My Internet Satyagraha
I joined an internet newsgroup dedicated to fighting fraud in the arena of medicine and disease. Some members of this newsgroup supported all conventional medicine and attacked all alternative medicine. I defended an alternative treatment when I thought the evidence for it was good; I attacked the problems I saw in conventional treatment; I tried to apply the same standard of evaluation to both conventional and alternative treatments. So I ended up fighting with the people who defended all conventional medicine and attacked all alternative medicine.
The people I was fighting with also didn't believe in being polite. They believed in attacking the enemy with everything -- ridicule, character attacks, whatever. Unfortunately, they used these techniques within the newsgroup. That was, from my perspective, a second problem with the newsgroup. I thought people should be treated politely.
So I eventually became the target of their attacks. I was criticized, ridiculed, and personally attacked. After a few months I realized this problem would not be solved by rational discussion. Those people were after me, with bloodlust.
I Decide to Fight with Satyagraha
I could quit or fight. I decided to fight. I also decided I should not attack the people who were attacking me. After all, I was fighting for a list where people didn't attack each other. Instead, I tried to be as kind and courteous as I could. I also tried to ignore personal attacks on me -- if I spent time attacking the people who were attacking me, the other people in the newsgroup would stop reading my messages.
Gandhi says that ahimsa is an important part of satyagraha. This is often interpreted as meaning love, and I think Gandhi wanted me to love my enemies. I couldn't do that. Ahimsa has also been defined as implying concern and good will for your enemy. That seems more reasonable. My enemies were dedicated to fighting fraud in medicine. That's a good and noble goal. So I tried to remember that. I tried just to be courteous and not to dislike them.
I was not being passive. I had decided to fight a battle, a battle I wanted to win. Satyagraha was just the method I was going to use to win. To start the war, I stated my position baldly and boldly. I was inviting attack, and I was attacked. Thoroughly. They attacked my position and my character. In return, I was polite and courteous.
I Realize I Need to Know More
I expected that virtue would quickly triumph. It did not. After about a week of attacks, I felt pretty bruised and beat up. There was no sign of success, and I felt pretty discouraged. At this point, I realized that there might be more to a nonviolent battle than just being nonviolent. So I started reading Gandhi and thinking about what he had done. I couldn't find much in books -- there is no Nonviolent Protest for Dummies.
I found two potential nuggets. One is that Gandhi spent about 40 years on his nonviolent protest. Therefore, I could spend more than a week. Gandhi actually said that satyagraha seems to work slowly. Let me amend that to it does work slowly. Gandhi just meant that it was faster than anything else. (Martin Luther King started his battle in 1953, and the Civil Rights legislation was not passed until 1964. I am sure 11 years seemed like a long time to him when it was happening, but looking back now that seems like a fairly quick success.)
The other potential nugget was that Gandhi wrote a lot. I didn't know if this was relevant at all, but I decided that I would write a lot. This seemed to help. I developed friends. I further provoked my opponents. I practiced my arguments.
Your communication can't be spam -- it has to be kindly directed to people who want to listen. At first, I tried writing more to the list. But that wasn't quite right. There were already too many messages to the list. And I wanted a reputation for writing informative messages. So I adopted the rule of only posting to the list when I had something informative to say. This meant simply ignoring many attacks. You check the internet and see how many people ignore attacks, especially personal attacks. It wasn't easy or natural. But I did it.
Instead, I wrote personal messages -- as much as I could, as often as I could, I wrote personal messages to people concerning topics on this list. Is this a strategy for nonviolent battle? I think so. It helps a little to increase friendships, which I desperately needed, and it might reduce enmities too. (It can also intensify an enmity.)
People Join Me
After perhaps another week, D.H. put a message to the list calling for less attacks and a friendlier attitude. I wrote a personal message. At the end of it I was going to add, "Good luck in your upcoming ordeal."
The next day, he posted the same style of message that he always posted to the group, essentially a newspaper article of interest. He was attacked for not adding any personal commentary. When he added commentary, he was attacked for his commentary. When he responded to that, he was attacked for being defensive. All told, about 9 different people attacked him. In just one day. Nine different people. When I went back over the messages, one person stood out as being particularly nasty; the rest were still attacking, but not with as much ridicule or insults.
I posted a message to the group, in which I described what had happened to him. The header for my message was "Attack dogs", because dogs attack in a pack That drew the battle lines pretty clearly. I was publicizing my opponents immoral actions. More deeply, it was to my advantage to make everything clear, both what I was doing (within limits) and what they were doing. The moral force is on my side, so I want the situation to be as clear as possible. Gandhi benefited from radio reports of massacres; I had to provide my own reports. But we had the same goal.
