Gandhi and communication: respecting one's feelings and those of the other
This article sets out to analyze Gandhi's communication both in his personal relations and in his collective actions. The outcome of a contribution made during a conference in Delhi in 2011, it is, to our knowledge, the only example among the countless works on Gandhi to deal exclusively with communication. In Gandhi's communicational approach, we find a great sense of empathy. More broadly speaking, the interactional approach of co-constructing meaning seems to lie at the heart of his methodology, enabling him, on the one hand, to succeed in convincing his interlocutors and, on the other, to impart a highly symbolic dimension to his collective actions.
Gandhi, the communicator
In India and the world over, Gandhi is known as the father of the Indian nation and the man who gave us the concept of nonviolence, put into practice as early as 1921 with the notion of ahimsa. There is ample material on the life and work of Gandhi seen from a political, historical or sociological perspective; indeed, many works at the Gandhi Peace Foundation Library in Delhi is devoted to the subject.
On the other hand, a rarely studied aspect is that of Gandhi, the strategist and communicator, capable of embodying both a people and a cause. His statement: "My life is my message" sums it up aptly; it is this aspect that we propose to study here.
The methodology developed for this purpose is threefold: review of existing literature, mainly Gandhi's biographies, as well as the archives of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, Delhi, visit to his residence in Delhi and participation in the seminar Rethinking Gandhi: A Communication Perspective, organized by the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, Jamia Millia University, Delhi in March 2011. What emerges from this research is that apart from studies on Gandhi as a journalist and editor, there is hardly any analysis of his approach to communication, in particular his interpersonal communication. The present anthropological work attempts to fill in these gaps. In order to define Gandhi's communication in his interpersonal relations, and more generally, his symbolic and collective actions, we would also do well to dwell on the possible influences of the Hindu philosophical system.
In this perspective, we will study the actions and behavior of Gandhi, focusing on certain aspects of his individual communication which display an affinity with what the information and communication sciences call inter-personal skills, namely mode of expression, real communication, non-verbal communication, presence and charisma. The present work compares Gandhi's actions with two models relevant to the analysis of his interpersonal communication. Similarly, some symbolic and collective actions have been discussed to throw light on the linkage between individual communication and collective acts. Finally, the links between the markers of Indian society and Gandhi's actions have been viewed as additional explanatory factors. A study of the journalistic style of Gandhi's diaries and the use of his letters as a media have been excluded from the purview of this work, for it forms the corpus of a separate study which requires a different set of methodologies, in particular content analysis.
1. A three pronged approach to communication
1. Internpersonal approach
Interpersonal communication comprises the sending and receiving of a message between two or several individuals. It includes the following dimensions: listening, persuading, asserting oneself and non-verbal communication, that it to say signs sent by the body during the process of communication. We will see that in all his contacts, Gandhi was fully aware of these modalities and details. Empathy and emotion are two fundamental dimensions of such an approach. An interesting study which combines psychoanalysis and the political dimension of nonviolence supports this line of thinking; in a nonviolent struggle, satyagraha1 must stir the moral conscience of every citizen so that public opinion understands the soundness of the cause and the need to support it. We must, as Gandhi says, "touch the hearts" of the people. Now, for Gandhi as for other theoreticians of nonviolence, the heart designates moral conscience not in the Freudian but in the Kantian sense of the term2.
2. Symbolic dimension of actions
The question of creating symbols, which go on to become reference points in terms of images, is significant. Such actions, today called demonstrations, like for instance the Dandi March, were capable of drawing the attention of the media, the public and politicians alike.3 The aim was to focus attention on certain objectives so as to change the legal and political positions of the actors involved. Over time, Gandhi's acts and demonstrations got transformed into symbolic elements, thereby adding to the myth.
The argument we are putting forward is this: if the symbols and references created by Gandhi are still understandable in India and the world, it is because they still work. The present study can help bring out the linkage between an individual action and a collective project, in accordance with the approach dear to ethnomethodology.4 Secondly, this dimension delineates the communication capacities of political actors.
3. Media dimension
Gandhi was aware of the role and importance of the press and started several newspapers: Young India, Navjeevan, Harijan, Sevak.5 They were used to explain decisions, spread ideas and ultimately win over national and international public opinion to his cause in a space today referred to as public space.6 As already indicated, this dimension has been excluded from our study.
2. Philosophical context
Gandhi's life style, behavior and values drew their inspiration from the religious traditions of India (Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism) among which are the practices of abstinence, vegetarianism and renunciation. His determination to live according to these fundamental precepts and thereby embody them helped in creating a special bond between Gandhi and the Indian people.
