By Robert J. Burrowes, New Age Islam
30 January 2019
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869:
150 years ago this year.
There will be many tributes to Gandhi published in
2019 so I would like to add one of my own.
This reflects not just my belief that he gave the
world inspiration, ideas and powerful strategies for tackling violence in a
wide range of contexts but because my own experience in applying his ideas has
proven their worth. This included his awareness that led him to declare that
‘If we are to make progress, we must not repeat history but make new history.
We must add to the inheritance left by our ancestors.’ and his encouragement to
reflect deeply and listen to one’s ‘inner voice’: ‘you should follow your inner
voice whatever the consequences’ and ‘even at the risk of being misunderstood’.
In essence, we can productively learn from history but
we can build on it too. And, vitally, this includes dealing more effectively
So How Did Gandhi Influence Me?
Shortly after midnight on 1 July 1942, my Uncle Bob
was killed when the USS Sturgeon, a U.S. submarine, fired torpedoes into
the Japanese prisoner of war (POW) ship Montevideo Maru. The ship sank
immediately and, along with 1,052 other POWs, Bob was killed.
Apart from his older brother, my father’s twin brother
was also killed in World War II. In Tom’s case, he was shot down over Rabaul on
his first (and final) mission. He was a wireless air gunner on a Beaufort
Bomber. See ‘The Last Coastwatcher: My Brothers’.
My childhood is dotted with memories of Bob and Tom.
The occasional remembrance service, war medals and the rare story shared by my
In 1966, the year I turned 14, I decided to devote my
life to finding out why human beings kill each other and to work out how such
killing could be ended. The good news about this ‘decision’ is that, at 14, it
all felt manageable! But I wasn’t much older before my preliminary
investigations proved that even understanding why humans are violent was going
to be a profound challenge. And I intuitively understood that I needed this
understanding if any strategy to end violence was to be effective.
In any case, as one might expect, my research into
violence and strategies for addressing it led me to nonviolence. I came across
virtually nothing about nonviolence during my own studies at school and
university but was regularly presented with news reports of people
participating in activities – such as demonstrations and strikes – that I later
learned to label ‘nonviolent action’.
In 1981 I decided to seek out materials on nonviolence
and nonviolent action so that I could learn more about it. I had not been
reading for long when the routine reference to Mohandas K. (or Mahatma) Gandhi,
about whom I had heard a little and knew of his role in leading the Indian
independence struggle, forced me to pay more attention to his life and work. So
I sought out his writing and started to read some of his published work. An
Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth was an obvious and
early book but there were many others besides. I also read many books about
Gandhi, to get a clearer sense of his life as a whole, as reported by his co-workers
and contemporaries, as well as documented by scholars since his death. And I
spent a great many hours in a library basement poring over The Collected Works of
The thing that struck me immediately about Gandhi was
that his own interest in tackling violence had a comprehensive ‘feel’ about it.
That is, he was not just interested in the violence that occurs when nations
fight wars or one person kills or injures another. He was interested in
addressing the violence that occurs when individuals and nations exploit other
individuals/nations (such as when British imperialism exploited India and
Indians) and the violence that occurs when a structure (such as capitalism or
socialism) exploits the individuals within it. In his words: ‘exploitation is
the essence of violence’. He was interested in the violence that occurs when
members of one social group (say, Hindus) ‘hate’ the members of another social
group (such as Muslims). He was interested in the violence that occurs when men
oppress women or caste Hindus oppress ‘untouchables’. He was interested in the
violence that occurs when humans destroy the environment. And he was interested
in the violence that one inflicts on oneself.
This comprehensive interest resonated deeply with me
because, apart from war, my own childhood and adolescence had revealed many
manifestations of violence ranging from the starvation of people in developing
countries to the racism in the United States (highlighted by Rev. Martin Luther
King Jr. during the 1960s) to the destruction of the environment, each of which
had gradually but deeply embedded itself in my consciousness. Tackling violence
was a far bigger task than the large one I had originally imagined. Violence
is everywhere. Most importantly, it seemed to me, there was enormous
violence directed against children in the family home but little was spoken or
written about this.
So how did Gandhi explain violence and what was his
strategy for addressing it?
Gandhi on Conflict and Violence
For Gandhi, conflict was a perennial condition. He
also viewed it positively and considered it desirable. For him, it is an
important means to greater human unity precisely because their shared conflict
could remind antagonists of the deeper, perhaps transcendental, unity of life,
which is far more profound than the bond of their social relationship.
He viewed violence differently, however. And, as might
be gleaned from the many configurations of violence that concerned him, as
noted above, he considered that violence was built into social structures and
not into people.
Fundamentally, as Leroy Pelton characterized it,
Gandhi understood that the truth cannot be achieved through violence (‘which
violates human needs and destroys life’), because violence itself is a form of
injustice. In any case, violence cannot resolve conﬂict because it does
not address the issues at stake.
To reiterate then, for Gandhi there was nothing
undesirable about conflict. However, Gandhi’s preoccupation was working out
how to manage conﬂict without violence and how to create new social
arrangements free of structural violence. The essence, then, of Gandhi’s
approach was to identify approaches to conﬂict that preserved the people while
systematically demolishing the evil structure. Nevertheless, he ﬁrmly believed
that structural puriﬁcation alone is not enough; self-puriﬁcation is also
In other words, in Gandhi’s view, resolving the
conﬂict (without violence) is only one aspect of the desired outcome. For
Gandhi, success also implies the creation of a superior social structure,
higher degrees of fearlessness and self-reliance on the part of both Satyagrahis
(nonviolent activists) and their opponents, and a greater degree of human unity
at the level of social relationships.
Two Key Questions
Despite the enormous influence that Gandhi had in
shaping my own conception of conflict and the precise conception of nonviolence
that should be used in dealing with it, I nevertheless remained convinced that
two questions remained unanswered: What is the psychological origin of the
violent behaviour of the individual who perpetrates it? And what theory or
framework should guide the application of nonviolent action so that campaigns
of all kinds are strategically effective?
The first question is important because even if
someone is trapped within a social structure (such as the class system) that is
violent, the individual must still choose, consciously or unconsciously, to
participate (as perpetrator, collaborator or victim) in the violence perpetrated by that structure
or one must choose, consciously, to resist it. Why do so many individuals perform
one of the first three roles and so few, like Gandhi himself, choose the role
The second question is important because while Gandhi
himself was an astonishingly intuitive strategic thinker (whose 30-year
nonviolent strategy liberated India from British occupation), no one before him
or since his death has demonstrated anything remotely resembling his capacity
in this regard.
Hence, while nonviolence, which is inherently
powerful, has chalked up some remarkable successes, vital struggles for peace
(and to end war); to halt assaults on Earth’s biosphere; to secure social
justice for oppressed and exploited populations; to liberate national groups
from dictatorship, occupation or genocidal assault; and struggles in relation
to many other just causes limp along devoid of strategy (or use one that is
ill-conceived). So badly are we failing, in fact, that humans now teeter on the
brink of precipitating our own extinction. See ‘Human Extinction by 2026? A Last Ditch Strategy to
Fight for Human Survival’.
Anyway, having studied Gandhi extensively and learned
from his strategic approach to nonviolence (elements of which I was
progressively including in nonviolent campaigns in which I was involved
myself), I resumed my original research to understand the fundamental origin of
human violence and also decided to develop a strategic theory and framework for
addressing violence in the campaign context so that Gandhi’s strategic thinking
could be readily copied by other nonviolent activists.
It turned out that developing this strategic theory
and strategy was simpler than the original aim (understanding violence) and I
have presented this strategic thinking on two websites: Nonviolent Campaign Strategy and Nonviolent Defense/Liberation Strategy.
Despite my preliminary efforts in the 1990s to
encourage fellow activists to use this framework, it soon became clear that
only the rarest of activists has the capacity to think strategically about an
issue, even when presented with a framework for doing so.
The Origin of Human Violence
Consequently, the vital importance of understanding
the origin of human violence was starkly demonstrated to me yet again because I
knew it would answer key supplementary questions such as these: Why to do so
many people live in denial/delusion utterly incapable of perceiving structural
violence or grappling powerfully with (military, social, political, economic
and ecological) violence? Why is it that so many people, even activists, are
powerless to think strategically? How can activists even believe that success
can be achieved, particularly on the major issues of our time (such as the
threats of nuclear war, ecological devastation and climate cataclysm), without
a focused and comprehensive strategy, particularly given elite resistance to
such campaigns? See ‘The Global Elite is Insane Revisited’.
Hence, in an attempt to answer questions such as
these, Anita McKone and I went into seclusion in an endeavour to understand how
our own minds functioned so that we might better understand the minds of
others. I hoped it would take a few months. It took 14 years.
So what is the cause of violence in all contexts and
which, depending on its precise configuration in each case, creates
perpetrators of violence, people who collaborate with perpetrators of violence,
people who are passive victims of violence, people who live in denial/delusion,
people who are sexist or racist, and activists who cannot think strategically
(among many other adverse outcomes)?
