Exploring the Gandhian Model of Nonviolent Communication and its Significance
- By Vedabhyas Kundu*
The Gandhian model of nonviolent communication is such a powerful nonviolent alternative that needs to be assimilated at all levels of our communication process. This paper will aim to analyze and develop an understanding of the Gandhian model of nonviolent communication and its significance for constructing a healthy communication ecosystem. It will try to decipher its different elements and try to understand why it is a holistic communication approach that can be a counter to an environment of toxic communication.
More than the threat of bombs and bullets, the more dangerous trend of the 21st Century is the weaponization of hate narratives, mistrust, intolerance, racism, alienation, and various other dimensions of trauma and dysfunctional communication. In the context of these rising incidents of narratives of hatred and intolerance, the UN Secretary-General Anténio Guterres, while launching the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech in 2019, noted, “Hateful and destructive views are amplified exponentially through digital technology and extremists are gathering online, radicalizing new recruits”. He urged everyone to treat hate speech “like any other malicious act: by condemning it unconditionally; refusing to amplify it; countering it with the truth; and encouraging the perpetrators to change their behavior”.1
Further in this backdrop, La Rue (2016) argues, “The world is witnessing an unprecedented increase of polarization, hate speech, radicalization and extremism happening both offline and online.’2 Mansouri and Zapata-Barero (2017) reiterate this concern, “Internationally, the last two decades have witnessed an upsurge in intercultural tensions, xenophobia and social disharmonies, in particular inter and intra-state conflicts driven by religious, sectarian and ethno-cultural disagreements. Indeed, since 9/11, new forms of extreme ideologies, radicalization, populism, and estrangement have dominated national and global agendas.”3
The fulcrum of all these violent narratives is communication. The world has already witnessed the dangerous effects of violent communication. The Rwanda genocide of 1994 is a grim reminder of what violent communication can do and the role of Radio Rwanda and Radio Television des Miles Collines in spreading the genocide. The Srebrenica Genocide of 1995 was also the result of false propaganda, and the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia had recognized this. Hence, the challenge for communicators in the 21st Century is to assiduously and systematically work to promote a healthy communication ecosystem at all levels - from individuals to families, institutions, societies, nations, and the global level. A healthy and nonviolent communication ecosystem is the only answer to the narratives of violence and hatred. In this context, senior Gandhian Natwar Thakkar, in a dialogue with Kundu (2018), talks of the challenge communicators face in the contemporary world:
The need for communicators today is to challenge the attempts to divide people on the basis of class, religion, and race. ... So, right from a young age, we need to teach children to use communication to promote human values, which contributes to a spirit of solidarity. Communication education should integrate the values of pluralism, mutual respect, and inclusivity. It should not be a vehicle to sensationalize or incite passion but a lesson to practice self-restraint and principles of nonviolence in all aspects.4
Here Thakkar underscores the essence of integrating values of pluralism, mutual respect, and inclusivity in our education in communication. He feels it should be a lesson to practice self-restraint and principles of nonviolence. However, in general, we find that violence finds greater space in our education in communication instead of giving space to nonviolent alternatives. In this context, Gorsevski (2014) argues, “Explorations of discursive, rhetorical, interpersonal, symbolic, group, cultural, and other forms of communicative violence tend to take precedence in terms of the general lens that is used to discuss and theorize communication as it relates to various kinds of conflict.”5 She opines that terms like nonviolence and peace-building seem to be ‘less well understood by researchers in communication’. She observes that present discussions on communication and conflict are more focused on the ‘conflict’s stated or implied relationship with violence’. According to Gorsevski, communication “is a means of managing and resolving normal, everyday conflicts at home, at work, in families, in communities, and in other routine places where communicative interaction occurs.”6
Concerned at the centrality of violent communication, which seems to engulf 21* Century societies, Natwar Thakkar underlines the need for nonviolent communication education right from a young age. He argues that citizens need to understand and practice the art and science of nonviolent communication in every aspect of their lives. He uses the Gandhian communication praxis to articulate his understanding of nonviolent communication. Thakkar notes (Kundu, 2018):
To me, nonviolent communication literacy would mean how our communication efforts should be nonviolent; how our ability and capacity to communicate not only with ourselves but with our family and society be nonviolent in all aspects, and overall, how the entire process of communication, whether between individuals, groups, communities and the world at large should be nonviolent in nature. This would entail a deep understanding of the art and science of nonviolence and its centrality in our daily actions. It’s not just verbal and nonverbal communication; nonviolent communication literacy would also include whether our thoughts and ideas are nonviolent or not. This would also mean how we can get rid of our preconceived notions of individuals or groups with whom we want to communicate and stop evaluating them to suit our own ideas. We are often attuned to thinking in terms of moralistic judgments, which may be our constructions. By developing a deep understanding of the art and science of nonviolence and integrating it in our communication practices, we could get over biased and moralistic judgments, which could contribute to emotional bridge building.”7
By arguing about the need to encourage nonviolent communication literacy, Natwar Thakkar echoes the situation’s criticality. He argues for the need to understand the art and science of nonviolence in every aspect of our lives to become nonviolent communicators.