Here, it would be useful to introduce some key points of Hindu philosophy. First, Gandhi's vows of brahmacharya, a term composed of two words Brahma, the absolute, the eternal (as opposed to Brahma, the god of creation in the Hindu trinity) and chary, which means "to follow". The term is understood in terms of activity, behavior and virtuous lifestyle. Gandhi had included abstinence in his philosophy in order to develop greater spiritual strength. Brahmacharya includes certain vows and a lifestyle centred on control over one's emotions, body and senses. Through brahmacharya and the vow of abstinence, Gandhi recast the linkage between renunciation and acquisition of knowledge and accumulation of power. One who is in control of him is steadfast in his words and arguments and can, through persuasion, convince his interlocutor, or at least touch him emotionally.
Gandhi adopted the principle of Satyagraha, a new word coined for a novel form of action. For Gandhi, Satyagraha went beyond the notion of passive resistance; it became a force to apply nonviolent methods and gave rise to a moral power based on the notion of truth. Gandhi's strength lay in the ability to convert the opponent to his point of view, thereby transforming the relationship and giving it a more cooperative dimension. This required great strength of conviction and the determination to go beyond simple nonviolence. The pressure thus exerted on the other is based on two factors: firm resolution and the challenge of changing the opinion of one's opponent without treating him like an enemy. As we shall see, this approach is very close to the interactionism model.
Renunciation (sannyasa in Sanskrit) is another dimension Gandhi experimented with. Sannyasa means sacrifice and living life after renouncing one's ego and desires, an attitude he cultivated throughout his life and about which much has already been written.
3. Interaction and emotions
Two models of interpersonal communication will now be discussed. The first is that of interactionism established at Palo Alto in the United States. The Palo Alto school grew with Gregory Bateson, Paul Watzlavick and Carl Rogers.
Paul Watzalwick (2006) defined five basic axioms in his theory of communication centered on face-to-face human interaction.
"One cannot not communicate". Human communication consists of sequences of signs exchanged, willingly or otherwise. From this point of view, all behavior constitutes a message and it thus impossible not to communicate. Any behavior depends on the modalities of a group, which is the product of a specific culture, in other words, its rules and markers, the individual being caught up in a process of interaction and co-construction of meaning. Between naturalism and sociologies, viewing communication as an interactionist process amounts to saying that interpretation and change are the heart of communication activities. These can take the form of conflicts, as in political communication, or self-experience, as in the case under discussion here.
"Every communication has a content and relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a meta-communication". Content and relationship in communication belong to different types: a statement gets included in the message received by the person who assigns to it its value. Interpersonal conflicts are the typical material used while studying disturbances in communication arising from the confusion between content and relationship. The Palo Alto school began its work with the systemic analysis of the functioning of the family. The aim of the research was chiefly therapeutic, which is why message and relationship are always the most important elements in communication.
3. "The nature of a relationship is dependent on the punctuation of the partners' communication procedures". The sender and the receiver of the communication flow interpret their own behavior during communication: each partner thinks that the other is the cause of a specific behavior. Disagreement over the punctuation of exchanges could refer to a dispute over the causes and effects of a situation and thereby result in a conflict.
4. "Human communication involves both digital and analogic modalities". The signs exchanged in the course of communication can be verbal or non-verbal. The former is symbolic, codified and called digital. The Palo Alto school refers to the latter as "analogic"; it covers a wide variety of phenomena including sounds, gestures, smell and even taste and belongs to the non-verbal communication register devoid of syntax.
5. "Inter-human communication procedures are either symmetric or complementary, depending on whether the relationship of the partners is based on differences or parity."7
3.2. Emotional intelligence
The second model is that of emotional intelligence which gained ground in the 90s and is defined as "the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth"8.
In his book which has become a standard reference, Daniel Goleman develops four key concepts. The first, self-awareness, is the ability to understand one's emotions, recognize their influence and use them while making decisions. The second, self-management, involves controlling one's emotions and impulses and adapting to changing circumstances. Social awareness, the third concept, refers to the ability to detect and understand the emotions of others and react to them. Finally, the fourth concept, relationship management, is the ability to inspire and influence others while managing any conflict likely to arise9.
Some elements are similar in both models, in particular the desire to identify the content of the message and the present nature of the relationship or the management of the relationship sequence and the desire to observe the relationships and stakes involved at the time of a conflict.
