The Non-Violence Myth

Headline

Today is the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, probably one of the most famous vegetarians in the world and certainly the most famous icon of non-violence. That’s why October the 2nd was chosen by the American animal organization FARM to be the World Day for Farmed Animals (WDFA), and by the UN as The International Day for Non-Violence.

In this post we argue that the success of nonviolence campaigns is a myth and in the next post that the nonviolence approach is in itself essentially a myth.

Symbolically Wrong

Although this post is not at all about Gandhi as a myth but about non-violence as a myth, since he is still regarded as the ultimate role model and an inspiration for non-violent struggles, we find it important to shortly address the myth behind the person as well as the myth behind the philosophy he is the icon of. It’s thought provoking especially since the gaps between the iconic figure and the real person are unbelievably huge.

Some facts have been known for years since he himself admitted them or they were documented in letters and protocols, and some were revealed recently as more and more researchers and journalists published books and articles about the real person behind the admired image – a violent, masterful person who is significantly different than the myth reflected in the famous “biographical” movie, junior high school lessons and most importantly the prominent narrative among the activistic community.
The non-violent icon used to routinely beat his wife (as he shared with his readers in his autobiography), he was an unambiguous racist (during one of his campaigns for the rights of Indians settled in South Africa, Gandhi complained how the Indian is being dragged down to the position of the raw Kaffir: “We could understand not being classed with whites, but to be placed on the same level as the ­Natives seemed too much to put up with. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals”), homophobic (in the 1930s, he attempted to erase all traces of the Indian homoerotic tradition from Indian temples as a part of a “sexual cleansing” campaign), misogynistic who is one of the contributor to the fact that India is one of the most unsafe places for women (he believed women who were raped lost their value as human beings and argued that fathers could be justified in killing daughters who had been sexually assaulted for the sake of family and community honor) and a sexual perpetrator himself (he nightly forced women, especially his teenage grandnieces who were under his guardianship, to sleep with him naked in excuse of a way to test his ‘power’ of abstinence). Outrageously, this utterly violent custom was well known not only among his followers, but also among everyone who came in contact with him including other politicians, activists, philosophers, and journalists, from India and abroad.

Despite this partial list of Gandhi’s violence and human rights violations he is still the unquestionable non-violence poster boy. Famous for preaching not to hate your enemies – but apparently hurting and discriminating friends and family is totally legit.

How can someone who hurt so many “politically weaker” sectors of society, such as women, children, gays, the untouchables (the lower Indian caste) and blacks, be the symbol of the weakest, the ultimate “others” – farm animals?

We think that the fact that the non-violence icon conducted a very violent personal life and held some very violent stands in several issues, goes to show how humans’ need for a symbolic icon is much stronger than the truth.

Gandhi is a myth. But that is the least of the problems with the myth of non-violence. Obviously we mustn’t judge an idea since the person who is most identified with it is a myth, but since the ideas themselves are.

Historically Wrong

Inspiration stories in our sad and depressive world are vital and necessary. The problem starts when activists base their activistic approach on false examples.

In relation to India’s struggle for independence, as opposed to the fictional non-violent figure, Gandhi, the real person did support violence in several occasions, and more importantly than Gandhi the person, India’s struggle for independence wasn’t non-violent and it wasn’t the non-violence strategy that overthrew the British Empire.

First of all Gandhi’s non-violent campaign was only one part of a mass movement that also involved armed resistance, massacres, bombings, riots, etc. Gandhi’s popularity is attributed, in part, to the contemporary violent campaigns who were obviously much less convenient rivals for the Brits. Gandhi’s movement was promoted by the British and business interests in India as an alternative to armed anti-colonial forces such as Hindustan Socialist Republic Association, the early Jugantar group, the Bengal Volunteers, the Bedas or the innumerable lone insurgents who took militant action without associating with a particular organization.
Generally, the latent threat of violence outburst plays a very significant role in the success of supposedly non-violent struggles, since obviously oppressors prefer to negotiate with the peaceful resistant who helps them to keep the status quo. Choosing to negotiate with the peaceful side while ignoring the rest, might even cause disputes among the opponents which is a great outcome for a ruling regime.

