Brian Rathbun - The Other Cheek: A Psychological Signaling Account of How Nonviolent Movements Use Morality

Encina Hall West, room 400

Nonviolent movements place pressure on their targets through the use of moral power, convincing interested audiences of their ethical bona fides. However, the ways by which this occurs have neither been rigorously tested nor theoretically developed. Combining moral psychology with insights from costly signaling research in international relations, I argue that nonviolent movements make use of moral universals to generate public sympathy and induce targets to change their behavior. As previously theorized, nonviolent movements can use the superior force of their opponents against them, particularly if they persist in nonviolent conflict rather than resort to violent retaliation. By not making use of the principle of reciprocity, which would excuse such a response in the eyes of audiences, they reveal themselves to be particularly committed to the principle of nonviolence, which itself rests on a moral universal of avoiding harm to others. Turning the other cheek also allows nonviolent movements to signal more resolve than even violent movements (willing to escalate the use of force) can. Yet, nonviolent movements can uniquely signal this willpower while avoiding conflict spirals and perceptions of intransigence that justify repression and prevent diplomatic resolutions. I test this argument using three survey experiments on the American public. Respondents were asked to respond to a variety of different scenarios in which inhabitants of overseas territories home to U.S. military bases protest for "decolonization." I combine these surveys with an archival-based case study of the effects of the Indian civil disobedience campaign of 1930-1 on the British government and find strong support for my claims. I also theorize that authoritarians will be more resistant to the tactics of nonviolent movements as a function of their general opposition to the disorder brought about by protest and an unwillingness to recognize civil disobedience movements as truly nonviolent. This proves true in both American survey respondents and British elites, suggesting a limitation to the effectiveness of nonviolence.


Brian Rathbun received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002 and has taught at USC since 2008. He has written five solo-authored books, on humanitarian intervention, multilateral institution building, diplomacy, rationality and morality. His articles have appeared in International Organization, International Security, World Politics, International Studies Quartlery, the Journal of Politics, Security Studies, the European Journal of International Relations, International Theory, and the Journal of Conflict Resolution among others. He is the recipient of the 2009 USC Parents Association Teaching and Mentoring Award. In 2019 he was recognized as a Distinguished Scholar by the Diplomatic Studies Section of the International Studies Association. His book, Diplomacy's Value (Cornell University Press 2014) won the same section's inaugural book award. His most recent book, Reasoning of State (Cambridge University Press 2019) won the 2018-2020 best book award from the Foreign Policy section of the American Political Science Association. In his free time, he rescues kittens from trees.