Each of these manifestations of human behaviour is an
outcome of the adult war on children. That is, adult violence against children
is the fundamental cause of all other violence.
How does this happen? It happens because each child,
from birth, is socialized – more accurately, terrorized – so that they fit into
their society. That is, each child is subjected to an unrelenting regime of
‘visible’, ‘invisible’ and ‘utterly invisible’ violence until they offer the
obedience that every adult – parent, teacher, religious figure... – demands.
So What Constitutes ‘Visible’, ‘Invisible’ And
‘Utterly Invisible’ Violence?
‘Visible’ violence includes hitting, screaming at and
sexually abusing a child which, sadly enough is very common.
But the largest component of damage arises from the
‘invisible’ and ‘utterly invisible’ violence that we adults unconsciously
inflict on children during the ordinary course of the day. Tragically, the bulk
of this violence occurs in the family home and at school. For a full
explanation, see ‘Why Violence?’ and ‘Fearless Psychology and
Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice’.
‘Invisible’ violence is the ‘little things’ we do
every day, partly because we are just ‘too busy’. For example, when we do not
allow time to listen to, and value, a child’s thoughts and feelings, the child
learns to not listen to them Self thus destroying their internal communication
system. When we do not let a child say what they want (or ignore them when they
do), the child develops communication and behavioral dysfunctionalities as they
keep trying to meet their own needs (which, as a basic survival strategy, they
are genetically programmed to do).
When we blame, condemn, insult, mock, embarrass,
shame, humiliate, taunt, goad, guilt-trip, deceive, lie to, bribe, blackmail,
moralize with and/or judge a child, we both undermine their sense of Self-worth
and teach them to blame, condemn, insult, mock, embarrass, shame, humiliate,
taunt, goad, guilt-trip, deceive, lie, bribe, blackmail, moralize and/or judge.
The fundamental outcome of being bombarded throughout
their childhood by this ‘invisible’ violence is that the child is utterly
overwhelmed by feelings of fear, pain, anger and sadness (among many others).
However, mothers, fathers, teachers, religious figures and other adults also
actively interfere with the expression of these feelings and the behavioural
responses that are naturally generated by them and it is this ‘utterly
invisible’ violence that explains why the dysfunctional behavioural outcomes
For example, by ignoring a child when they express
their feelings, by comforting, reassuring or distracting a child when they
express their feelings, by laughing at or ridiculing their feelings, by
terrorizing a child into not expressing their feelings (for instance, by
screaming at them when they cry or get angry), and/or by violently controlling
a behaviour that is generated by their feelings (for example, by hitting them,
restraining them or locking them into a room), the child has no choice but to
unconsciously suppress their awareness of these feelings.
However, once a child has been terrorized into
suppressing their awareness of their feelings (rather than being allowed to
have their feelings and to act on them) the child has also unconsciously
suppressed their awareness of the reality that caused these feelings. This has
many outcomes that are disastrous for the individual, for society and for the
biosphere because the individual will now easily suppress their awareness of
the feelings that would tell them how to act most functionally in any given
circumstance and they will progressively acquire a phenomenal variety of
dysfunctional behaviors, including some that are violent towards themselves,
others and/or the Earth.
So What Do We Do?
Well, if you want to make an enormous contribution to
our effort to end violence, you can make the commitment outlined in ‘My Promise to Children’. If you need to do some healing of your own to be
able to nurture children in this way, then consider the information provided in
the article ‘Putting Feelings First’.
If you want to systematically tackle violence against
the biosphere, consider (accelerated) participation in the fifteen-year
strategy, inspired by Gandhi, outlined in ‘The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth’. This project outlines a simple plan for people to
systematically reduce their consumption, by at least 80%, involving both energy
and resources of every kind – water, household energy, transport fuels, metals,
meat, paper and plastic – while dramatically expanding their individual and
community self-reliance in 16 areas, so that all environmental concerns are
effectively addressed. As Gandhi observed 100 years ago: ‘Earth provides enough
for every person’s need but not for every person’s greed.’
But, critically important though he believed personal
action to be, Gandhi was also an extraordinary political strategist and he knew
that we needed to do more than transform our own personal lives. We need to
provide opportunities that compel others to consider doing the same.
So if your passion is campaigning for change, consider
doing it strategically, as Gandhi did. See Nonviolent Campaign Strategy.
And if you want to join the worldwide movement to end
all violence against humans and the biosphere, you can do so by signing the
online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World’.
Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948. But his
legacy lives on. You can learn from it too, if you wish.
Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to
understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since
1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a
nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?’ and his website is here.
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