Satyagraha may sound like something preceding a chorus of “bless you” and “gesundheit,” but it is a concept which could save this angry and bloodied world from its darker impulses. Commonly interpreted to mean “Truth-force,” satyagraha is a word coined by Mahatma Gandhi that has become deeply ingrained in the greater nonviolence movement in the Gandhi-King tradition (1). Before hearing more about what satyagraha means and represents, I would have shuddered to hear advocacy for anything translating to “Truth-force.” I am no enemy of responsible education, respectful discussion, or factual reporting; however, I fear any movement which brands itself as holding too jealously to truth. The worst threats to peace, justice, and mercy in our day – perhaps in any day – come from those who hold so tightly to their vision of truth that they think themselves truth’s sole guardians. Truth is a continuous and collective process in understanding; it takes place on all levels of society, but there are always some who try to determine one truth from the top down, and this leads to truth’s inverse. Indeed, in some circles “truth” has become Newspeak; a mirror image of itself. Armed with “alternative facts,” some have found a way to create two tensely coexisting realities in American society. However, satyagraha does not only mean “Truth-force” but also “Love-force,” and here lies the distinction. Truth exists, but love reminds us how it operates. A “Love-force” can guarantee that a “Truth-force” does not become “Truth-by-force.”
Individual conceptions of “truth” have been forced upon society by those who would manipulate the world to their benefit with little consideration for others. Disagreement has become treason to small but significant portions of the country, and we are witnessing a logocide of a tolerant definition of truth followed by its replacement with an exclusionary definition. Dr. Lee McIntyre of Boston University writes in his book Post-Truth that because “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” we are now seeing political actors who “feel emboldened to try to bend reality to fit their opinions, rather than the other way around” (2). Truth can be manipulated; facts can be selectively displayed to tell the opposite story from what is really going on, and this can be immensely powerful in the hands of opportunists. For example, the deluge of factually questionable statements coming out of the administration of former president Donald Trump was often so vague and so self-assured that those inclined to believe in his worldview could drown out hundreds of frazzled fact-checkers after hearing the slightest of factual aspects in their leader’s speech. Additionally, from McIntyre’s observations, Trump at times “seemed to feel that his believing something somehow made it true … [and] spoke as if he had the power to change reality” (3). This is plain to see even from the first days of the Trump presidency, when he proclaimed against objective evidence to the contrary that his inaugural day crowds were larger than President Obama’s (4). So much for the famous modern conservative mantra: “Facts don’t care about your feelings” (5).
Even the Gandhi-King tradition that birthed the principle of satyagraha has become a victim of this kind of falsification and selective reading of truth. Each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we hear a sanitized and partial form of the real King’s message; usually we are privy to the plea for a colorblind society grounded in the following phrase: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” (6). While it is true that King said and believed this noble statement, it is still a distortion of the truth when our education system, media, and politicians treat it as a key to adequate understanding of King. Instead of reducing King’s legacy and the entire nonviolent movement for racial justice in America to one flowery phrase, we can turn to other recordings and writings for the fuller truth. Henceforth, we can recognize that we have not defeated the “triple prong sickness that has been lurking within our body politic from its very beginning[,] … [namely] the sickness of racism, excessive materialism and militarism” (7). We have barely even looked outside the most famous portions of the aforementioned “I Have A Dream” speech to its more radical points, such as where King claimed that “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality” (8). King was a revolutionary to whom society still needs to catch up; we feel and act as though we are at or beyond his vision, but this is the “truth” crafted from the top by proponents of the status quo, not the broader truth found through critical reflection.
Hopefully, I have been clear that truth – or that which people can be convinced is true – can be weaponized for ill ends; this is “Truth-by-force.” Disciplined, fanatical minority factions can and have wielded their specific and marginalizing perceptions as new truth when given the chance. This is what tyrannies across the political spectrum have in common, whether Communist or Fascist, Christian or Islamic. Name one dominating idea as truth – even if the objectivity of that “truth” is in question by experts – and the rest becomes dangerous lies. As the author and journalist Chris Hedges explains, “When only one ‘truth’ is allowed, empirical data becomes irrelevant. Intellectual, scientific and moral inquiry becomes unnecessary. In this new world followers are robbed of the capacity to think” (9). Ego-boosting lies about crowd size may be amusing, but what about nationwide whitewashing of a major historical figure? Both examples remain dangerous because shrugging off the small distortions makes the next ones larger. Accepting the existing large distortions also causes new smaller ones to fly under the radar. The cycle can grow exponentially if we do not hold on intentionally to rational democratic deliberative traditions.
When thinking about pushing back against these bastardizations and forgeries of truth, a revival of Gandhi’s mindset and principle of satyagraha sounds pleasing. But what does one do if facts really are less influential than emotional appeal or personal belief? The answer is in the name; satyagraha is a “Truth-force,” which means those of us committed to nonviolence cling to what is true, but it is also a “Love-force,” and this keeps us centered on the characteristics and practices which deflect “Truth-by-force.” Humility, empathy, openness, responsiveness, honesty. Traits of a loving movement prevent the traits of a “Truth-force” from becoming its own worst enemy. Humility keeps man from believing in the invulnerability of individual truth; the same mountain can look very different from the summit instead of the base. Empathy and responsiveness place us in one another’s shoes and prompt us to use truth for action that helps as many people as possible. Openness and honesty are vital sources of truth, and they foster trust in academics, scientists, doctors, public servants, and other professionals who should be operating in the parameters of rational consensuses of truth.
I can say little more on the matter if I wish to avoid hypocrisy. I do not hold the sole understanding of the matters of truth in our time, but with this information perhaps others can work together to bring a more reality-based foundation to contemporary discourse. Do not give in to despair, but be guarded in your hope for the short-term. Instead, we need to embrace our uphill battle against a now-entrenched culture of misleading or outright incomprehensible guiding “truths.” Part of the solution is the “Truth-force” of satyagraha: the relentless persistence of those who believe in educating and reasoning through the problems of the world. The other half of the solution is the “Love-force” of satyagraha: the habit of caring for more than oneself and escaping the inner citadels of our predispositions. Only then can we convince the nation and the world in the manner of Gandhi and King – lovingly, but never submissively; nonviolently, but never passively.
- Harcourt, Bernard E. “Introduction to Satyagraha,” Uprising 13/13, Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, November 25, 2017, http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/uprising1313/bernard-e-harcourt-introduction-to-satyagraha/.
- McIntyre, Lee. Post-Truth (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018), 5-6.
- Ibid., 165.
- Hunt, Elle. “Trump’s inauguration crowd: Sean Spicer’s claims versus the evidence,” The Guardian, January 22, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/22/trump-inauguration-crowd-sean-spicers-claims-versus-the-evidence.
- Popularized by author and media personality Ben Shapiro. Shapiro, Ben. Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings, (Hermosa Beach, CA: Creators Publishing, 2019).
- King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have A Dream,” August 28, 1963; from “Read Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in its entirety,” NPR, January 14, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety.
- King, Martin Luther, Jr. “The Three Evils of Society,” August 31, 1967; from NWESD Communications, January 20, 2021, https://www.nwesd.org/ed-talks/equity/the-three-evils-of-society-address-martin-luther-king-jr/.
- King, “I Have A Dream.”
- Hedges, Chris. American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (New York: Free Press, 2008), 130-131.