Meanwhile, Martin and Varney (2003) argue how communication is central to the effectiveness of nonviolent action. If the methods of protest and persuasion are fundamental means of communication, forms of non-cooperation and nonviolent intervention have crucial communicative dimensions. While discussing the dimension of nonviolence as communication, Martin and Varney outline that nonviolence as communication can usefully be divided into five dimensions. These include:
(1) Conversion, persuasion, symbolic action: dialogue with opponents.
(2) Power equalization via non-cooperation and intervention: preparation for dialogue with opponents.
(3) Mobilization of third parties: the chain of nonviolence.
(4) Collective empowerment: dialogue within activist groups.
(5) Individual empowerment: inner dialogue.8
Martin and Varney suggest that “examining the communicative dimensions of nonviolence can alert both activists and researchers to the fact that nonviolent actions do not speak for themselves.”9 In the backdrop of the explanation of nonviolent communication by Natwar Thakkar using the Gandhian praxis and the analysis of the communicative dimensions of nonviolence, it would be apt to explore and understand the Gandhian model of nonviolent communication and its significance in contemporary world society. This paper will explore the significant elements of the Gandhian nonviolent communication model and why it matters in the 21st Century.
Exploring the Gandhian Model of Nonviolent Communication
Nonviolent communication is a holistic communication approach that underscores the significance of human interconnectedness. It encompasses our intrapersonal communication, communication with others, communication in the society at large, communication with nature, and communication with other living beings. Its premise is that in the event of dysfunctional communication, whether it is destructive self-communication, interactions with others, society, nature, or other living beings, there would be disruptions in our relationships. (Kundu, 2022)10
Delving into the different approaches to nonviolent communication, Kundu (2020) talks about how the ancient Indian tradition has given credence to a pluralistic communication process. This includes our thought process, which is the primary form of communication.
An important aspect of nonviolent communication is how we can communicate by grasping an idea from different perspectives or lenses. In this context, for instance, the Jain doctrine of anekantvada (many-sidedness or relative pluralism) also echoes the pluralistic tradition of the Indian communication ecosystem. This Jain doctrine helps us understand the principles of pluralism and the significance of a multiplicity of viewpoints. (Kundu, 2020)11
Nonviolent communication is an integral part of Buddhist traditions. Amongst the eight-fold path given by the Buddha, right speech or sammavaciis one of them. The Buddha mentioned it in his very first sutta after awakening, “The Discourse on Turning of the Wheel of Truth” (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta). What then constitutes right speech? Magga-VibhaE ga Sutta (SN 45:8) explains it, “And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, abstaining from divisive speech, abstaining from abusive speech, abstaining from idle chatter.”
