Imagine a Violent World Where You Have No Military Option: What Would You Do?

06/13/2014 01:55 pm ET | Updated Aug 13, 2014

Imagine a violent world in which all means to defend yourself with violence is out of the question. No matter which way you turn the people with guns just suck. They are dangerous, unreliable, and are killing or getting killed all the time. What would you do? Especially if you were a guy, like most who do the killing in conflict. What if you were surrounded with corrupt and dangerous military on the one side and extremist rebels on the other?

No one likes to think about this reality, even though it is the more common reality of war faced by millions of people since the dawn of time. It does not fit our neat brain patterns for simplistic gut reactions. Some gut reactions always side with government and military, others side with those who are defiant and willing to fight. Everyone wants an option where you can fight for a noble cause. Some follow Bin Laden's formula for what is human instinct join the strongest horse, and to hell with everyone else.

We are learning from analysis of history the following tough facts: most rebellions don't win; most repressive regimes react with far greater repression and violence after rebellions or attempted rebellions; that even if rebellions win, the people who win really suck, and are often worse than what you started with; that rebellions are often funded by outside states and ideologues who have no interest in your welfare, so the chances of violence improving your life is pretty low.

Here are some things that are working globally, but they work slowly, in an evolutionary way that takes time and patience:

Women's empowerment. Women are far less violent than men, wherever they are empowered there is less violence. So a way to improve the fight against an unjust system when violence is a non-starter, is indirect subversion of systems of violence by empowering more women.

Education and literacy. Literate people are simply smarter at outsmarting repressive systems. The literacy also gives them the tools to communicate across groups that creates more solidarity, more empathy and understanding for all people.

Dialogue and negotiation skills. Repressive systems depend on people being divided and conquered, separated by any means possible, religion, ethnicity, class, tribe. Dialogue and negotiation skills give people the skills to create coalitions to build a better society despite corrupt and repressive systems, and despite outside attempts to support extremist violent groups or criminal gangs.

Entrepreneurship from the bottom up. Do business between groups, find ways around corrupt systems to make money in any way you can that creates bonds of friendship and solidarity. From that base demand that the global community stop dealing only with the corrupt regimes or extremists with natural resources, demand with a global voice to be heard and included in the global commercial community.

Inspiration. Spread new ideas and visions for living, either of the secular or religious variety, that focus on common values of empathy, compassion, justice, and equality. Ideas are contagious in human history, bad ones and good ones, but most people prefer good ones like human rights, when they see the value for them and their families. Minorities and women are especially interested in values that will protect them from violent people on all sides.

Engage with conflict resolution skills those in the society who are the most oppressive. Build nonviolent bridges and see where there can be alliances for common causes, such as children, environment, wealth and prosperity.

When all else fails, and these incremental steps are all suppressed, then consider the power and value of nonviolent resistance methodologies of the variety that Gandhi and Martin Luther King practiced. My one caveat on that score is that too much emphasis is placed on mass demonstrations, which are really only a fraction of the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance, and can be very dangerous when innocents are slaughtered and crowds lose control. The spiral of violence then plays into the hands of all those locally--and globally--who are empowered by violence.

Sometimes the use of force is necessary, and occasionally it has led to less violence and more peace. There is no denying this in rare cases, but mostly it ends badly. This is then what we must do most of the time, especially before open wars break out. Imagine we have no good military options, develop far more empathy for those millions who are stuck in this reality, and start supporting locally and globally the slow and steady kinds of change that are less violent, more visionary and incremental, more subversive and indirect. They have more lasting impact and have in fact steadily created a better world in many regions and countries.