Saturday, May 14, 2011

Contra Gandhi


Let me begin by saying that I have not studied Gandhi, nor have I read anything he wrote save for the many oft-quoted excerpts that one tends to encounter throughout life. I know the basics concerning his place in history, and I know what he has come to represent — that is all. He has become a sacred figure, even a saint, and it is taken as a matter of fact that he was a Great Man. By extension his creeds — pacifism being chief among them — are given more weight to the point where, in many people's eyes, merely to agree with them is to hold the moral high ground (dogma).

The crux of what follows is by Derrick Jensen; the opening and closing quotes are taken from a short essay George Orwell wrote in 1949 called Reflections on Gandhi. Orwell's piece is laced with criticism but, unlike Jensen's, it is not without praise. Jensen's criticism of Gandhi is excerpted from his larger masterpiece Endgame (volume II). His writing — indebted to Lewis Mumford — is free-flowing, conversational, and, at times, seems to spiral into wild-tangents. But it also almost always finds its way back, often in unexpected and insightful ways.

I started to write a lengthy introduction to Jensen centered especially around pacifism (the basis for a lot of his criticism of Gandhi), but after I began I realized it was going to morph into something far removed from the post at hand, so I opted instead to introduce Jensen (to those unfamiliar) via association:

"Let me begin, only because I'm sort of in debt to Derrick probably a little more than he's in debt to me... And I think that Derrick has confronted a very harsh reality that large numbers of people — I think because of an emotional incapacity — are unable to confront, and that is the kind of death spiral that we're on. [...] It's very clear now, as I think Derrick has pointed out, that the engines of corporatism cannot be halted. They are impervious to the will of those they exploit, they are more powerful than the governments they control, and they have built within them an inevitable kind of mechanism for self-annihilation, because corporations have a strange pathology where they turn everything into a commodity." —Chris Hedges, from THIS audio conversation with Jensen. (Some of the above, due to conversation being a bit imprecise and unclear, is inexact.)

* * *


derrick jensen, gandhi, pacifism
"It was also apparent that the British were making use of him, or thought they were making use of him. Strictly speaking, as a Nationalist, he was an enemy, but since in every crisis he would exert himself to prevent violence — which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action whatever — he could be regarded as “our man”. In private this was sometimes cynically admitted. The attitude of the Indian millionaires was similar. Gandhi called upon them to repent, and naturally they preferred him to the Socialists and Communists who, given the chance, would actually have taken their money away. How reliable such calculations are in the long run is doubtful; as Gandhi himself says, “in the end deceivers deceive only themselves”; but at any rate the gentleness with which he was nearly always handled was due partly to the feeling that he was useful." —George Orwell [X]

"Erasmus’s statement,“The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war,” used to strike me as insane and cowardly (not that this was true of all Erasmus’s work). Now I just say I disagree.

Gandhi came out with a different version of this when he said, “My marriage to non-violence is such an absolute thing that I would rather commit suicide than be deflected from my position.” I guess there are ways I can understand this, in that there are things I would kill myself rather than do. But this statement seems inflexible to the point of insanity. Is he saying that if he had the opportunity to stop a rape/murder, but could do so only through physically stopping the assailant, he would kill himself (and let the other person be raped/murdered) rather than break his sacred vow to non-violence? Is he saying that if he had the opportunity to stop the murder of the planet, but could do so only through physically stopping the assailants, he would kill himself (and let the planet be murdered) rather than violate his sacred vow to non-violence?

Unfortunately, he does seem to be saying these things. Now it’s true that Gandhi perceived cowardice as worse even than violence (and please note that while I’m accusing Gandhi of fuzzy thinking, naïveté, and, as you’ll see in a while, misogyny, never would I accuse him of cowardice: the man was stone cold brave), saying, for example, “Where the choice is between only violence and cowardice, I would advise violence,” and “To take the name of non-violence when there is a sword in your heart is not only hypocritical and dishonest but cowardly.” Even more to the point—and if all of Gandhi’s words were this great he’d certainly be my hero—he said, “Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defence or for the defence of the defenceless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission. The latter befits neither man nor woman. Under violence, there are many stages and varieties of bravery. Every man must judge this for himself. No other person can or has the right.” And here’s one I like even more: “I have been repeating over and over again that he who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honour by nonviolently facing death may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor. He who can do neither of the two is a burden. He has no business to be the head of a family. He must either hide himself, or must rest content to live forever in helplessness and be prepared to crawl like a worm at the bidding of a bully.”