Meanwhile, American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg provides an in-depth understanding of nonviolent communication in the contemporary context. He argues (2015), “NVC is founded on language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to remain human even under trying conditions.” Rosenberg points out how using nonviolent communication helps those practicing it reframe how they express themselves and hear others. He notes that its use helps perceive relationships in a new light as “we hear our own deeper needs and those of others.”12
In the backdrop of different approaches to nonviolent communication, it would be apt to explore and aim to construct the Gandhian model of nonviolent communication. Mahatma Gandhi was one of the greatest proponents of nonviolent communication, and in the context of contemporary conflicts, the Gandhian approach needs to be explored and promoted at all levels of our society. It has become uniquely relevant in the backdrop of the increasing use of toxic communication, promotion of fake information, misrepresentations, and stereotyping.
One of the earliest attempts to develop an understanding of the Gandhian model of nonviolent communication was by Bode (1994). Using the life, philosophy, principles, and actions of Gandhi's life, Bode (1994) attempted to construct a Gandhian theory of nonviolent communication. According to this theory, there are four theoretical units: (1) nonviolent speech and action; (2) maintenance of relationships and enrichment of personhood; (3) openness; and (4) flexibility. Arguing on the basis of this theory, Bode noted, “Gandhi predicted that from violent communications harm would result, and that nonviolent communication contributes to the maintenance of peaceful relationships and to the enrichment of personhood.”13
Bode (1994) further points out, “”For Gandhi, the goal of communication was to build and maintain human relationships and thus enhance personhood. Gandhi's insistence on nonviolence recognized the importance of others, valued humanity, and appreciated the importance of human relationships and personhood... Gandhi’s nonviolent communication theory included the valuing of personhood throughout the world, but he also stressed the importance of individual relationships and friendships. ... Openness was manifested in Gandhi's rhetoric and is a characteristic of his nonviolent communication theory. For Gandhi, openness included communication practices such as free speech and press, public discussion, and direct negotiation.”14
In the context of the scholarship of work advanced by scholars like Bode, the perspectives of senior Gandhians like Natwar Thakkar, and in the framework of contemporary challenges like conflicts and environmental degradation, it would be apt to explore the Gandhian model of nonviolent communication as a holistic communication ecosystem. This would entail not just verbal and nonverbal communication, our thoughts and ideas, and human-to-human communication but would be expansive in its approach to furthering the symbolic communication between humans and nature and humans and other living beings. This holistic approach to nonviolent communication stems from Gandhi's ideas of a nonviolent society based on a cosmocentric approach to human nature. Parekh (1997) aptly explains the cosmocentric approach to human nature followed by Gandhi:
The cosmos was a well-coordinated whole whose various parts were all linked in a system of yajna, or interdependence and mutual service. It consisted of different orders of being ranging from the material to the human, each governed by its own laws and standing in a complex relationship with the rest. Human beings were an integral part of the cosmos and were tied to it by the deepest bonds. In Gandhi’s favourite metaphor, the cosmos was not a pyramid of which the material world was the base and the human beings the apex, but a series of ever-widening circles encompassing humankind, the sentient world, the material world, and the all including the cosmos."15
Parekh explains the key dimension of Gandhi's idea of a nonviolent society which underlined, ‘as human beings were interdependent, should discourage all forms of exploitation, domination, injustice, and inequality...and should find ways of institutionalizing and nurturing the spirt of love, truthfulness, social service, cooperation and solidarity’.
Parekh (1997) further delves on Gandhi’s prescriptions of a nonviolent society which should ‘cherish epistemological pluralism’. He notes: “It should appreciate that reason, intuition, faith, traditions intergenerationally accumulated collective wisdom, and emotions are all valuable sources of knowledge, and make their own distinct contributions to understanding and coping with the complexities of human life. The good society should encourage dialogue, a creative interplay between them, and not allow one of them to acquire a hegemonic role or become the arbiter of all others.”16
This cosmocentric approach to human nature and the prescriptions of anonviolent society should guide the construction of the Gandhian model of nonviolent communication. Keeping in mind the deep fissures in human-human relationships, the crisis of climate change and environmental degradation and the problematic relationship between human and other living beings which gets accentuated due to materialistic greed and in the name of development, the essence of human interconnectedness which Gandhi advocated needs to be the central idea of our times. This spirit of human interconnectedness also needs to be assimilated in the construction of our communication ecosystem.
