Mohandas Gandhi is one of the primary figures in the development, and grudging public acceptance of nonviolence as both a personal philosophy, and a practical strategy for social change. His ideas are grounded in Indian cultural tradition, specifically around the difficult spiritual concept of Ahimsa (see The Hindu Ethic of Non-Violence). When these ideas were being developed, the common term for nonviolence was passive resistance. Gandhi himself recognized that a new word was needed to better convey the meaning of nonviolence, his proposed word was Satyagraha, or Truth Force. Satyagraha was (and often still is) commonly translated into English as passive resistance.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
His message has been heard by the activist community internationally. His ideas have been put into practice in large part among those struggling for justice across the world. What has been lacking has been general acceptance of those ideas by the West.
Most people in Europe and America and the global north (see North-South divide) have not fully grasped the potential collective power afforded them by disciplined nonviolence. There has been much more influence of his ideas in the global south, and this makes sense, really, partly because of the long term effects of colonialism, and the ongoing arrogance of American exceptionalism, and the expanding American Empire. People who have an urgent need for the principles of nonviolence adopt them if they are aware of them, sometimes even when they are based on concepts apparently foreign to a particular culture.
Gandhi's term for nonviolence, Ahimsa, and for nonviolent resistance, Satyagraha, are fine for academics, and for the people of India, and perhaps for some others. My concern is that, for Americans and Europeans, these words are not rooted in our culture. One of the chief characteristics of English, especially American English, is that it often easily accepts words from other languages when there is no comparable word. Satyagraha and Ahimsa have not made their way in to English. My reason for concern about the lack of acceptance of Gandhian ideas in America specifically, and in the West generally, is partly because of the fact that I am an American, and partly because I am a U.S. Military Veteran, but mostly because of the policies and practices of American Empire.
An American pioneer of nonviolence, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., first absorbed these concepts, and used the specific techniques of Gandhi. He first used nonviolent techniques in the civil rights struggle. He achieved success and made enormous gains in equality for all Americans. The influences of Dr. King on everyday life in America have not yet been fully measured, and he used the techniques of nonviolence in a uniquely American way.
Later, he was widely criticized for his commitment to peace, during the Vietnam War. His plans for energizing the public to confront economic injustice failed after his death. His tragic assassination before his Poor People's Campaign was even fully launched disheartened his followers, and it never fully recovered.
Dr. King on Satyagraha (from The Autobiography of Martin Luther King: "Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously. As I read I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. I was particularly moved by his Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts. The whole concept of Satyagraha (Satya is truth which equals love, and agraha is force; Satyagraha, therefore, means truth force or love force) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform."
The power of nonviolence is often derided. My usual response to skepticism is to recite a list of successful nonviolent movements: India, South Africa, Poland, the Philippines, blocking the Soviet coup, I could go on. In America the lunch counter sit-ins, the bus boycott, the grape workers boycott led by Chavez & Huerta, the labor movement, GI resistance during the Vietnam War, even the Boston Tea Party and the merchant's coalition to boycott British goods during the American Revolution.
There are of course, unsuccessful movements as well: Czechoslovakia, Tiananmen, The Russian Revolution of 1905, there are many more. The lack of success of some nonviolent movements are often cited as reasons to dismiss it completely, but every struggle has winners and losers. Nobody who views violence as power advocates giving it up because of lost struggles.
My experience as an organizer, trainer, and strategist in the last four years have led me to ask a question. Why are these ideas and techniques not more widely accepted in the West? Are they counter to Western culture?
The concept of nonviolent resistance in Western culture is not new. Tolstoy wrote of it in his work The Kingdom of God is Within You. Labor unions have successfully used nonviolent techniques for over a century. In the West, the idea of collective action goes back to guilds in medieval towns. Further back, nonviolence threatened to destabilize the Roman Empire, until the religion and philosophy that professed it was co-opted by Constantine. I simply point out here, that the roots of nonviolence in Western culture are deep.
Another possibility is that nonviolence, and associated concepts and techniques are suppressed by corporate media, or overcome by the use of propaganda. Probably both, but much of the resistance to the acceptance of the nonviolence of King and Gandhi may be due to something much simpler.
Satyagraha is hard to pronounce in English, and I expect in most of the languages of Western Europe as well. Nonviolence is commonly used for all these techniques and concepts in the peace movement, and by activists in English speaking countries. It's fine to use the word nonviolence when speaking of a personal philosophy, just as Ahimsa is fine in Hindi, but it is easy to be misconstrued as passivity. Nonviolence is a negative word, by this I mean that it negates the word violence, which leads to the misunderstanding of it as a weakness, by those that see violence as a form of strength. It is an essential word, and we need it to reinforce the discipline of nonviolent action, to affirm the principles, but it fails to fully communicate its potential power and effectiveness. The phrase Truth Force has been used as well, as a translation of Satyagraha, and it is better, but still clumsy. It doesn't ring.
We need a new word.
Veritas is a Latin word, not commonly used. It is the root of several words in English and in most European languages. It's less clumsy than nonviolent action or nonviolent techniques and the word itself has some weight to it. In the information age, it's applicable to the written and spoken word, as well as to physical actions.
There may be a better word. I can't think of one.
There will still be a struggle to overcome the media. There will still be a vast difficulty pushing past the very real and deep roots of violence in Western culture, and in contemporary consciousness. But I think it's a good word, and it may help push.
In all humility, I hurl Veritas into the internet, in the hope that it may inspire the power of collective action, to push integrity and peace into the face of deceit and violence, to set facts athwart propaganda, to bring empowerment and enlightenment in challenge to oppression and ignorance.
Reposted from Coyote's Blog from May 14, 2010: