No clapping is possible without two hands to do it, and no quarrel without two persons to make it.
Mohandas K. Gandhi
“On Nonviolent Resistance”
Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance, which inspired Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s, is called satyagraha, which means “truth force.” Gandhi is identified primarily with India, but the principles were forged in South Africa during his efforts to oppose apartheid.
“No state is possible without two entities,” he wrote, “the rulers and the ruled. … So long as it is your endeavor to control us with justice and love, we will let you do so. … If you make laws to keep us suppressed in a wrongful manner and without taking us into confidence, these laws will merely adorn the statute books. We will never obey them. Award us what punishment you like; we will put up with it. Send us to prison, and we will live there as in a paradise. Ask us to mount the scaffold, and we will do so laughing. Shower what sufferings you like upon us; we will calmly endure all and not hurt a hair of your body.”
Such a force, when practiced by disciplined individuals dedicated to justice, is stronger than violence. Jesus is a good example. It sets the bar high, of course, beyond the instinct for self-preservation, but satyagraha led to independence for India, broke Jim Crow segregation in the South, and eventually ended apartheid in South Africa.
I believe the principles of nonviolent resistance can also be applied to the longstanding and ongoing Culture Quarrel in this country.
Dialogue, in our dreams, involves both sides being willing to listen to the other, each accepting the strongest arguments of the other and reaching a consensus involving sometimes painful compromise by both sides, then moving forward together. But quarrelsome breed that we are, consensus is not the way Americans have traditionally operated.
More and more, we find ourselves in situations where sides are drawn — family gatherings, work, social media, even at church. Emotions are running high on both sides. Hard feelings ensue. Divisions widen.
We might salvage some of our fraught encounters by approaching them with satyagraha:
First, accept that, at this juncture anyway, genuine dialogue is unlikely. Convincing anyone, no matter how well thought out your position is, no matter how carefully you frame it or how kindly, no matter how well informed you are and what evidence you have to back it up, is highly improbable. Your facts will be dismissed and “alternative facts” served up, tit for tat.
If you go into an exchange with the hope of “winning,” you’ve already lost. If you succumb to anger, you will undermine your ability to clearly state your point of view. They won’t hear a word you’re saying. They’ll only hear the emotion.
Is it even worth trying? Yes. It’s good for us to be clear about where we stand and to say it out loud. And if you know that you can’t “win,” it relieves the pressure and much of the frustration. You can focus entirely on stating your position clearly and calmly, which is all you can really hope for.
The goal is to witness to the truth as you know it. “Truth” is not something we uncover, fully formed. It is a process, a dialectic between competing “truths,” something toward which we evolve. The only way to get closer to the whole truth is to engage.
The other goal is to resist injustice. Silence is no longer an option. Speaking out is one of our neglected duties as democrats, and not speaking out is one of the reasons we’re in our current mess. For too long, most Americans have regarded free speech as a right to be used only as a last resort. Free speech should be part of our job description as a citizen.
It’s not your job, however, to convert. You can challenge someone, but conversion can only occur within the individual. What you’re really saying is, “I’ve thought about this for a very long time, and I’m not going away. As long as you are here representing your side, I will be here representing mine. If there is truth in what I say, it will prevail because truth always outlasts what is false. Will you hear me out?”
If we take off the armor of arrogance and shed condescension and hostility, if we engage, disarmed and vulnerable but firm in our thinking and committed to justice, it might just make a dent in their armor. If they meet enough people like us, they might be more likely to disarm.
Are you feeling weary and a little hopeless and wondering what role you can play in the Culture Quarrel? This is what you can do. Knowing what you stand for, and standing for it, is energizing. It will make you feel good about yourself. It might even inspire others. And there are millions of others out there looking for inspiration.
I’m not good at it yet, but I’m learning, slowly, to take the nonviolent approach — because that’s where the power lies.
And I believe that if enough others engage and resist nonviolently, the tide will turn.
It might even save a few family gatherings.