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A Fresh Look at Gandhi – Part II

by Thomas Fischbacher. Read Part I here.

History has seen many an ideology fail that wrongly believed to "finally" explain everything that went wrong in this world, and show a way out. The problem with any such system of thought is that its key feature – "to explain everything" makes it both very seductive and very dangerous. Seductive, because many (most?) people experience psychological discomfort at the thought of living in a world they cannot fully understand, and dangerous, because any such ideology by construction must be unable to recognize feedback of the "you are on the wrong track here" sort – it will always have both an excuse and a remedy ready that is of the form "it would have worked straightaway if only …". So, how do such ideologies fail? In the only way they can – by bumping into the solid wall of hard reality.

In human societies, "conflict" more often than not is a conflict between different interpretations of the world around us and how we think it should be shaped. The dominant attitude towards "conflict" in western society is one of "might makes right". "Conflict" is typically seen as a problem of "preferred outcomes", with "strategy" being the key tool employed by both parties in conflict as they lead their own ideology to victory – as if the world were a game of chess.

Being about "preferred outcomes", the study of conflict is naturally seen to belong to the discipline of economics, and it comes to no surprise that the 2005 "Nobel Prize (which it is not) in economics" went to the author of an influential book from the 1960s titled "The strategy of conflict", by Thomas Schelling.

But is the victory of one of two opposing ideologies really a "preferred outcome"? Usually, (ideological) conflict arises from limited perspectives. Quite often at the root of the problem we find a clash of ideas – two profound but partial insights which wrongly have been declared as "the world formula" and hence over-generalized by those who have made the mistake of falling in love with them. Would not a true "preferred outcome" be to come to a deeper understanding of the world through resolving the over-generalizations of the applicability of each of the conflicting, deeply held beliefs?

Actually, this is not what happens in politics in western democracies. Indeed, the population is so immersed in an "ideological camp mentality" that we mistake that sorry state of affairs as the right way how politics is to be done. For example: to one camp it is perfectly evident that setting minimum wages would distort the market, hence lead to negative side effects such as unemployment (regardless of evidence that would support or contradict this idea), while to another camp, it is perfectly evident that without minimum wage laws, exploitation would result (regardless of evidence that would support or contradict this idea). The political tug of war is all about ideologies trying to win influence through manipulation without ever having to face the question of how the validity of key tenets could be verified by comparing predictions against reality.

The problem hence is one of implicit agreement on a highly inappropriate "protocol for conflict". The importance of Gandhi’s approach to conflict resolution is that he showed the viability of an alternative protocol that often leads to better results, as it works towards addressing problems at a deeper level – a level which can only be reached by resolving the initial limitations in the opposing parties’ perspectives. Gandhi’s contribution lies in propagating this approach, but he did not invent this alternative conflict resolution protocol, which, in his words, is "as old as the hills".

Here, it has to be understood that attempts to imitate the sheer form of this alternative conflict resolution protocol (which so often has demonstrated its power) within a mindset of "winning" conflict through skillful manipulation is pretty much bound to fail. We occasionally see such "non-violent manipulation" these days, quite often in the form of "hunger strikes" – and, usually, these are fairly ineffective. Why? Conceptually, such an attempt "to obtain miraculous benefits through imitating form devoid of any deeper understanding of function" parallels the World War II Cargo Cult of some Pacific cultures.

Cargo cult activity in the Pacific region increased significantly during and immediately after World War II, when large amounts of manpower and materials were brought in by the Japanese and American combatants, and this was observed by the residents of these regions. When the war ended, the military bases were closed and the flow of goods and materials ceased. In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicking the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them. – Wikipedia

To us who have a deeper understanding of modern technology, the ritual actions of cargo cultists appear amusingly bizarre. Many of our culture’s attempts to imitate Gandhi’s strategies should, but often don’t, appear just as bizarre to those who have managed to grasp the deeper principles he demonstrated.

The deep insight about the approach to conflict resolution which unfortunately, for lack of a better name, has been termed "non-violent" is that it is all about coming to a lasting and mutually acceptable solution that is rooted in a deeper understanding of the actual nature of the problem.

In order to come to such a deeper understanding, each party has to work hard to resolve the opponent’s misconceptions as well as its own. With this fundamental idea in mind, any use of violence is naturally seen as a setback on the "quest for a deeper understanding of the problem", as it gives (some of) the opponents in a conflict situation an opportunity to come up with a cheap explanation along the lines of: "the cause of the conflict is the wickedness of the other party".

