Lessons on Civility from Gandhi and King

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The first thing is, we must understand what civility is. It doesn’t mean agreement, submission, or passivity. It really just means acting like a decent human being. Our adversaries don’t act like decent human beings. When rational people hear and see them as they really are, they are repulsed. Our strategy must be to expose them and present an attractive alternative, not a mirror image.

When Gandhi was recruiting activists for his Satyagraha campaigns he insisted on absolute assent to the principle of ahimsa, which to my understanding translates to love. Similarly, Dr. King talked about regarding the oppressor with agape, a Greek term that has come to mean unconditional love in Christian circles. Here is what he said,

In speaking of love at this point, we are not referring to some sentimental or affectionate emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. Love in this connection means understanding, redemptive good will. When we speak of loving those who oppose us, we refer to neither eros nor philia; we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word agape. Agape means understanding, redeeming good will for all men. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object. It is the love of God operating in the human heart.[1]

The reason why the motivation of ahimsa or agape was so important is because both Indian and American activists were going to announce they intended to break the law, on Thoreau’s principle that it is immoral to obey an unjust law. They didn’t just risk confrontation with authority, they counted on it. It was absolutely vital that any and all acts which could be criticized be carried out only by the oppressors. Gandhi and King saw that provoking the oppressor by publicly refusing to obey the law would draw out their injustice and inhumanity, because the only way to enforce an unjust law is through unjust means. The whole point of non-violent direct action is to lay bare the injustice of the law. The surest way to do that is to refuse to obey the law, and willingly (and publicly) suffer the consequences, which we expect to be violent and painful, without responding in kind. That is why non-violence as a strategy requires so much courage and devotion.

Will this strategy work today? Absolutely. You see how powerful the women’s marches have been, and the demonstrations by the kids after the Parkland shootings. We have to draw attention to the injustices. And we must do that by raising our voices. What our loud, passionate, insistent voices must say, however, is the opposite of what Trumpeteers are saying. Where they lie, we must loudly speak the truth. Where they are racist and vicious, we must be inclusive and compassionate. Where they are base, we must be decent.

Zak Ringlestein, candidate for the US Senate from Maine, went to Texas, openly defied the authorities by trying to bring toys and comforts to the kids, was arrested and put in jail. That act drew national attention to the injustice of the situation. When a man is arrested for trying to comfort kids who have been jailed by the Trump administration, that presents a powerful authentication of the brutality of the law. The point was not lost on the media and the general public (not that it could break through the Trumpian bubble). And the point was made without resort to boorishness.

The mothers with babies who are invading ICE offices, and the protestors who are disrupting other ICE offices command public attention and present a compelling example. The faith leaders (of many faiths) who are being arrested in the Capitol for speaking out against the inhumanity do as well. There are many ways to respond to the violations of what we once agreed were American values that don’t require being crude. But there are not many ways that can be accomplished with the risk of redemptive suffering.

So yes, we do have to draw attention, but to the injustice, not our own pettiness. In one of his last speeches Dr. King remarked, “I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non­-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view.” Militant, powerful, and massive. But not tasteless.

The mothers with babies who are invading ICE offices, and the protestors who are disrupting other ICE offices command public attention and present a compelling example. The faith leaders (of many faiths) who are being arrested in the Capitol for speaking out against the inhumanity do as well. There are many ways to respond to the violations of what we once agreed were American values that don’t require being crude. But there are not many ways that can be accomplished with the risk of redemptive suffering.

So yes, we do have to draw attention, but to the injustice, not our own pettiness. In one of his last speeches Dr. King remarked, “I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non­-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view.” Militant, powerful, and massive. But not tasteless.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “An Experiment in Love,” 1958, in James Melvin Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 19.