But damn if he doesn’t follow this up with more of that old time pacifist religion. His very next paragraph is: “The strength to kill is not essential for self-defence; one ought to have the strength to die. When a man is fully ready to die, he will not even desire to offer violence. Indeed, I may put it down as a self-evident proposition that the desire to kill is in inverse proportion to the desire to die. And history is replete with instances of men who, by dying with courage and compassion on their lips, converted the hearts of their violent opponents.”

Let’s do a little exegesis. Sentence one: “The strength to kill is not essential for self-defence; one ought to have the strength to die.” Problem: Although this makes a good sound bite, it also makes no sense. The first clause is a statement of faith (why does this not surprise me?), logically and factually unsupported and insupportable yet presented as a statement of fact. The same is true for the second. Perhaps worse, if one of the purposes of self-defense is to actually defend oneself (to keep oneself from harm, even from death), then saying that self-defense requires the strength to die becomes exactly the sort of Orwellian absurdity we’ve all by now become far too familiar with from pacifists: self-defense requires the strength to allow self-destruction, and self-destruction requires strength take their fine place alongside freedom is slavery, war is peace,and ignorance is strength. His sentence would imply that the Jews who walked into the showers or laid down so they could be shot in the nape of the neck by members of einsatzgruppen were actually acting in their own self-defense. Nonsense. Now sentence two: “When a man is fully ready to die, he will not even desire to offer violence.” Once again, a statement of faith, logically and factually unsupported and insupportable yet presented as a statement of fact. I have read hundreds of accounts of soldiers and others (including mothers) who were fully prepared to die who sold their lives as dearly as possible. Sentence three: “Indeed, I may put it down as a self-evident proposition that the desire to kill is in inverse proportion to the desire to die.” This is actually a pretty cheap rhetorical trick on his part. Any writer knows that if you label something as self-evident people are less likely to examine it, or even if they do and find themselves disagreeing with it, they’re prone to feeling kind of stupid: If it’s so self-evident, how stupid must I be to not see it the same way? A far more sophisticated and accurate examination of the relationship between a desire to kill and a desire to die was provided earlier in this book by Luis Rodriguez. Oftentimes a desire to kill springs from a desire to die. It’s certainly true that the dominant culture—I’ve heard it called a thanatocracy—manifests a collective desire to kill self and other. But there is something far deeper and far more creepy going on with this sentence. Read it again: “Indeed, I may put it down as a self-evident proposition that the desire to kill is in inverse proportion to the desire to die.” Let’s pretend it’s true. It is Gospel. You have never in your life read anything so true as this. Now let’s ask ourselves whether Gandhi had a desire to kill. The answer is pretty obviously absolutely not. He said as much many times. What, then, does that mean Gandhi had a desire to do? If we take him at his word, it means he had a correspondingly absolute desire to die. He has an absolute death wish. Suddenly I understand why he would rather kill himself than break his marriage to non-violence. Suddenly I understand his more or less constant rhetoric of self-sacrifice. Suddenly I understand his body hatred (we’ll get to this in a moment). Suddenly I understand why Gandhi—and by extension so many other pacifists who are drawn to his teachings—was so often so little concerned with actual physical change in the real physical world. Pacifism as death wish. And don’t blame me for this one, folks: it’s nothing more than a strict literal interpretation of Gandhi’s own text. Gandhi repeatedly stated his absolute desire to not kill, and stated here explicitly: “the desire to kill is in inverse proportion to the desire to die.”

But that isn’t even what bothered me most about his paragraph. Sentence four horrified and appalled me: “And history is replete with instances of men who, by dying with courage and compassion on their lips, converted the hearts of their violent opponents.” If Gandhi’s statement contained a shred of evidence to support it, the Nazis would have quickly stopped, domestic violence would cease, the civilized would not kill the indigenous, factory farms would not exist, vivisection labs would be torn down brick by brick. Worse, by saying this, Gandhi joins the long list of allies of abusers by subtly blaming victims for perpetrators’ further atrocities: Damn, if only I could have died courageously and compassionately enough, I could have converted my murderer and kept him from killing again. It’s all my fault. Nonsense. Many killers—and nearly all exploiters—would vastly prefer intended victims not resist. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence just doesn’t support Gandhi’s position.

