3.11. Gandhi’s Greatest Idea

Gandhi’s hope was to resolve ideological differences without causing any kind of harm whatsoever to anybody involved. 

Most people know Mahatma Gandhi practiced nonviolent resistance, successfully led India’s movement for independence from Great Britain, and inspired the 1960s civil rights movements in the United States.

But fewer people know the whole story of Gandhi’s thoughts and beliefs. And I think they contain a really powerful insight that could be really, really helpful in today’s climate of ideological warfare.

The main concept at the heart of Gandhi’s thinking is something called “satyagraha.”

Literally, “satya” means truth, while “agraha” means something akin to firm, polite insistence. So its literal meaning has to do with unwavering, nonviolent adherence to what’s true and right.

But as Gandhi understood it, satyagraha was about more than just how you stuck to your beliefs. It was also about how you resolve disagreements and conflicts with those who disagree with you.

After all, we all know that one person’s truth is another person’s falsehood. Just about everybody wants to do what’s true and right—but we don’t always agree on what that is.

What most people don’t realize about Gandhi’s devotion to nonviolence is that he wasn’t just concerned with physical violence.

He meant violence in all forms. Verbal violence. Psychological violence. Emotional violence.

Gandhi believed you should be devoted to what’s true and right, as you understand it. But you shouldn’t attack, demean, or coerce anybody in the name of your beliefs.

His desire was to move beyond this battlefield mentality—in which you fight for your beliefs, and I fight for mine, and we’re both trying to get what we want and stop the other from getting what they want, and if I can’t compel you to adopt my beliefs, then I’m perfectly justified in inflicting violence—physical or otherwise—on you.

Gandhi’s hope was to resolve ideological differences without causing any kind of harm whatsoever to anybody involved. “There must be no impatience, no barbarity, no [disrespect], no undue pressure,” he wrote. “If we want to cultivate a true spirit of democracy, we cannot afford to be intolerant.”

I think this principle is just as powerful and applicable today as it was eighty years ago.

I think it’s going to be a major ingredient in ending our constant, tribal, us-versus-them antagonisms—and the forces of systemic discrimination, prejudice, and oppression all over the globe.

I think it’s going to be necessary to resolve all the increasingly bitter disputes over truth among our sciences, philosophies, political ideologies, and religious and spiritual traditions.

We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to convert people over to our way of believing and thinking. What we don’t do is think about how we can do this in a way that doesn’t cause any harm to the people we’re trying to reach.

How do we do it so they retain their dignity? How do we do it so we don’t cast them as inferior to us? How do we do it so we both come away from the process having transcended our disagreement, rather than resolving it through some kind of force?

We should spend a lot more time thinking about those questions. The benefits of resolving our differences in this way would be enormous.


This is the 55th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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