Consistency between message and behavior is one the key features of such models, which require that one understands the nature of the relationship with the other, and go beyond the idea stating that the message is sufficient. Self-knowledge is essential for this purpose; being receptive to one's emotions requires rigor and empathy, prerequisites for successful interpersonal communication. We therefore venture to suggest that if an individual's thoughts, actions and beliefs match, the receiver can sense this and thus accept his message more readily. In the case of Gandhi, the combination of strong values, an abiding faith and a sense of communication centered on the interaction signifies two things: first, the individual has strength of character and second, he is perceived by the public as being charismatic. We propose to extend this analytical framework to other spiritual figures such the Dalai Lama, as we have already illustrated.10
2 Gandhi, the communicator
2a. Effective interpersonal communication
Gandhi's mode of communication is consistent with both these models, for it is clear that he laid great emphasis on respecting and understanding the other.11 In such a system, all the axioms of interactionism are put into practice if not consciously then at least unconsciously. The correspondence and meetings between Gandhi and the Viceroy can be understood in this light. Similarly, one of the rules of the Satyagraha campaign was not to insult the opponent's flag as a mark of respect for the other and his symbols. We are of the view that real communication is effective when reciprocity, commitment, clarity and authority characterize the communication process12.
In his actions as in his personal relationships, Gandhi tried to develop real communication as defined by Le Breton (2004) and Goffman (1967), in other words receptivity, exchange and a feeling of real contact between the two interlocutors without being bound by a specific principle or political line.13 For Gandhi, what mattered was having a clear vision: "I have never made a fetish of consistency. I am a votary of truth and I must say what I feel and think at a given moment on the question, without regard to what I may have said before on it... As my vision gets clearer, my views must grow clearer with daily practice".14
We maintain that Gandhi looked for consistency between his own emotions and the communication developed with others in order to establish genuine communication, that is to say communication revelatory of a person's emotions or even intuition15. Gandhi's mystique and appeal are to a certain extent based on this. Undoubtedly, he had a clear project, but he was obliged to invent new forms of action at each stage and in different contexts. In his autobiography, Gandhi recounts how he read and meditated in order to find the truth, namely the right and complete act in harmony with his quest and objectives. "His words and actions fit into each other like a glove on the hand. And so, whatever happens, he never loses his integrity and there is always an organic completeness about his life and work16."
Aware that he was also a politician, Gandhi strived to make his message effective so as to increase his influence. Accordingly, to become a lawyer, Gandhi took elocution classes in order to master the art of public speaking, as related by V.S. Naipaul in his book, "A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling".17 This training helped him structure his thoughts and gave him mastery of speech and the art of persuasion, key elements in the ability to communicate. Likewise, in the periods of emotional turmoil mentioned in his autobiography, Gandhi stresses the extent to which the fear of speaking in public led him to think about himself and every word he had to utter.
Gandhi was also a leader capable of addressing and mobilizing thousands of illiterate peasants in the course of his mass collective actions.
2 b. Collective actions and symbols
Given the high rate of illiteracy at the time (only 9.5% of the population was educated in 193118), verbal and symbolic communication was crucial for reaching out to the Indian people. Several collective actions were devised and organized by Gandhi, including the Non- Cooperation Movement in 1920; however, the most symbolic was the Dandi March. Held in 1930, the Dandi March or the Salt Marchor "Salt Satyagraha", a 390 km march on foot from Ahmadabad to a small seaside village in Gujarat, was a momentous event, allowing a large number of people to join the movement or at least be exposed to Gandhi's ideas on the independence of India. It demonstrated how civil disobedience and a nonviolent struggle could be carried out in the face of brutal repression by the British police. It is a well-known fact that Gandhi was inspired by Henry David Thoreau's essay On Civil Disobedience. Now, paradoxically nonviolence is a provocation. The authorities are faced with a dilemma: should they let things be as they are or use force in a relationship of weak versus strong.
The Dandi March is testimony to Gandhi's ability to garner widespread support, occupy public space and transform an ordinary place, in this case a sand beach, into a public symbolic space, and salt, an essential commodity, into a commodity accessible to all. Though he was highly critical of Gandhi the man, as we will show in our conclusion, V.S. Naipaul puts forth the following analysis of Gandhi's decision to organize the Dandi March following a lull in the independence movement"... Gandhi had thought long and hard about what he might do to revivify it. He had arrived at this idea: doing a march to the sea in stages, with the world press looking on, and at the end symbolically making salt, in practice only defying the salt laws (salt was a government monopoly), but at the same time making a big political point and exciting the country afresh"19. The Salt March gave a sense of confidence and respect to those who took part in it and the villagers encountered on the way. Choosing salt, a commodity used commonly by all, had a far greater resonance than making an abstract demand; to be more precise, it was the linking of an essential commodity to a symbolic demand that made the demonstration so successful, an event covered by Indian, European and American journalists.