And his position leads him into (even more) grotesque absurdity. During World War II, as Japan invaded Myanmar (then called Burma), Gandhi recommended that if India were invaded, the Japanese be allowed to take as much as they want. The most effective way for the Indians to resist the Japanese, he said, would be to “make them feel that they are not wanted.” I am not making this up. Nor am I choosing one out-of-character statement. Gandhi urged the British to surrender to the Nazis, and recommended that instead of fighting back, both Czechs and Jews should have committed mass suicide (death wish, anyone?). In 1946, with full knowledge of the extent of the Holocaust, Gandhi told his biographer Louis Fisher, “The Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs.”

This is—and all you pacifists can get your gasps out of the way right now— both despicable and insane.

The insanity continues. If you recall, Gandhi said, “Mankind has to get out of violence only through non-violence. Hatred can be overcome only by love.” By now you should be able to spot the premises that, like any good propagandist, he’s trying to slide by you. Violence is something humankind “has to get out of.” Nonviolence is the only way to accomplish this. Hatred is something that needs to be overcome. Love is the only way to accomplish that.

These premises are statements of faith. They are utterly unsupported and unsupportable in the real world, and they are extremely harmful. Let’s go back to the same basic example we’ve been using. A man breaks into a woman’s home. He pulls out a knife. He is going to rape and kill her. She has a gun. Perhaps if she just shows him by shining example the beauty of nonviolence, perhaps if she dies with courage and compassion on her lips—or if she offers herself to the butcher’s knife or throws herself into the sea from a cliff—she will convert his heart and he will realize the error of his ways and repent, to go and rape no more. Perhaps not. If she guesses wrong, she dies. And so do the rapist’s next victims.

Gandhi’s statement reveals an almost total lack of understanding of both abusive and psychopathological dynamics. His comment is one of the worst things you can say to anyone in an abusive situation, and one of the things abusers most want to hear. As I mentioned earlier, among the most powerful allies of abusers are those who say to victims, “You should show him some compassion even if he has done bad things. Don’t forget that he is a human, too.” As Lundy Bancroft commented, “To suggest to her that his need for compassion should come before her right to live free from abuse is consistent with the abuser’s outlook. I have repeatedly seen the tendency among friends and acquaintances of an abused woman to feel that it is their responsibility to make sure that she realizes what a good person he really is inside—in other words, to stay focused on his needs rather than her own, which is a mistake.” I want to underscore that Gandhi’s perspective is, following Bancroft, “consistent with the abuser’s outlook.”

Too often pacifists have said to me, “When you look at a CEO, you are looking at yourself. He’s a part of you, and you’re a part of him. If you ever hope to reach him, you must recognize the CEO in your own heart, and you must reach out with compassion to this CEO in your heart, and to the CEO in the boardroom.” It’s revealing that none of these pacifists have ever said to me, “When you look at a clearcut, you are looking at yourself. It is a part of you, and you are a part of it. If you ever hope to help it, you must recognize the clearcut in your own heart, and you must reach out with compassion to this clearcut in your heart, and to the clearcut on the ground.” The same is true for tuna, rivers, mountainsides. It’s remarkable that pacifists tell me to look at the killer and see myself, while never telling me to look at the victim and see myself: they are telling me to identify with the killer, not the victim. This happens so consistently that I have come to understand it’s no accident, but reveals with whom the people who say it do and do not themselves identify (and fear).

So far as psychopaths, Gandhi ignores their first characteristic: a “callous unconcern for the feelings of others.” Far worse, he fails to understand that some people are unreachable. He wrote Hitler a letter requesting he change his ways, and was evidently surprised when Hitler didn’t listen to him.

His statement also ignores the role of entitlement in atrocity. I can love Charles Hurwitz all I want, I can nonviolently write letters and nonviolently sit in trees, and so long as he feels entitled to destroy forests to pad his bank account, and so long as he is backed by the full power of the state, within this social structure, none of that will cause him to change in the slightest. Nor, and this is the point, will it help the forests. Similarly, so long as men feel entitled to control women, loving them won’t change them, nor will it help women.

There’s yet another problem with Gandhi’s statement, which is that he has made the same old unwarranted conflation of love and nonviolence on one hand, and hatred and violence on the other.

There is a sense in which the last sentence—and only the last sentence—of his statement could be true, with some significant modifications. Instead of saying, “Hatred can be overcome only by love,” we could say, “If someone hates you, your best and most appropriate and most powerful responses will come out of a sense of self-love.” I like that infinitely better. It’s far more accurate, intellectually honest, useful, flexible, and applicable across a wide range of circumstances. But there’s the key right there, isn’t it? Within this culture we’re all taught to hate ourselves (and to identify with our oppressors, who hate us, too, and call it love).

