simple act stopped the violence and for that moment he’d brought a positive element to the situation.


The neighbor who witnessed a motorcyclist pushing and yelling at his girlfriend decided he couldn’t stand by. He walked casually out of his apartment and just as he was about to pass the couple he paused. When the boyfriend noticed his glance the neighbor made an admiring comment about the bike. His attention disrupted the abuse. He and the young man struck up a brief conversation about motorcycles. His observations on treating the bike well may just as easily have been about treating a person with loving attention. By interrupting the abuse he offered the girl time to leave, if she chose, and he hoped it established a rapport that might be helpful if the girl wanted to talk at a later time.


The commuter walking late along a cold, dark street confronted by a gunman was afraid he might lose his wallet, coat, and perhaps his life.  He also empathized with the poorly dressed youth. Ignoring the gun and disrupting the man’s plan to make him a victim, he said, “It’s cold. Why don’t you take my jacket?”

As he took off the coat he kept talking about the wintry weather. He offered to purchase food, even give the young man money. The aggressor was confounded by the man’s generosity and lack of fear. Acting embarrassed, he refused the food, money and jacket. The commuter insisted the youth take the jacket as a gift. He may have gone home without his own jacket but he transformed a potential crime into an encounter of compassion.


The woman who drove past teens pummeling another youth with a piece of wood chose to stop her car in traffic. Standing at her open car door she called to them, telling them to stop what they were doing. They were surprised but held their ground. One jeered at her asking why she would care about some kid who was a stranger to her while the others laughed. She answered that she cared about all of them. And then she said she would stop if she saw any of them being hurt.

“Next time I might need to stop for you,” she told the youth who questioned her. Anger defused, they walked away. She left when she saw the youth who’d been hurt get up and walk in the other direction.


These people chose action over despair.  Their creative, unique solutions served as peaceful de-escalations of violent situations.  They may not have eliminated the causes or “solved” the issue but they pointed a way out.  Making a stand does make a difference.

Our anger and our concerns about violence can be shaped into purposeful, peaceful action. This is the greatest antidote to despair.

conflict resolution, de-escalation of violence, teaching non-violence, pacifism,

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Natural Life Magazine.

16 thoughts on “Get Involved When It’s None Of Your Business

  1. Thanks, this was wonderful. I especially loved the real-life scenarios. I have agonized about this question of intervention, and this was great encouragement to take courage and take a stand. I do sometimes worry about how we know when we are imposing our own values by intervening, but I liked the examples about just injecting some compassion into the situation even without saying something directly. Thanks!


    • In the non-violence workshops I facilitate there was once a very heated discussion about imposing our values on cultures where beating women or children is the norm. It was very illuminating. As you pointed out, it’s about injecting some compassion into the situation, not determining wrong or right. I particularly liked the way the woman who stopped her car to interrupt the beating of the teen put it, “next time I might need to stop for you.” That’s what it’s about. Showing compassion for every single person involved. That’s nonviolence in action.


  2. I’m so glad you shared this. Lately I’ve been feeling less optimism. It seems that everything is falling apart. But, as you’ve rightly pointed out, there are a lot of better things about this time. More compassion. Less authoritarianism.

    I appreciate your examples because I wouldn’t have thought to intervene in a way that didn’t involve confrontation. I wouldn’t have thought, “Defuse”.


  3. Well. Crying a little here. Thank you. I often read posts by people who promote getting involved for what I consider to be judgmental reasons, and in judgmental, unhelpful ways, like talking to the child rather than the parent. I really appreciate the love which emanates from what you have written here. Love for everyone. Understanding the stresses that lead people to make bad choices, and the kindness we can offer them even when they are being violent. You’ve inspired me in big and small ways today.


  4. Lovely and compassionate. Given that being effective in promoting non-violence requires a significant level of calm confidence, it serves us to support each other to heal our wounds and anxieties and, in turn, be able to offer compassionate calm to others. Namaste


  5. Found ya’, Laura Weldon, on this Non-Violence piece on INSTITUTE FOR HUMANE EDUCATION
    (Zoe Weil, and IHE, thank you for all you be and how you do, like ‘connecting’ me with
    Laura’s blog, I wanted in ‘right now’
    My twin sister called me today, about witnessing a father punching his daughter in the
    supermarket, (guys on line at the cash register, not one moved to intervene!)
    Even though she was afraid, she HAD to intervene. Don’t know what she said, but
    the father looked at her with a “drop dead” face. She spoke to the 10 yo girl alone outside,
    asking the important questions about ongoing abuse, which the girl denied.
    Sister never did this before, didn’t know how to handle it from there, and then…they were gone.
    Berated herself for not asking the girls name. Not chasing them down.
    But THEN SAID: “Who knows what miseries the father might be going through? to trigger
    that behaviour (not that’s its excusable, but….my sister thought about the man himself.

    I recently added my voice to a form petition letter, and added additional thoughts as to
    why this 20 year researcher should stop this work using live dogs, and found myself
    talking about current changes happening in almost every arean (which must not and cannot be resisted in this case, I wrote) and then FOUND MYSELF WRITING “I pray this change will
    bring you good as well as the dogs. My heart just opened up to include him as he (hopefully)
    will shift into what’s next for his life. Win-Win.
    Love you, love Love, love NVC, a highest form of Love. Win-Win. Priceless.