Similarly, while he was in London in 1931 to take part in the Round Table Conference on relations between India and Britain, he soon realized that there was little possibility of the meeting producing any concrete results. He decided instead to focus on spreading his ideas: "interviews, telephonic statements, meetings, visits, schools and universities, there was nothing he left out; he went everywhere, from the temples of the intelligentsia to industrial towns hit by unemployment, and spoke to everyone, be they Oxford dons or Lancashire workers - and even to a leading light of cinema, as illustrated in a photo with Charlie Chaplin"20. Here, he was developing an influence strategy aimed at spreading a single idea of his. Gandhi was adept at using varied kinds of media to reach out to - a wide cross-section of people. The idea was to address a variety of audiences (targets, in today's parlance), who if convinced would then be able to articulate better their thoughts about India and the question of independence. A little later, this approach would be known by its modern name, public relations, which would go on to become a full- fledged profession. Its founder Edward Bernays dealt with the subject for the first time in his book Propaganda published in 1928. Fifty years later, lobbying and influence are the terms, which describe best this activity, namely spreading through several means and media an idea or a concept in order to change a law or contribute to social change. In the same spirit, NGOs and citizens' movements are today developing networks and symbolic actions to draw the attention of the public and government, using the tools of contemporary communication: petitions, social networks, demonstrations, conferences, public relations and media activism.
All these aspects were clearly present in Gandhi's actions. He himself became a symbol, using elements of Indian culture, in particular his choice of wearing cotton, a reference to both local production and the Hindu philosophy of renunciation. This served to bring out the nature of Indian culture in contrast to British culture.
Conclusion, communication and transformation
It would require too much space to mention here all the instances in Gandhi's autobiography where he acted in accordance with the principles of communication respectful of human beings and seeking to build a positive and peaceful relationship. On each occasion, whenever Gandhi acted, he always asked himself the same questions: Who is this person? What does he think? What is of interest to him? How can I convince and inform him? Now, this is precisely what constitutes the first stage of interaction-based communication. Furthermore, he always made a distinction between the man and the office he held to avoid making any value judgment about his interlocutor. He considered holding office a responsibility and a duty for each one, as illustrated in the way he spoke about British civil servants. Likewise, he was always respectful of all forms of civility, especially in his prolific correspondence with various viceroys.
In the same vein, Gandhi gave prior written intimation about what he was intending to do, explaining the reasons for such a line of action, backed by precise facts; here, his training as a lawyer stood him in good stead, allowing him to structure his thoughts and marshal his arguments. This method helped in diffusing any possible tension, for his arguments were presented in a composed and cogent fashion, an approach he invariably referred to as "experiments with truth".
These experiments - Gandhi perceived every act as a new laboratory experiment - were the occasion for self-examination and a check to see how consistent he was. His method was thus in keeping with the concepts enunciated in the emotional intelligence model.
Every act gave rise to the following questions: is it right? Is it the truth? What emotions does it generate in me and what do they tell me about myself at that precise instant? How can this act help transform me? How can it allow me to evolve? This is particularly clear in the chapter “Introspection and its effects" of his autobiography.
Finally, we believe that the resolution to do good, act in the quest of truth and the pursuit of a single idea, namely the independence of India, gave Gandhi his strength of conviction, compelling him again and again to act in order to achieve his objective.
Our analysis suggests that Gandhi was aware of the linkage between personal transformation and social change, between interpersonal communication and collective efficiency. He strove to achieve consistency between his life style, his behavior and his values, and his message resonated with the people. An identical hypothesis has been put forth by Keith Hart: his method for the emancipation of India was guided by a personal awareness at the individual level, which corresponds to our theory about the linkage between individual posture and collective action21.
However, V.S. Naipaul sees in Gandhi the man an indigent individual, inconsistent and opportunistic. He criticizes Gandhi as being "a man of many causes. These causes, disguising his wound and his primary, Indian cause, attracted many different people, who saw in him their own personal cause ... So Gandhi's many causes made him appear more universal than he was".22 Since this study deals with communication, we need not take a stand on this statement emanating from a philosophical reading of Gandhi's work. On the other hand, strangely enough, such a reading tends to favour our line of thinking: as is the case of charismatic and heroic personalities, Gandhi's multi-faceted personality allows each one to identify or be taken up with his persona. V. S. Naipaul also had words of admiration for Gandhi: "And in the third strand of his extraordinary development he looked deep into himself, to his soul, his spirituality, which increasingly he saw as an expression of his social and political work"23. This supports our initial intuition, which has been our guiding principle since February 2010.
Notes and References:
Source: Gandhi Marg, Volume 38, Number 2, July-September, 2017
OLIVIER ARIFON has been professor at the Universitélibre de Bruxelles in charge of the chair in communication. He teaches "Influence, lobbying and communication" and "Competitive intelligence" in a European perspective, introducing experts and case studies as well as theoretical elements. From 1997 to 2011, he the same topics. Prof Arifon has 6 years' experience of cooperation with JamiaMillialslamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University for teaching and research. Address: Universitelibre de Bruxelles Av Emile de Beco, 102, 1050 Brussels, Belgium. Email: email@example.com