Finally, J.S. came to my defense, doing battle with my most enthusiastic attacker. Now she was attacked. This included searching the internet for information to slander her character. But those attacks brought P.B. in, to defend us both. Principle #4: Irrational and/or immoral attacks sooner or later bring in people of conscience who disagree with the attacks.
As the battle wore on, I developed my ability to be attacked. It wasn't my suffering that brought people to my aid. Instead, it was the irrationality and immorality of the attacks. To spell this out, irrationality draws in people who like rationality; immorality draws in everyone. So my goal became to attract irrational/immoral attacks. To do this, my messages had to be as rational, evidence-based, and courteous as possible. In other words, I had to make them above reproach. Of course, my enemies could have ignored them and thwarted my strategy. But that would have essentially conceded me the war -- we would then have a list where I could freely make my contributions without being attacked. And I knew just how to inflame them -- point out something wrong with conventional medicine or something right about alternative medicine. And they wanted to attack me. So I got irrational attacks.
Gandhi did this too. His salt march was absolutely brilliant. In India, there was a law against Indians making salt. He made a march to the sea, attracted the attention of millions, including the British. And then he purified a pinch of salt. What could the British do? They couldn't pretend like they didn't notice -- everyone knew. They couldn't let him get away with blatantly breaking the law, or else pretty soon everyone would break the laws. So they had to punish him, as Gandhi knew and wanted. Back to jail for the Mahatma. The problem was, the British were jailing someone for purifying a pinch of salt, which is ridiculous. How do you think the British people felt about doing that? That's a win for Gandhi.
I "Win" My Battle
P.B. received little counterattack. Maybe he was perceived as being above attack. Maybe there were too many people to fight, or my enemies were getting tired. I don't know, but it felt very good to finally be defended.
About this time, I had a somewhat lengthy exchange with a less fanatic member of the group. And as it turns out, he was probably right about the point we were arguing. Anyway, near the end or our discussion, he reread our exchanges. He wrote to me that he had been churlish whereas I had been unfailingly polite. Put that in the win column.
As time went by, one of my most persistent enemies left the list and formed another list. This was a new list, one that my supporters couldn't join. That drained a few of my less persistent enemies off the list. Then I made some ordinary post, left the list for a week, and came back to find that my ordinary post had created a huge amount of controversy. I had been attacked by my remaining persistent enemy. I had been defended by new people. Then my remaining persistent enemy had left (to join the new list). And people were calling for courtesy, tolerance, and working together.
So I won by attrition. This wasn't my ideal ending. The people whom I have been calling "enemies" were good people with considerable energy for fighting fraud. I wanted a list in which they remained and we worked together to fight fraud. But that didn't happen. I still think of my battle as being a success. The level of courtesy on the list became very high. No one reflexively defended conventional medicine or attacked alternative medicine. It became a newsgroup of good people, working together.
|Some Principles of Satyagraha
- Make the battle clear. Make everything clear.
- Communicate, communicate, comminicate. Make friends. Explain.
- Be Patient
- Always be rational, kind, and courteous. Try to understand and appreciate your enemies.
- Provoke irrational or unkind responses
- If people see you are being treated unfairly, good people will sooner or later come to your aid.
- Your moral virtue gives you more staying power -- win by attrition
Why did they drop out instead of me? Maybe I was just had a more persistent personality. But I think my feeling of moral correctness gave me more persistence. Hating people and treating them meanly takes more energy than trying to like people and treat them courteously. Yes, I wore my opponents out -- but they wore themselves out too.Remember that when you fight, you are fighting for the heart of your opponents, you are fighting for the heart of the spectators, and you are fighting for your own heart too. Satyagraha wears down your opponents.
The point of the story isn't me or the newsgroup. The point of the story is the use of kindness and courtesy in doing battle. There is nothing to suggest that these techniques will work on psychopaths, but most people have a sense of morals, kindness, and rationality. They can be fought with these techniques. Furthermore, they probably are the best techniques for when the goal is to win the heart of your opponent, rather than trample your opponent into the ground.
And if you happen to be directing a real war, you need to use these techniques if you want to fight as effectively as you can. I know, you are probably not the Secretary of Defense. But you still probably need satyagraha, because battles happen all the time. They happen in relationships. (Gandhi said that he learned his techniques from his wife and just applied them on a grander scale.) They happen at work. In my opinion, satyagraha is not fun,and you should hope you don't need it. But if you are in a battle, it can work for you.