Reading Gandhi

A recent New Yorker has a thought-provoking piece on reading Gandhi in the context of the current political moment. For those who are grappling with the complexities of creating meaningful dialogue in the midst of divisions, it is startling to read how prescient Gandhi was about what we face today. Author Pankaj Mishra argues that although critics have reassessed and complicated how we remember Gandhi and situate his life and work within history, his political and philosophical thought provide valuable insight into the current state of Western democracies.

Far from being a paragon of virtue, the Mahatma remained until his death a restless work in progress. Prone to committing what he called “Himalayan blunders,” he did not lose his capacity to learn from them, and to enlist his opponents in his search for a mutually satisfactory truth.

Satyagraha, literally translated as “holding fast to truth,” obliged protesters to “always keep an open mind and be ever ready to find that what we believed to be truth was, after all, untruth.” Gandhi recognized early on that societies with diverse populations inhabit a post-truth age. “We will never all think alike and we shall always see truth in fragments and from different angles of vision,” he wrote. And even Gandhi’s harshest detractors do not deny that he steadfastly defended, and eventually sacrificed his life for, many values under assault today—fellow-feeling for the weak, and solidarity and sympathy between people of different nations, religions, and races.

I like how Mishra locates this recognition that political dialogue cannot be reconciled around singular truths within the larger context of interests and individualism. Those of us who teach negotiation are often teaching an “expand the pie” belief system and methodology. Is it possible to incorporate values like fellow-feeling for the weak, solidarity with those who are different, and the notion of self-sacrifice into what we teach about conflict resolution and interest-based dispute resolution? If we do incorporate such values somehow, would we be doing some version of expanding of the pie or something different?

The article also made me reflect on how an uncritical view of interest-based processes can be harmful, both personally and socially. As many in our field have argued, the apparent neutrality of ADR processes can make inequitable power dynamics invisible and thus perpetuate structural violence. Mishra writes:

Gandhi could see that public life organized around a morally neutral conception of private interests is always likely to degenerate into ferocious competition and violent coercion. “Unrestricted individualism is the law of the beast of the jungle,” he warned. It undermines social cohesion, and, finally, creates the conditions for what the social contract is meant to preclude: a war of all against all.

It is instructive to consider how what many of us teach (interest-based negotiation and mediation as facilitated interest-based negotiation) may operate in service to larger ideological constructs (capitalism, materialism) that if unchecked will ultimately undermine individual interests and well-being.

2 thoughts on “Reading Gandhi”

  1. I found this article very particularly interesting, not only because it is apply Gandhi to modern times, but also because it discusses the neutrality of the ADR processes. As a mediator in Small Claims Court, I am taught to act neutral and assure each party that I am a neutral force in this mediation, only there to help the parties come to a mutually beneficial outcome.
    But is that something that is hindering the parties? As this article states, “[T]he apparent neutrality of ADR processes can make inequitable power dynamics invisible and thus perpetuate structural violence.” The question then becomes what is the main duty of the mediator. Should a mediator stay neutral as we are taught, or should the mediator attempt to balance the power dynamics between the parties, making the outcome more “fair”?
    On one hand, fairness is something that is taught to us from a young age as something that should be achieved above all else. However, fairness of the process is something that lawyers, particularly in the ADR process, most deal with. Fairness of the process does not always equate to fairness in the outcome or fairness between the power of the parties.

  2. The greater the inequality of power between parties in a mediation, the more the mediator’s power is hindered. For parties to truly be on even ground, the mediator may have to favor one party over the other. The desired outcome of a “mutually beneficial outcome” means something very different to a large corporation represented by a team of lawyers, and a single consumer.
    So is the main goal of the mediator to remain neutral and only facilitate the discussion, or attempt to balance the power of the parties and promote the “most fair” outcome? It seems that in most cases, the mediator cannot be both neutral and weigh the most fair outcome.
    I believe that the bias should not lie with either party, but with the outcome itself. While the party with the greater power may cry foul, that is the nature of the neutral, fair mediation. There should not be a winner and loser. Both parties should walk away satisfied, no matter their perceived power.

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