Gandhi’s nonviolent communication also hinges on the impermanent nature of violence. He had said, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” In the context of the communication process, violent communication does immeasurable damage, it is never sustainable. It can lead to long-term fissures in relationships and is the reason of all conflicts. Hence, there is a pertinent argument for the need to inculcate nonviolent communication in all our relationships.
‘An important aspect of the Gandhian nonviolent communication model is its dynamism and action-oriented approach. Unlike other communication scholars who mostly delve on the theoretical aspects of communication, the Gandhian model is practical, persuasive, and motivates the masses to take up positive, constructive work. The thrust of the Gandhian model was how the Gandhian workers were motivated to go and work with the poor and marginalized and be their own.
The volunteers are called upon to enlist themselves in order to do village reconstruction work, and this village reconstruction work is nothing but the organization of the peasantry and workers upon an economic basis. ‘We want to enter the heart of the peasants. We want to intensify ourselves completely with the masses. We want to make their woes our own... ..We must therefore make common cause with the workers.”17
The depth of the Gandhian model of nonviolent communication necessitates its practitioners to make common causes with whom they work and enter their hearts, practice compassion and make people’s problems their own. In the context of the contemporary discourses, this action-oriented, dynamic communication with an endeavour to enter the hearts of people seems to be missing. The aim of communication to nurture constructive work as an important dimension of the Gandhian model needs to be revisited in the context of current discourses.
Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha offers the fulcrum of his model of nonviolent communication. A cardinal principle of Satyagraha was that adversaries were never considered eternal enemies but essentially potential friends. There was no place of bitterness towards others or any trace of violence in speech or action in the work of a Satyagrahi. For Gandhi, truth and nonviolence were supreme. Hence for a Satyagrahi, it was essential to adhere to truth and nonviolence in all circumstances. For a Satyagrahi, the object was ‘not avoidance of all relationship with the opposing power’ but the ‘transformation of relationship’. Reaching out to one’s opponents or those with whom we disagree is important when we think of resolving differences through strategies of nonviolent communication. In Gandhi’s Satyagraha, in situations of dispute or differences, the aim should be to see the validity of the opponent's position. The aim was not to push only one’s point of view but to respect other viewpoints with empathy. Empathetic understanding of the views of others, including our opponents, is a salient feature of nonviolent communication. The Gandhian method underlines the essence of empathy in resolving differences. In Young India (19-3-1925), the Mahatma writing in this context says:
Immediately we begin to think of things as our opponent thinks of them, we shall be able to do them full justice. I know that this requires a detached state of mind, and it is a state very difficult to reach. Nevertheless, for a satyagrahi it is absolutely essential. Three-fourths of the miseries and misunderstandings in the world will disappear, if we step into the shoes of our adversaries and understand their standpoint. We will then agree with our adversaries quickly or think of them charitably.18
This aspect of empathetic communication in Gandhi's communication has been underlined by Joseph (2022), who points out, “Gandhi's writings in Indian Opinion were exercises in truth, nonviolence, and bridge building. He sought and advocated stepping into the shoes of the adversary to find out points not only of difference but also of agreement.”19
An important attribute of Satyagraha was the use of nonviolent persuasion. Pelton (1974) noted, “An essential ingredient of nonviolent persuasion is the honest and straightforward dissemination of information...the withholding of information, the making of unsubstantiated charges...the packaging of an issue, and appeals to greed, prejudice and hatred cannot under any circumstances be reconciled with the philosophy of nonviolence.”20 Nonviolent persuasion was a powerful strategy to reach out to adversaries and is a key element of the Gandhian nonviolent communication model.
Again in the context of Satyagraha, Bondurant (1958) points out how the propagation of the objectives was a fundamental rule of Satyagraha in action. She notes, “Propaganda must be made an integral part of the movement. Education of the opponent, the public, and participants must continue apace.”21 Here, propaganda is considered nonviolent rhetoric aimed to create awareness and understanding of the issues and the different strategies a nonviolent activist could take to overcome the perceived injustices. In the context of communication and media studies being taught in different universities and colleges, the study of nonviolent rhetoric as a significant element of communication is sadly missing. The Gandhian approach to nonviolent rhetoric offers a valuable alternative to violent rhetoric in many contemporary discourses.