* * *

This leads to the next line by Gandhi often tossed around by pacifists: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall—Think of it, ALWAYS.”

You know how there are some people whose work you’re supposed to respect because everyone else seems to? And you know how at least with some of these people your respect fades over time, slowly, with each new piece of information that you gain? And you know how sometimes you feel you must be crazy, or a bad person, or you must be missing something, because everyone keeps telling you how great this person is, and you just don’t get it? And you know how you keep fighting to maintain your respect for this person, but the information keeps coming in, until at long last you just can’t do it anymore? That’s how it was with me and Gandhi. I lost a lot of respect when I learned some of the comments I’ve mentioned here. I lost more when I learned that because he opposed Western medicine, he didn’t want his wife to take penicillin, even at risk to her life, because it would be administered with a hypodermic needle; yet this opposition did not extend to himself: he took quinine and was even operated on for appendicitis. I lost yet more when I learned that he was so judgmental of his sons that he disowned his son Harilal (who later became an alcoholic) because he disapproved of the woman Harilal chose to marry. When his other son, Manilal, loaned money to Harilal, Gandhi disowned him, too. When Manilal had an affair with a married woman, Gandhi went public and pushed for the woman to have her head shaved. I lost more respect when I learned of Gandhi’s body hatred (but with his fixation on purity, hatred of human (read animal) emotions, and death wish this shouldn’t have surprised me), and even more that he refused to have sex with his wife for the last thirty-eight years of their marriage (in fact he felt that people should have sex only three or four times in their lives). I lost even more when I found out how upset he was when he had a nocturnal emission. I lost even more when I found out that in order to test his commitment to celibacy, he had beautiful young women lie next to him naked through the night: evidently his wife—whom he described as looking like a “meek cow”— was no longer desirable enough be a solid test. All these destroyed more respect for Gandhi (although I do recognize it’s possible for someone to be a shitheel and still say good things, just as it’s possible for nice people to give really awful advice). But the final push was provided by this comment attributed to him: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall—Think of it, ALWAYS.” This is as dismissive as his treatment of his wife and sons. It’s as objectifying as his treatment of the young women he used as tests. It’s as false as his advice to Jews, Czechs, and Britons. The last 6,000 years have seen a juggernaut of destruction roll across the planet. Thousands of cultures have been eradicated. Species are disappearing by the hour. I do not know what planet he is describing, nor what history. Not ours. This statement—one of those rallying cries thrown out consistently by pacifists—is wrong. It is dismissive. It is literally and by definition insane, by which I mean not in touch with the real physical world.

Further, even if it were accurate—which it absolutely isn’t, except in the cosmic sense of everything eventually failing—it’s irrelevant. So what if the tyrant eventually falls? What about the damage done in the meantime? That’s like saying that because a rapist will eventually die anyway we need not stop him now."

"Of late years it has been the fashion to talk about Gandhi as though he were not only sympathetic to the Western Left-wing movement, but were integrally part of it. Anarchists and pacifists, in particular, have claimed him for their own, noticing only that he was opposed to centralism and State violence and ignoring the other-worldly, anti-humanist tendency of his doctrines. But one should, I think, realize that Gandhi's teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things and that our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have. They make sense only on the assumption that God exists and that the world of solid objects is an illusion to be escaped from." —George Orwell [X]

6 comments:

Dan Harper said...

I think Gandhi's pacifism can be taken seriously because he was fully conscious that it doesn't solve the problem of violence. He was asked once what the Jews should've done when they were faced with extermination, and he said they should've committed mass suicide. Not submitting to violence oneself doesn't make it go away. Gandhi understood that better than anyone. (I personally don't like him because of his "saintly" ambitions. I don't believe it was motivated by vanity in his case, but, as Orwell stated, most sane people don't aspire to sainthood.)

Tyler said...

Thanks for commenting. I hope what follows doesn't sound overly critical or confrontational.

* * *

It is not just a question of whether or not Gandhi's pacifism can be taken seriously, but whether or not pacifism itself can be taken seriously.

* * *

"He was asked once what the Jews should've done when they were faced with extermination, and he said they should've committed mass suicide. Not submitting to violence oneself doesn't make it go away. Gandhi understood that better than anyone."

That directly contradicts what Jensen and Orwell quote Gandhi as saying:

Orwell: "[the mass suicide] would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler's violence." After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly."