The political activist, researcher and writer, Suniti Kumar Ghosh who wrote India & the Raj: 1919-1947; Glory, Shame and Bondage, argues that Gandhi was an asset for the British crown, suppressing and controlling anti-colonial resistance: “an ideal weapon with which to [weaken] the anti-imperialist spirit of the people. Gandhi himself declared that his satyagraha technique was intended to combat revolutionary violence. It may be borne in mind that this prophet of non-violence, though violently opposed to the use of violence by the people in the struggle against British imperialism, actively supported, whether in S. Africa, London or India, the most violent wars launched by the British masters and, towards the close of his life, was in favour of war between India & Pakistan and approved or suggested the march of troops into Junagadh, Kashmir and Hyderabad…
British imperialism recognized him as the national leader. Like General Smuts, many Viceroys including Willingdon regarded him as an asset. In combating the militant forces of anti-colonial… struggle, the British ruling classes counted on his help and he never failed them… The Indian business elite hailed him: his message of non-violence, his satyagraha, his faith in the raj, his political aspirations, his abhorrence of class struggle… his determination to preserve the status quo, his ‘constructive programme’ intended to thwart revolutionary action—all these and more convinced them that in the troubled times ahead, he was their best friend
. “

And George Orwell shared a similar observation:
Gandhi has been regarded for twenty years by the Government of India as one of its right hand men. I know what I’m talking about–I used to be an officer in the Indian police. It was always admitted in the most cynical way that Gandhi made it easier for the British to rule India, because his influence was always against taking any action that would make any difference.

The reason why Gandhi when in prison is always treated with such lenience and small concessions sometimes made when he has prolonged one of his fasts to a dangerous extent, is that the British officials are in terror that he may die and be replaced by someone who believes less in “soul force “ and more in bombs.”

Another primary reason the popular conception of Gandhi’s astonishing victory over the British Empire is far from being an unequivocal historical fact, is that the release of the region from the Brits was a far wider geo strategic shift, as post Second World War Britain was a collapsing empire that had no means to maintain its various colonies, and was even bound by political obligations of the war time Atlantic Charter to give up these territories (and under president Roosevelt personal persistent pressure).

Far from being moved or morally challenged by Gandhi, but rather concerned by their own state, the Brits were worried that the region was about to erupt into a slaughter between Muslims and Hindus, which they feared they couldn’t stop. The “Great Calcutta Killing” of August 1946 (when at least 4,000 people died in three days) and the ongoing terrorism, which wasn’t enough to do much harm but more than enough to warn them that India was becoming more trouble than it was worth, were significant contributors. All things considered, the well-founded fear of generalized violence had far more effect on the British resolve than Gandhi ever did.

In relation to the simultaneous between the rise of Gandhi and the decline of the British Empire, beginning directly after the first World War and climaxing directly after the Second, the well-known historian A.J.P Taylor, argues that: “the British began contemplating–admittedly with varying degrees of sincerity–some measure of autonomy for India before Gandhi did anything, as early as 1917. After World War I, the British were beginning to find India a liability, because India was once again producing its own cotton, and buying cheap textiles from Japan. Later, India’s strategic importance, while valued by many, became questioned by some, who saw the oil of the Middle East and the Suez canal as far more important. By the end of the Second World War, Britain’s will to hold onto its empire had pretty well crumbled, for reasons having little or nothing to do with nonviolence.”

If Gandhi had tried the same tactics while India was still hailed as the jewel in the empire’s crown he would have stayed Mohandas. Other nations won independence more or less at the same period, showing a larger trend was taking place, and they didn’t even pretend to use non-violent tactics only.

Gandhi

And not only that the struggle for India’s independence wasn’t non-violent, and that factors (both internal and external, as mentioned) other than the campaign were those actually dictating the events, the first moment of Indian’s independence was one of the most horrifying outbursts of violence and cruelty in the whole bloody, cruel history of the postwar world. Despite Gandhi’s unity efforts, the hate between Muslims and Hindus was stronger even than the “father of the nation”. These horrible consequences alone are sufficient to shed a whole other light on the popular version, if not to count his project as a tragic failure.

Non-violence success is a myth. It has never succeeded in any large scale and politically relevant struggle. These means have never, by their own, achieved the political ends they were used for, and there is no reason to believe they ever will.

The other iconic example of a successful non-violent struggle is the US civil rights movement, another case that is much more complicated than the mythical image.

The first myth regarding the civil rights movement is that, as it did with Gandhi, popular history holds Martin Luther King as the primary, if not sole, impetus behind the civil rights movement. However it is highly doubtful that his programs for social reform would have been as influential as they have, hadn’t they been abetted by some organizations who are considered violent such as the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam.
Martin Luther King received a Nobel price since he was convenient and considered decent and representative much more than other prominent figures such as stocky Carmichael, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. For conservative and Christian America, it is much easier to digest a non-violent reverend than violence supporting Black Nationalists, regardless of their actual effect.

But the case of the US civil rights movement is significantly different than India’s independence movement, and from a very depressing perspective.

