Monday, January 4, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part One

I've been a bit negligent in posting to my blog over the last few months. Primarily, this is because I have been working on writing a long essay about an issue related to Daoism, but not directly relevant. I've been on the horns of a dilemma about whether I should try to sell the manuscript that I hope will result or just give it out free as an e-book. I've finally made up my mind to put it out as an e-book. What convinced me was hearing several people tell me that nowadays it makes more sense to give away your writings for free and hope for some consulting work that might come out of it than to think that you can write a best-seller. With that in mind, I'm going to be posting bits and pieces of the essay for feedback. When I eventually get the thing finished, I'll post it in its entirety here so people can download it, share with others, etc.

What I'm posting today is a bit of a "teaser" that was written with the hope that it would raise some of the ideas that I plan to deal with in detail in the following essay. The idea is that people would get into the main body of the essay with some appreciation of the practical importance of the ideas being discussed.

The Example of Gandhi

One of the defining moments of India's independence movement was a symbolic act when Congress Party members piled-up all their clothing that was made from imported English textiles and set them on fire. This was a public declaration that from then on they would wear nothing else but an Indian-made form of homespun, known as “khadi”. By doing so, these people were both supporting the economic independence of their country as well as providing much-needed work for the hard-pressed class of agricultural labourers. (Who wove the cloth on small looms during the rainy season.) The impact of this movement on the development of Indian nationalism cannot be under-estimated. As a token, to this day, the Indian flag is forbidden to be made of anything else but khadi.

Mohandas Gandhi, who was the leader of Indian independence, was a remarkably successful politician in large part because he understood the importance of symbols and symbolic acts as ways of creating consensus amongst and motivating large numbers of people. He did this by appealing to the values and emotions of the people supporting the independence movement. He understood that for most people the intellect is a lazy fellow who almost never gets off his couch and does the “heavy lifting”. Instead, the labour and risk of life is almost invariably undertaken because someone becomes emotionally engaged.

More to the point, Gandhi realized the importance of both the symbolic act and the public vow. People live their lives enmeshed in a symbolic milieau. We constantly look towards each other in search of cues that suggest that what it is that they are doing at any given time is right, proper, and fashionable. Are my clothes appropriate for my workplace? Is this joke appropriate for this meeting? Should I have dressed up just a little more for the wedding? Will my date “fit in” at this family occasion? Is my yard “up to standards” for my neighbourhood? Are my jeans “cool” enough for my crowd? Gandhi realized that while it is possible to change an individual person's opinion through reasoned argument (and he was a master at that), whole societies only change when the conventional understanding of what is right, appropriate and fashionable begins to shift. And the way to change those values is not done by argument, but by re-arranging the symbolic “signposts” that inform their community. And the way to do that, is by creating new symbols to shade-out the old ones and substitute for them.

Gandhi did this in several ways. First of all, he made a conscious choice to reject English-style clothing and adopted a traditional form of dress. He shaved his head, leaving only a scalp lock (shika), which identified him as an orthodox, if somewhat old-fashioned, Hindu. He also took to wearing a khadi loincloth (dhoti). The point was that up until that time most of the educated elite of Indian society (including Gandhi) took great pains to emulate the English in their clothing and much of their lifestyle. For a leader like the Mahatma to begin to dress and act like a lower-class, old-fashioned Indian was an act of great symbolic resonance. As such, he was trying to break down the barriers that existed between the small elite of cosmopolitan Indians who supported independence and the overwhelming majority of ordinary citizens who were disinterested. What this meant for the independence movement was that for the first time ordinary people began to see a nationalist leader that they could identify with as being “one of them”.

A second symbolic act that the Mahatama undertook was to create an Ashram, or spiritual commune, where people of all faiths and all castes lived together. Gandhi realized that the English had been able to govern their country by dividing the Indian people into different religious groups and play them off against each other. As long as Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, Parsis, etc, had more against each other than the British, they would never be able to throw out the imperialists. Gandhi attempted to move beyond these divisions on their ears by showing that people of all faiths could live together on his commune and by consciously trying to surround himself with representatives of all faiths. More to the point, by publically living with people from all religious faiths, Gandhi dissipated any fears that non-Hindus may have had about supporting him.

Moreover, Gandhi knew that the majority Hindu faith was itself divided by caste oppression. As long as the huge numbers of “untouchables” (Dalits) were oppressed by the other Hindu castes, it would be very hard to accuse the British of doing anything worse than what Indians were already doing to themselves. Gandhi worked to “short circuit” this sense of untouchability by publically displaying his unwillingness to take any of the traditional “cleanliness” taboos (i.e. what specifically separated Dalits from higher castes) seriously. In fact, at the first national conference of the Congress Party he ever attended he personally took on the responsibility of cleaning the latrines---a tremendously “unclean” task for a high-caste Hindu like himself. (The movie “Gandhi” references this fact by a scene where his wife is horrified to be asked to take her turn cleaning the latrine for the Ashram. Western audiences often miss the importance of this scene because they don't understand the subtext.) In addition, Gandhi's writings almost seem to revel in discussing toilets and latrines, and the poor state of Indian sanitation. Finally, on his “salt march” he had two porters walk behind him with a portable toilet. This seems totally inexplicable to modern Western readers until one realizes that he was symbolically taking on the issue of untouchability by doing so.

One of the images that is most deeply seated in our understanding of Gandhi is that of his sitting at a spinning wheel (charka). Not only are there many photos of him doing this, he used to spin at moments that would seem extremely innappropriate to Western audiences. For example, when he was the President of the Congress Party he once spent an entire 40 minute scheduled address in front of a huge number of supporters doing nothing else but silently spinning thread. Again, in the context of India at that time, this was a profoundly symbolic act. It was an act of clearly reinforcing the connection between the Congress Party leadership and the ordinary people of India. It was a way of reinforcing Gandhi's policy of trying to support economic nationalism by cutting the nation's reliance in the mills of England. Finally, it was a way of suggesting his concern about the struggling poor (what he called the “skeletons” in his writings) who needed that thread to be able to work weaving khadi during the rainy seasons (that is, when no longer needed for agricultural labour.) By the symbolic act of publically spinning, Gandhi was literally making a thread that connected his political movement to the ordinary people of India and suggested a way for the country to cut itself from from the economic dependency that tied it to England.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is very clear and well written. I think it would make a good introduction to some larger themes.