Reclaiming Nonviolence from Gandhian Puritanism
Starhawk is a permaculture activist, member of the RANT nonviolence training collective, and author of Truth or Dare and The Fifth Sacred Thing. This essay is excerpted from her book, Webs of Power: Notes From the Global Uprising, © 2002, New Society Publishers.
Does Gandhi’s Sex Life Matter?
Gandhi and King were not the only influences on the development of movements grounded in nonviolence. In the United States and in England, Quakers have long been in the forefront of struggles for social justice. Their religious pacifism influenced the course of liberation movements from the antislavery campaigns of the 1800s to the antinuclear campaigns of the 1980s.
Women pioneered many of the tactics used by Gandhi and King. Alice Paul revitalized the suffrage movement in the US when she brought back from England the tactics of direct action. In England, suffragists demanding women’s right to vote chained themselves to lamp posts and broke shop windows in an earlier version of the property-damage controversy. They filled the jails and went on hunger strikes, withstanding enormous suffering when they were forcibly fed. In the US, women marched, chained themselves to the White House fence, and challenged President Wilson over the hypocrisy of fighting for democracy abroad while denying it to women at home. Nevertheless, it is Gandhi and King who again and again are cited as the authors of the nonviolent philosophy, whose pictures are carried in demonstrations, whose works are quoted. Many pacifists call themselves Gandhians; I know of no one, not even any woman, who calls herself a Paulian or Pankhurstian or Ella Bakerian or Rosa Parksian. It may be a measure of the internalized sexism even among people in the movement that we still look to men as moral authorities and erase the contributions of women. But for that very reason, we need to examine their legends and legacies.
For Gandhi nonviolence was not just strategic, it was deeply moral, and it went far beyond eschewing violence. Satyagraha, truth force or soul force, was an energetic force that could only be marshaled by long and deep preparation, much as certain yogis employ special techniques and diets in order to command special powers. It was part of a way of life that required forms of self-discipline few of today’s activists are interested in undertaking: most notably, giving up sex altogether.
While no one I know of is proposing abstinence as a requirement for joining a direct action campaign, for Gandhi it was indispensable. Satyagraha could not be mobilized without brahmacharya, a comprehensive self-discipline that included sexual abstinence. And not just abstinence outside of marriage. Gandhi actually went beyond the Pope in viewing even marital sex as a sign of lack of self-control. A man’s progeny were living proof of his inability to control his lusts.
Satyagraha, for Gandhi, was also not about low-risk cross-the-line actions. He waged satyagraha campaigns infrequently, and each campaign required a pledge from his followers to be willing to die before giving up. Gandhi used all his moral authority and the weapons of guilt and shame on his followers to get them to live up to his ideals.
And Gandhi was no anti-authoritarian. He was a Mahatma, a religious leader in an authoritarian religious tradition that included a level of veneration and obedience unlikely to appeal to most of us today. His near deification by many pacifists lies firmly within that tradition.
King was also a religious leader, a minister, functioning in a milieu in which ministers were venerated and strong leadership was expected. King held a deeply religious, Christian moral commitment to nonviolence. In the Birmingham campaign of 1963, the very first pledge required of activists was to meditate on the life of Jesus every day and to pray. Three of the ten pledges involved Christ.
But King was also a fallible mortal being who, we now know, carried on a long-standing secret extramarital affair. We can’t begrudge him the comfort and solace he must have needed to sustain the tensions and dangers of his work. But we can point out that he follows the pattern of male spiritual and political leaders from New Age gurus to Jim Baker to Clinton, who publicly preach a strict sexual morality while privately indulging their own needs and desires.
Does Gandhi’s sex life matter? Does King’s? On the one hand, no, their flaws shouldn’t undercut our respect for their philosophy, their courage, their real contributions to human liberation and political struggle.
But from a woman’s point of view, from an anarchist viewpoint, and from the perspective of earth-based spirituality, yes, it does. Gandhi’s rejection of sexuality, of the body, leaves us firmly in the world view of patriarchy, split between body and spirit, venerating Gods that transcend the flesh, and suffering the inevitable degradation of those of us who bring that flesh into the world. That world view is a comfortable fit with Christianity as well (although certainly within both Christianity and Hinduism, strands can be found that do value nature, the erotic, and women).
The revolution we need to make includes a profound change in relationship to our experience of being a body. One of the insights of eco-feminism, the convergence of the feminist and ecology movements, is that our destruction of the environment is allowable because of the deep devaluation of nature and the body in the underlying religious and philosophical systems that shape our worldviews. And the devaluation of women — the violence, rape, and destruction perpetrated on female bodies around the globe — is also supported by the same philosophical and religious systems that identify women with nature and the body, and assign them both low value.
That essential mind/body split is the basis of all systems of domination, which function by splitting us off from a confidence in our inherent worth and by making integral parts of ourselves —our emotions, our sexuality, our desires — bad and wrong.
