Home > Uncategorized > Learning from Gandhi – posted 10/15/2017

Learning from Gandhi – posted 10/15/2017

October 2, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, was the International Day of Non-Violence. On that day, at the United Nations, the Indian delegation sponsored an event entitled “Significance of Non-Violence in Today’s World.”

The event did not receive any public attention in the United States. It got zero publicity. While it is not surprising, no one from the United States UN delegation, from Ambassador Nikki Haley on down, even bothered to attend.

It is sad and it speaks volumes that no one from the United States UN delegation was there. We are the country with the non-violent tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a shining example of successful struggle. But at the same time, we are a country drenched in violence from our endless wars to our Las Vegas massacre to our everyday domestic violence.

We have become numbed and too accepting of the extraordinary violence around us.

I would not have known about the UN event if not for an old friend, Doug Allen. Allen, a philosophy professor at the University of Maine in Orono and a distinguished Gandhi scholar, was asked to speak at the UN event. Among a panel of experts, he spoke on the significance of Gandhi today.

In watching the event (it is available on the UN website), I was struck by the need for a renewal of the tradition of non-violent struggle in the United States. You do not hear much about non-violence as a political strategy. I think it is typically dismissed by cynics as the realm of hopeless idealism.

Professor Allen would dispute that perspective. The Gandhi he presented was a realistic activist. Gandhi waited on no political party to tell him what to do. Through decades of struggle working toward India’s independence. Gandhi maintained a concern about ethical questions. How do you live a moral life? How do you demonstrate care about human suffering? How do you lead a life of selfless service?

Gandhi was a moralist. He did not believe the ends justified the means. Gandhi did not want to lower his ethical standards.

At the same time, Gandhi, who was a lawyer by training, was realistic, cunning, and down-to-earth. He had been arrested and went to jail 13 times. He was very self-critical and considered himself a failure. He got depressed. As Professor Allen has remarked, he was not some Hallmark greeting card stereotype. He constantly reevaluated the best way to advance his non-violent movement. He was nuanced.

For those desiring social change and a genuine attack on income inequality in the United States, Gandhi’s history holds positive lessons. As activists here, we should not lower our ethical standards. I think of the examples of both King and Nelson Mandela. It was their moral power that drew people to their respective movements. No political party, while they have a role, can show us the way. We need movements outside our political parties.

The womens’ marches after Trump’s election are the most recent example of organizing that show how non-violence can power a massive movement. That potential needs to be harnassed. The horror that is the Trump presidency is also a powerful motivator.

I think identification with non-violence both sets a tone and prevents detractors from tarring social justice movements as “violent”.

Part of the job of a non-violent movement is raising consciousness about the violence around us. I believe we are too passive and accepting of what passes for normal violence. No shortage of items demonstrate this point.

We are in the 16th year of the war on terror. It is the 14th year since the start of the Iraq war. To quote the historian Andrew Bacevich: “On matters related to war. American citizens have opted out”. We do not pay that much attention. We have learned not to care. The wars are the equivalent of background music. As long as not too many Americans die, it is not a problem. Nobody seems to tabulate the astronomical cost.

The lack of rationale for these wars seem not to bother either political party. If we really cared about the troops, maybe we would oppose wars that lack any persuasive rationale.

The excessive bellicosity of our President also must be mentioned. While you could dismiss much of his verbiage as shtick, talk about destroying North Korea is unacceptable. Millions could potentially die in a nuclear war with North Korea. Trump’s talk about “the calm before the storm” is not reassuring.

NBC reported that Trump said during a meeting in July that he wanted a tenfold increase in the nation’s nuclear stockpile. This was the context where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly said Trump was a “moron”. Trump later denied NBC’s report, calling it “fake news”.

Gandhi would have put emphasis on challenging systemic power and not just the individual president but still Trump’s cavalier attitude toward war and violence is worrisome.

In discussing violence, it is impossible not to mention the Las Vegas Massacre. Our collective impotence in the face of this tragedy is remarkable. We are absolutely stumped about how to respond.

I think a renewal of the non-violent tradition in America is one appropriate response to Las Vegas and the broader violence. History shows that the moral power of non-violent movements can sometimes overcome opponents who are armed to the teeth.

In remembering Gandhi, I certainly did not want to say he was beyond criticism. I put him on no pedestal. However, he was a founder of the modern non-violent movement. For that alone, he deserves acknowledgment.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Kendel Currier
    October 23, 2017 at 4:34 pm

    Jon, Good to see you at the library, and thank you for telling me about this Gandhi peace, which I like very much. I would have emailed you directly but I lost your email address. My question after reading this is what do we DO about the current political situation? We can disagree and we can be not violent. I guess you are doing the important thing, writing publicly. Thank you for this! Kendel

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