    • So good to get your note and hear that you apply lovingkindness even in form letters.

      As for what your sister did in the grocery store, here’s an observation. For years I facilitated a support group for people who were abused as children. The age of those who came to meetings ranged from 20-something to 70-something. Worthlessness, shame, and despair echoed through their lives in all sorts of ways even though every one of them had moved on in profound and healing ways. But when asked what they’d do if they witnessed a child being abused every one of them agreed they’d do something, even if the parent was so angered by another person’s comment that they took out their frustration on the child later. Why? Not one person in the group ever remembered a single adult standing up for them—-not a neighbor, relative, teacher, or stranger. Signs of abuse (bruises or filthy clothes or obvious long-term hunger or horrifically damaging comments made to them in front of others) were all ignored, looked at curiously, or judged as the child’s fault. These responses only intensified the child’s feeling that he or she deserved what was happening or that was so unworthy that even his or her misery was invisible. Several people in the group do remember brief moments of kindness from others—–some recalled encouraging words from teachers, some appreciated the haven they found in the homes of friends where they felt accepted by the friend’s parents, some remembered the feel of a coach’s hand on a shoulder and knew that all touch didn’t hurt—–and they hung on to these few positive memories throughout their lives. What I’m getting to is that your sister made a difference.


  6. It’s hard to know how you’ll react until you find yourself in the situation. There have been times when I couldn’t think of a way to defuse the situation or offer support to the abused. However I have found a way to deal with parents abusing their kids in public places. First I disrupt the situation by approaching the parent & child. I praise the child’s clothes, then something else about the child that reflects well on the parent. The parent ALWAYS responds to the praise and starts treating the child as the precious being s/he is. Then I commiserate with the parent on how tiring childrearing can be, especially when the child is tired. Etc.
    One time a very young teenaged mother who lived a few doors down from me was screaming at her baby that she’d missed her bus & would be late to work. I came out of my house and said calmly, “With all this fresh snow, everyone will be late. I bet you $5 that your bus is late, too. It’ll be fine.” For whatever reason, after that day she became a much calmer mother and she learned to enjoy her son.
    What I do may not be enough, but it’s something I can be comfortable with and it does seem to calm down things at least for the moment.
    I also try to keep lines of communication open when I know someone is in an abusive relationship. I don’t want the victim to become isolated & hear only the abuser’s voice. I listen & I make it clear I will help if/when s/he decides to make any changes. I would like to pull the victim away but I don’t have the skills to do anything but let the victim make up her own mind to leave. In one sense, I am giving the victim some control of a situation where s/he otherwise would have no control.


  7. Oh, I loved this so much I shared the violent v’s non-violent approaches with several of my friends, as we had had a great conversation JUST last night about reconciliation. I am often disrespected for my non-violence. Maybe mine is on the ‘extreme’ side because I actually believe that when Jesus instructed us to love our neighbors and pray for our enemies he meant that we are not to kill them. I’m anti-military, war and death-penalty. Of course when I hint at this I get the whole, “But the military does so many good things!” and “But killing Bin Laden is going to save so many innocent lives!” Maybe in all of our shades of grey it’s ok for someone like me to take a firm stand without compromise.

    Jesus didn’t say, “Love your neighbors, but…” I can’t answer all the questions people toss my way about the posotive outcomes of violence or the danger of being non-violnet… all I know is that whenever we start adding clauses to Christ’s instructions we’re heading into a very bad place.

    I stumbled across your blog through a series of links starting at the Time 4 Learning website and I am very glad I did. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for actually, well, THINKING. LOL!


    • Jesus truly preaches pacifism. Not sure how else to interpret “turn the other cheek.” And this passage from Matthew describes the non-violent approach well: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

      I think that also translates into the way we talk to each other, whether about non-violence versus violence or any other topic. People are so polarized that it’s hard, if not impossible, to see one another’s viewpoints let alone open a window into a different, more gentle way of being. Unless we accept each other exactly as we are as a starting point. In conversation it’s possible to see that people actually speak out of fear, which is why any of us hide behind violence and force. Rather than pointing a finger at that fear, we can find some points of agreement even with those whose viewpoints seem in total opposition to our own. Taking your example of disagreeing over the role of the military. It’s possible to talk about why your conversation partners, at the very root of it, want the military to bring peace, order, stability, all sorts of positive things. You can agree on the desire for those outcomes. You can acknowledge that across the world people want to raise their children to have a better future. Taking that as a starting point, it’s possible to talk about ways of assuring that. You may be able to talk about some other root causes of global instability that go beyond what force can achieve and they may be able to talk about positives as well. Now both are listening, and that’s a way to open true dialogue.


  8. I must simply start by saying, “Wow”. You are a master of words. Not a single phrase is wasted and they all convey a heavy topic. The entire article is obviously full of merit but the particular lines that stuck out to me are these, ” In fact, pacifism is often confused with those who are passive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nonviolence requires a level of conviction and inner strength that makes violence look easy.”

    I can relate to that on a number of levels. I worked with high-risk youth at a Boys & Girls Club for just under a decade and found myself in explosive situations regularly. Now those youth are adults and I am proud to say some of the most electric personalities are some of the most responsible adults I know. Providing the tools for conflict resolution is a must and I honestly believe most people will attempt to use those tools if given the option. Now I find myself involved in local politics and conflict resolution is probably my most valuable asset.


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