Besides, as Bondurant (1965) points out, the mechanism of nonviolent resolution of conflicts was an intrinsic part of this communication approach:
The objective is not to assert propositions, but to create possibilities. In opening up new choices and in confronting an opponent with the demand that he make a choice, the satyagrahi involves himself in acts of ‘ethical existence’. The process forces a continuing examination of one’s own motives, an examination undertaken within the context of relationships as they are changed towards a new, restructured, and reintegrated pattern.22
Openness and flexibility in one’s communication was important feature of Gandhi's nonviolent communication. From this, we learn a lot about his approach to conciliation, mediation, and negotiation. Nanda (2004) aptly encapsulates how these principles transformed Gandhi into the Mahatma:
Gandhi told a correspondent in April 1939, the satyagrahi’s object was ‘not avoidance of all relationship with the opposing power’, but ‘the transformation of the relationship’. In South Africa, Gandhi had negotiated, fought, and finally reached an agreement with General Smuts. His parting gift to his chief antagonist was a pair of sandals which he had himself stitched...In India through a quarter of a century, Gandhi corresponded with all the Viceroys - Chelmsford, Reading, Irwin, Willingdon and Linlightgow-keeping his lines of communication open even while he engaged them in nonviolent battle.23
Gandhi succinctly describes how nonviolent persuasion is an integral part of his nonviolent communication (Ahimsa or the Way of Nonviolence):
Suffering is the law of human beings; war is the law of the jungle. But suffering is infinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and opening his ears, which otherwise are shut, to the voice of reason . . . if you want something really important to be done you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more to the head but the penetration of the heart comes from suffering. It opens up the inner understanding in man. Suffering is the badge of the human race, not the sword."24
Gandhi's nonviolent communication entailed nonviolent rhetoric and a strong commitment to the rule of law. For instance, the Mahatma’s statement in front of the Magistrate in Champaran is a powerful example of nonviolent persuasion with a strong adherence to the rule of law. In The Story of My Experiments with Truth, he says:
With the permission of the Court, I would like to make a brief statement showing why I have taken the very serious step of seemingly disobeying the order under Section 144 of the C.-C. In my humble opinion it is a question of difference of opinion between the local administration and myself. ... have, therefore, come to study it with the assistance, if possible, of the Administration and the planters. I have no other motive, and cannot believe that my coming can in any way disturb public peace and cause loss of life.... The Administration, however, have thought differently. I fully appreciate their difficulty, and I admit too that they can only proceed upon information they received. As a law-abiding citizen my first instinct would be, as it was, to obey the order served upon me. But I could not do so without doing violence to my sense of duty to those for whom I have come:25
Communication analysis of this statement suggests how Gandhi was using his tools of nonviolent persuasion bringing in elements of conciliation, yet adhering to his primary objective of helping the ryots. He also underlines his respect for law and the difficulties of the administration. This lesson in nonviolent communication tells us how to stick to one’s ethical objectives without being disrespectful to those who may have different views. The efficacy of nonviolent communication lies on how we are able to persuade those having different views to join us in our ethical endeavour. This was aptly captured by Gandhi when he says, “Before I could appear before the Court to receive the sentence, the Magistrate sent a written message that the Lieutenant Governor had ordered the case against me to be withdrawn, and the Collector wrote to me saying that I was at liberty to conduct the proposed inquiry, and that I might count on whatever help I needed from the officials.”26
Gandhi's adherence to the use of nonviolent communication was also reflected in his journalistic endeavor. He practiced strict self-restraint and advocated its use in all forms of his communicative efforts. In The Story of My Experiments with Truth, he writes:
I cannot recall a word in those articles set down without thought or deliberation, or a word of conscious exaggeration, or anything merely to please. Indeed the journal became for me training in self-restraint, and for friends a medium through which to keep in touch with my thoughts. The critic found very little to which he could object. In fact the tone of Indian Opinion compelled the critic to put a curb on his own pen.27
When problems arising due to hate speech and hate narratives seem to be escalating, this prescription from Gandhi's nonviolent communication, the essence of self-restraint, is critically relevant. On the significance of self-restraint in our communicative efforts, he further writes:
