Giving Peace a Chance — For Real This Time (Part II)

(Follow-up to Part I)

If ever there were a case study in active pacifistic resistance, it would be Mohandas Gandhi. Despite my previous criticism of one of his quotes (“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”) as overly simplistic, I would be remiss if I let the reader suppose I have little respect for him. On the contrary, it is difficult to regard with anything but admiration a person who not only stood against a discriminatory and decadent government in the face of arrest, but did so using a very underestimated form of power — the power of nonviolent motivation. He wisely acknowledged that humans are inextricably social creatures, whose interests depend on each other even if they may not value some other humans as ends.

This is why boycotts work. We need not settle for the false dichotomy that either sociopathy is a myth or the only response society can offer to social parasites is swift destruction, because there are peaceful incentives for which people may change beyond appeal to empathy. For example, Gandhi achieved legislative change for the betterment of his community by going on hunger strikes — his positive public reputation dissuaded lawmakers from making decisions that people could construe as causes of his death by malnutrition. His was a subtle system of psychological politics, which showed that with enough willpower it is possible for disenfranchised communities to earn their own rights, without causing unnecessary suffering.

In sum, Gandhi’s life (as told in this short yet informative biography) was at the very least a challenge to the notion that pacifism is inherently passive. The practitioners of his satyagraha code did not merely take the abuse inflicted upon them, but stood up to it as they conducted peacefully active initiatives to change laws and social norms they refused to tolerate. Such is all well and good, but if we want to make decisions that are best equipped to have the most positive effects for people we care about, we need to assess, in theory and in practice, whether turning the other cheek truly does work in such a large-scale context. Could Pope Francis’s call for Catholics worldwide to protest the Syrian massacres with prayer and fasting effect more than a placebo’s worth of change?

To the credit of the military advocates, there seems to be a large gap between the Syrian government and the British government that eventually yielded to Gandhi’s and his allies’ displays of charity, as in South African Indians’ support of British soldiers in the Boer War (see page 2 of the above link). As I understand it, the historical precedents we have of effective peaceful protests tend to revolve around certainly unacceptable yet lower-priority discrimination, as opposed to outright slaughter of people. Gandhi’s protesters endured attacks, but they were not directly combatting already extant violence. I have nonetheless taken this opportunity to cite the story of Gandhi because of the intriguing possibilities we may strive for in the spirit of his activism. The distinction between pacifism in Gandhi’s efforts and in the context of genocidal injustices may be one of quantity rather than quality, although more research is imperative. I confess some doubts about this conjecture after learning of Gandhi’s all but ignoring World War II, in his endeavor to secure Indian independence.

Having recently read vaguely of successful engagements of diplomacy by certain popes from earlier centuries, I will dedicate the next update to a discussion of what I have found about such claims. If reliable, these accounts would lend greater credibility to peaceful solutions to violent problems. I may also investigate the details of the contributions to justice made by Martin Luther King, Jr., who regarded Gandhi as an inspiration and may be more relevant to the tougher cases for pacifism, as his activism took place in a setting when and where lynchings were not uncommon.