Jensen (quoting Gandhi): "Mankind has to get out of violence only through non-violence. Hatred can be overcome only by love." And: "History is replete with instances of men who, by dying with courage and compassion on their lips, converted the hearts of their violent opponents."

If we're to take him at his word, Gandhi did think non-violence could stop violence.

But all that aside, how can such advice -- collective suicide -- be taken seriously at all? Orwell admired the answer purely because it was honest ("I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question"), but he also said that it makes one think that Gandhi "did not understand the nature of totalitarianism." And Orwell and Jensen both rightly criticize it for being anti-humanist and use it to show the "longing for death" that informs Gandhi's worldview.

Finally, I can only go by what Orwell wrote, but, according to him, Gandhi did not have saintly ambitions: "One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way)..."

Dan Harper said...

I don't like Gandhi either. Orwell didn't, but he believed that Gandhi was superior to his many detractors by the sheer force of his example. (His "physical courage" was astonishing - as his refusal to hire bodyguards shows.) Elsewhere in his essays (I can find the quote) Orwell says that, eventually, humanity will have to find a way to stop answering evil for evil. Initially, the results would probably be terrible. But there has to be a way to end war. Perhaps in a thousand years. Until then, girding one's loins will continue to be a civic duty especially where liberty exists.

the curator said...

I admit, I am somewhat confused by this post. The post is called “Contra Gandhi” and the bulk of Jensen’s text appears to be refuting Gandhi’s inflated reputation—a goal it accomplishes, I think. But Jensen begins by making a comment about nonviolence in general and implies several times that he takes Gandhi’s position to be representative of the stance taken by “pacifists.” You yourself said, “It is not just a question of whether or not Gandhi's pacifism can be taken seriously, but whether or not pacifism itself can be taken seriously.” However, nothing much in the post really addresses this second question. Is Gandhi’s pacifism really the same as all other pacifism? What is pacifism, anyway? I’m not sure it’s only one thing that doesn’t admit of degrees. Most extreme positions are “despicable and insane,” but in most cases we recognize that we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I don’t understand why pacifism, more than other isms, invites these oversimple responses.

Tyler said...

I guess it wasn't made clear, but the Orwell essay I linked to was meant to be part of the post. I opted to keep it as a link so that the post itself was more manageable and orderly. I assumed anyone who was interested in the topic would automatically click it (something that's much more likely to happen with Orwell than Jensen, since Orwell's much better known). The Jensen excerpt is largely focused on pacifism, yes, but I think that's appropriate when dealing with Gandhi and his influence. (In ENDGAME, Jensen talks about how he often encounters pacifists who put up their "Gandhi shield" in response to anyone who suggests that violence should even be considered.) All of the above is why I called the post "Contra Gandhi." It was meant solely to refute "Gandhi’s inflated reputation." I suppose I could have made a post out of Orwell's complete essay with Jensen's penultimate paragraph at the end, but when Jensen criticizes Gandhi's pacifism he is doing so to showcase the same anti-humanist view that Orwell found so distasteful.

When I said it's "not just a question of whether or not Gandhi's pacifism can be taken seriously, but whether or not pacifism itself can be taken seriously" it was in direct response to Dan's comment "I think Gandhi's pacifism can be taken seriously because he was fully conscious that it doesn't solve the problem of violence." The second part of my comment was not supposed to be explored in the post. Concerning Dan's comment, I didn't understand why being conscious that pacifism doesn't solve the problem of violence legitimizes Gandhi's pacifism any more than it would legitimize pacifism in general. If pacifism can't solve the problem of violence in certain circumstances, then it's futile (in these circumstances) at best, immoral at worst. Pacifism should be viewed as a tactic to be used, not as an ideology or philosophy to subscribe to.

So what is pacifism? I think Jensen is using a standard dictionary definition when he talks about it, something like: opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes; specifically : refusal to bear arms on moral or religious grounds. If we take pacifism to mean simply "someone who opposes war", or even more generally as "an aversion to violence" then I think the term is rather useless because it's something nearly every rational and sane person would agree with. If a "pacifist" believes that violence should (or must) sometimes be used, or that violence can be moral/acceptable/legitimate/appropriate, then I'm not sure how (or why) someone would call themselves a pacifist.

Some of the questions from here would be "what is violence?" and "what makes it acceptable/ legitimate etc.?" -- questions Jensen has written hundreds and hundreds of pages on. (He's also written numerous pages on more general pacifist arguments -- ends vs. means, the master's tools, etc.)

Tyler said...


Saint of the Status Quo: Arundhati Roy -- Debunking the Gandhi Myth