To be true to my faith (in Satyagraha), therefore, I may not write in anger or malice. I may not write merely to excite passion. The reader can have no idea of the restraint I have to exercise from week to week in the choice of topics and my vocabulary. It is training for me. It enables me to peep into myself and make discoveries of my weaknesses. Often my vanity dictates a smart expression or my anger a harsh adjective. It is a terrible ordeal but a fine exercise to remove these weeds.28
Some critical challenges communicators face today are misrepresentation of facts and promoting fake information and stereotypes. The Gandhian model helps communicators from falling into the trap of misrepresentations. Joseph (2022) elaborates on this perspective, “Right from his first writings in The Vegetarian, there was consistent regard for the truth with a correspondingly strong urge to dispel common misperceptions and fight misrepresentations.”29
The first President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, paying homage to Mahatma Gandhi, encapsulates the eternal value of Gandhi's nonviolent communication. He writes:
Here are the words of the Master covering some six decades of a superbly human and intensely active public life-words that shaped and nurtured a unique movement and led it to success; words that inspired countless individuals and showed them the light; words that explored and showed a new way of life; words that emphasized cultural values which are spiritual and eternal, transcending time and space and belonging to all humanity and all ages.30
In a world that is witnessing conflicts of varying kinds, many of which are due to a dysfunctional communication architecture, the Gandhian model of nonviolent communication can play a pivotal role in encouraging nonviolent alternatives and counter-narratives. For a genuine culture of peace to emerge, nonviolent communication needs to be promoted and taught right from childhood. It should be the defining communication system in all spheres of life - at individual levels, families, educational institutions, administration, judiciary, police, politics, and of course, in the relationship between human - nature and human-all other living beings.
To conclude, in the backdrop of the discussions elucidated above it would be apt to encapsulate the Gandhian model of nonviolent communication. Kundu tries to summarize it as:
1) The Gandhian model of nonviolent communication necessitates use of nonviolence in all aspects of communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, our thoughts and ideas. It underlines how the mind, heart, and body remain disciplined at every stage.
2) We learn the art and science of nonviolent persuasion and efficacy from the Gandhian approach. It explains how nonviolent persuasion is a key component of a nonviolent communication ecosystem.
3) The Gandhian model teaches us the significance of self-discipline and self-restraint in all aspects of our communicative efforts.
4) Gandhi’s nonviolent nonverbal symbolism, like fasting, tells us about its efficacy in nonviolent action. We learn how nonverbal symbolism aims at encouraging self-introspection.
5) The Gandhian approach to empathy in nonviolent communication teaches us how to emotionally connect with the people, even the adversaries, and build bridges.
6) The Gandhian nonviolent communication model encompasses principles of human interdependence and its relevance in a holistic communication ecosystem. It talks on the importance of the cosmocentric approach to human nature.
7) Mahatma Gandhi’s communication strategy was to reach the hearts of the masses through constructive work for social and economic emancipation. For instance, his Talisman is a powerful statement about how each needs to introspect on what they are doing for the last person of the society. It underscores the essence of empathetic connections.
8) Mahatma Gandhi's five pillars of nonviolence-respect, understanding, acceptance, appreciation, and compassion - can be considered the foundational architecture of a nonviolent communication ecosystem.
9) The Gandhian model of nonviolent communication entails the evolution of an individual to a higher plane of values and ethics and respect for human dignity.
10) His communication model underlines the importance of being morally disciplined, strictly adhering to the principles of ahimsa and truth.
11) Openness and flexibility were the hallmarks of Gandhian nonviolent communication. These attributes are important for the constructive resolution of any conflict.
12) Using the strategies of Gandhian nonviolent communication enables communicators to avoid getting into the trap of misrepresentation, fake information, and wrong stereotypes.31 & 32
Notes and References
Courtesy: Gandhi Marg, Volume 44 Number 1, April-June 2022.
* Vedabhyas Kundu is Programme Officer, Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, 5 Tees January Marg, New Delhi 11 | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org