The philosopher Michael Neumann explains: “The Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement was practically a federal government project. Its roots may have run deep, but its impetus came from the Supreme Court decision of 1954 and from the subsequent attempts to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The students who braved a hell to accomplish this goal are well remembered. Sometimes forgotten is the US government(…) Eisenhower sent, not the FBI, not a bunch of lawyers, but one of the best and proudest units of the United States Army, the 101st Airborne, to keep order in Little Rock, and to see that the ‘federalized’ Arkansas national guard stayed on the right side of the dispute. Though there was never any hint of an impending battle between federal and state military forces, the message couldn’t have been clearer: we, the federal government, are prepared to do whatever it takes to enforce our will.

This message is an undercurrent throughout the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Though Martin Luther King still had to overcome vicious, sometimes deadly resistance, he himself remarked that surprisingly few people were killed or seriously injured in the struggle. The surprise diminishes with the recollection that there was real federal muscle behind the nonviolent campaign. For a variety of motives, both virtuous and cynical, the US government wanted the South to be integrated and to recognize black civil rights. Nonviolence achieved its ends largely because the violence of its opponents was severely constrained. In 1962, Kennedy federalized the National Guard and sent in combat troops to quell segregationist rioting in Oxford, Mississippi. Johnson did the same thing in 1965, after anti-civil rights violence in Alabama. While any political movement has allies and benefits from favorable circumstances, having the might of the US government behind you goes far beyond the ordinary advantages accompanying political activity. The nonviolence of the US civil rights movement sets an example only for those who have the overwhelming armed force of a government on their side.”

This is, by no means, meant to belittle the huge sacrifice of these activists who have paid immense prices during their struggle. Still, Neumann’s point is crucial, the backing of the Supreme Court, and the role of the armed forces of the federal government can’t be ignored, especially when this movement is referred to as a non-violent one. True, presidential involvement came reluctantly, and was driven by the commitment to the enforcement of law over the entire union, and not by pro-integration anti-racist devoting, but nonetheless.
Along the struggle activists endured lethal and sometimes deadly police brutality, mass incarcerations, suffered from the racist public attitude, giant mobs of white supremacists, attacks and lynching.

Yet it is still a whole different story to fight that a federal law would be interpreted in an egalitarian way all over the state and to legislate new ones that revoke racial state laws, with the support of the majority of the US public and the government, than to legislate egalitarian laws in the first place and without public support.

Yet it is still a whole different story to fight that a federal law would be interpreted in an egalitarian way all over the state and to legislate new ones that revoke racial state laws, with the support of the majority of the US public and the government, than to legislate egalitarian laws in the first place and without public support

In this world, everything, even what is supposed to be absolutely obvious, must be fought for. No natural right really comes natural or is really right by everyone. It is always a struggle. At any minute one group exploits another, and the exploited group consults how to fight against it. Since the beginning of history, it is one long liberation struggle.
And that only goes as far as struggles for humans. With animals everything is a trillion times worse.

MLK

No non-violent struggle, as inspiring as the myth is, can be ever seriously compared with the struggle for animals, since no oppression in history can be compared with animals’ oppression. Non-violence is the softest resistance to animals’ oppression which is the strongest assault. When activists are looking for historical precedents or something to compare it with, they don’t go to racial segregation and not even the racial cruel murderousness of the Ku Klux Klan, but usually to the 40’s holocaust or the transatlantic slave trade, two horrible historical events that didn’t end using non-violent methods. And many activists reject even these comparisons for not being close enough to the perpetual atrocities inflicted on animals.

Animals are not in the status of Africans during the transatlantic slave trade and not the Jews during the holocaust. Animals are way back at being merely raw materials that happen to be living. Temporal property before they’ll become an ingredient on someone’s plate. Way below the status of salves and definitely below African Americans during the segregation.

The civil rights movement was in large a struggle demanding to implement the new federal laws over the whole federacy. It was humans, and humans who at that point were citizens, who at least formally were equal by the federal law, and no longer “separate but equal”, that have conducted the struggle, representing themselves. We can only dream of a Supreme Court, Federal Government and the U.S army to back the animals on anything. We can only dream of ¨separate but equal¨ for the animals, and for them to be able to self-represent themselves. Animals would never even be separate but equal.

One of the founding moments of the civil right movement, in terms of public opinion, happened during the first march from Montgomery to the city of Selma in Alabama that ended with non-violent blacks being violently assaulted by extremely violent whites. It is called the Bloody Sunday as 17 people were hospitalized and about 50 more were more lightly injured. 1,744 chickens are brutally murdered every second in the world and it doesn’t cause even a tiny flit in public opinion. A fact every activist who compares humans and nonhumans struggles and draws strategic conclusions from them, mustn’t forget.

But we don’t think that a whole ideology should be dismissed just because its front person is a myth or because its supposed past successes are a myth. We think that a whole ideology should be dismissed because its whole philosophy is in itself inherently a myth, as we’ll explain in the following post in this nonviolence series.

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