As long as party A uses violence as a tool in conflict, at least some in party B will take this observation as a welcome excuse for not having to ponder the question whether party A might indeed have at least something of a partially valid claim. "They harm us, and it is all their fault" is quite often a cheap, consistent mental image of the world.

Amazingly, the answer to such a situation lies in the observation that "everything works in both ways": Those who all-too-readily adopt a shallow belief such as "the others are wicked and it is all their fault" typically do so out of a strong urge to avoid an inner conflict. A key concept here is "cognitive dissonance". Now, given a person who goes to great lengths inventing highly implausible "explanations" in order to self-justify their own behaviour – what could possibly cause such a person more emotional distress than having to reconcile the two observations that "I am on the side of the good guys" and "Actually, all the violence in this conflict comes from our side"?

One almost wonders whether the problem with "cognitive dissonance" is that at some point we just lost the manual which explains that, actually, this is the one important mechanism that allows us to resolve conflicts properly?

Taking the key idea of "always behaving in such a way that the opposing party would create a massive inner emotional conflict for itself when resorting to violence", one can formulate a number of quite specific rules of conduct for participants of non-violent struggle, as Gandhi did. Here, it is important to notice that, as has been explained, such a "design approach" towards conflict can only be successful if some understanding of the underlying ethical principles has developed first. (This is precisely the same situation as with Permaculture design and Permaculture ethics.)

Let us hence take a look at each of Gandhi’s "19 rules for Satyagrahi (= participants in non-violent struggle)":

(Quoted from:

  1. Harbour no anger
  2. Suffer the anger of the opponent
  3. never retaliate to assaults or punishment; but do not submit, out of fear of punishment or assault, to an order given in anger
  4. voluntarily submit to arrest or confiscation of your own property
  5. if you are a trustee of property, defend that property (non-violently) from confiscation with your life
  6. do not curse or swear
  7. do not insult the opponent
  8. neither salute nor insult the flag of your opponent or your opponent’s leaders
  9. if anyone attempts to insult or assault your opponent, defend your opponent (non-violently) with your life
  10. as a prisoner, behave courteously and obey prison regulations (except any that are contrary to self-respect)
  11. as a prisoner, do not ask for special favourable treatment
  12. as a prisoner, do not fast in an attempt to gain conveniences whose deprivation does not involve any injury to your self-respect
  13. joyfully obey the orders of the leaders of the civil disobedience action
  14. do not pick and choose amongst the orders you obey; if you find the action as a whole improper or immoral, sever your connection with the action entirely
  15. do not make your participation conditional on your comrades taking care of your dependents while you are engaging in the campaign or are in prison; do not expect them to provide such support
  16. do not become a cause of communal quarrels
  17. do not take sides in such quarrels, but assist only that party which is demonstrably in the right; in the case of inter-religious conflict, give your life to protect (non-violently) those in danger on either side
  18. avoid occasions that may give rise to communal quarrels
  19. do not take part in processions that would wound the religious sensibilities of any community

Rules 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 10, 16, 17, and 18 are readily understood when having the imperative in mind of of behaving in an exemplary way that would make it difficult for anyone to consider oneself as "evil" in any way. Rules 13 and 14 are about making a coordinated effort and the required level of organization. The second part of rule 14 is interesting, for this contains a "programmed apoptosis (cell death)" mechanism to prevent a campaign from going very wrong, especially if its leader keeps on sticking to beliefs which turn out as untenable. In such a situation, the best way to resolve this problem is for participants to vote with their feet and leave the movement. Rule 19 must be seen especially in the light of the peculiar Indian Hindu-Moslem situation, but has much more general validity. Rule 15 is related to the issue of impact of and on one’s personal situation, and might at first seem somewhat difficult to comprehend to us.

Rule 9 naturally follows from the idea of going to great lengths in order to avoid any situation that would give the opponent an opportunity to regard oneself as "un-civilized" or "evil". Interestingly, this automatically also provides some protection against "agent provocateurs".

Rules 4 and 5 as well as 11 and 12 also are about exemplary behaviour when doing one’s duty. The issue of own property vs. property held in trust can have much deeper implications, given that trusteeship according to Gandhi can, and in many situations should, supersede individual ownership – this will not be explored here for now.

Stay tuned for Part III….


  1. Justin,

    isn’t “ahimsha” just “a-himsha”, which would translate as “absence of violence”? That just shifted the problem to a different language. (Sorry for sounding so scholarly.)

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