When we are bad, we deserve to be punished and controlled. Punishment systems lie at the root of violence. Marshall Rosenberg, a teacher of nonviolent communication, describes how violence is justified by the split between the deserving and undeserving: “You have to make violence enjoyable for domination systems to work ... You can get young people to enjoy cutting off the arms of other young people in Sierra Leone because of the thinking that you are giving people what they deserve.... When you can really justify why people are bad, you can enjoy their suffering.” And so we see people who deplore the violence of the attacks on the World Trade Towers, who empathize and suffer with the victims, gleefully demanding that we bomb Afghanistan back to the stone age because the Afghanis have been defined as deserving of punishment.
As human beings, we always have a somewhat problematic relationship to our body. The body is the source of pleasure — it is life itself. But it is also the source of pain, need, discomfort, and deprivation, and ultimately it suffers death. A liberated world, a world that could come into balance with the natural systems that sustain life, a world that values women, must also value life, embodiment, physicality, flesh, sex.
Nonviolence And Suffering
Both King and Gandhi believed in the transcendent value of suffering. Now, a certain asceticism is helpful if you are asking people to risk physical discomfort, injury, imprisonment, or even death. A belief in the value of suffering is a useful thing to have when you are voluntarily putting yourself in a position in which you are likely to suffer.
But embracing suffering is problematic for women, who have always been taught to suffer and sacrifice for others. Conditioned to swallow our anger, to not strike back, we have not had a choice about accepting blows without retaliation. Nonviolence puts a high moral value on those behaviors, encourages men to practice them, and develops them as a political strategy. Yet women’s empowerment involves acknowledging our anger, owning our rage, allowing ourselves to be powerful and dangerous as well as accommodating and understanding.
And from the perspective of an earth-based spirituality, which values pleasure, the erotic, the beauty and joy of this life, suffering is sometimes inevitable but never desirable. We can learn from it; if we are truly going to change the world, we probably can’t avoid it — but we don’t seek it or venerate it. Instead, we share it as much as possible through solidarity with each other.
One of Gandhi’s strong principles was that we accept the suffering and the consequences of our actions, that we don’t try to avoid or evade punishment but welcome it. That position creates a powerful sense of freedom and fearlessness. If we accept the inevitability of punishment, if part of the power of our action is to voluntarily go to jail, we move beyond fear and beyond the system’s ability to use our fear to control us. But often the way this principle plays out is that the focus becomes the arrest rather than the action.
There’s something to be said for doing a strong action and getting away with it. There’s even more to be said for conceiving of an action that does not derive its impact from an arrest, but from what it actually is and does. And if we do choose an arrest strategy, let’s do it for a purpose we’ve thought about and clearly defined, not just by default.
Authority And Virtue
The underlying moralism in Gandhi’s formulation of nonviolence is a subtle thread, but it encourages other moralisms that contribute to the worthy/sexy dichotomy. If we hold a punitive relationship to the body’s needs, we assume a posture of internal violence toward the self that extends to other strong emotions and passions. And we become judgmental toward others, rigid in our thinking and viewpoints. Any behavior that does not fit our model is seen as “violent,” and violent people are seen as deserving of punishment. So our very “nonviolence” puts us into an authoritarian, dominating mode. Gandhi and King both exemplified religious authority and top-down styles of leadership. They were good, benevolent father figures (although how good they were to their own children is another issue), but dependence on any sort of father figure is not a route to empowerment for women, nor for anyone who wants to function as a liberated, full human being. Anti-authoritarians rightly criticize that model of leadership as keeping us all childlike, released from true responsibility for our lives.
Nonviolence does not have to be practiced in an authoritarian manner. The Quaker tradition of consensus and non-hierarchical organization is a counterbalancing force in nonviolent movements. The Quaker-influenced Movement for a New Society, which introduced affinity groups, consensus, and horizontal power structures to the antinuclear movement in the seventies and eighties, pioneer an empowering model of organizing.
But at times the Quaker influence in the nonviolence movement also contributed to the drift toward morality plays. Quaker pacifism involves a process of deep discernment, of constant self-questioning, of asking, “Are my actions in alignment with my values? Does my conscience allow me to participate in this act or comply with this procedure?” This process of deep self-examination imparts a clarity and purity to actions, and can serve as an important inner compass.
But if the main measure of an action’s success becomes how closely it allows us to conform to our personal moral values, we can lose sight of whether or not it is actually effective. When our actions again and again are ignored or seem to have little immediate impact on the wrongs we protest, we can unconsciously give up hope of actually winning.
There are many different modes of a politics of despair. We usually associate that phrase with the secret, militant cells of the seventies that carried out political bombings and robberies in a last desperate hope that the extremity of their acts would spark a revolution. But it could equally be applied to those who act simply to be virtuous in the face of doom and lose sight of the possibility of victory.
Such actions may be admirable and inspirational. But our time and attention can become focused on the minutia of moral choices in an action: Should I stand up or sit down when the police come? Should I walk with them or go limp? Should I voluntarily place my hand on the pad to be fingerprinted or make them pick it up and place it there? It’s not that those questions shouldn’t be asked, they can be valuable in helping us define our goals and limits.
But when we don’t go beyond them to ask, “What is the objective of this action? How does each of my choices further that objective?” then we undercut our chances of being effective. And they reinforce the system’s focus on individuals as isolated actors instead of encouraging us to ask, “How do we collectively take power?”