Rosa Parks, Gandhi and Active Nonviolence

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Lecture date: Sun, 18th Oct, 2015
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Rosa Parks, Gandhi and Active Non-Violence[1]

Unviolence is Passive; Nonviolence is Active

For Gandhi, nonviolence is to be distinguished from unviolence. Unviolence is a form of passivity, the failure to act in the face of provocation, say. Nonviolence, on the other hand, is active not passive. Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat on a bus in 1955 Alabama was hardly a failure of action. Given the background context of racist thinking and institutionalised prejudice, her refusal was nothing short of active. Imagine the refrain, “Here I sit, I can do no other!” The physical effort required to either stand or sit was not definitive of the quality of the action; the mental statement that the refusal prefigured was indeed effortful.

There was a system of segregation in operation in Montgomery that had been a bye-law since 1900. Imagine over half a century of segregation of passengers on buses. There was even a system of increasing the amount of space to be given over to whites, if their own section in the front was filled — in spite of the fact that 75% of passengers were black. Isn’t there something especially humiliating to be asked and expected to give up one’s seat to a white person, even though they boarded after you, simply because they couldn’t be expected to stand ahead of you?

On the day in question, the driver Mr Blake, noticing that three whites were having to stand, decreased the number of rows given over to blacks by repositioning a segregation flag. Initially, three black neighbours also refused, but moved back when the driver insisted. Parks, in an act of further defiance, did reposition to the end of the row — but this was not sufficient for the purposes of the convention, which did not allow blacks and whites to share a row, even if there was room for everybody. Parks said, “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I’m not’. And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’ I said, ‘You may do that.’ ”

Parks’ explanation of her own refusal is also telling:

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” [2]


Tired of Giving In

This is exactly the realisation that compliancy with oppressive laws occasions reinforcement that renders it more difficult to overcome the law in future. Nonviolent action is often the exception to the rule. At its core is a moral imperative, to present a physical obstacle, and in turn mental challenge or provocation, to the unjust regime. The system of oppression was so far advanced that bus drivers were authorised to implement the rules, even to change the context of their operation, and ultimately to threaten fear of sanction by arrest for noncompliancy. Parks, when forewarned of this step, did not depart from her course of action. As far as she was concerned, the attempt to escalate the situation was not a consequence of her continued refusal but a wilful act of an unjust institution, wielding power without right reason. Parks continued:

“I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn’t hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became.” [3]

Let’s reflect on other scenarios that could have had a bearing on the moral complexity of the situation but did not. Had the other three blacks stayed in their seats, with Parks, would the refusal have been more powerful? Probably there would have been some safety in numbers, and some solidarity in the making, but the meaning of the refusal would hardly have been affected. Whether one had acted alone or four in concert, a political statement was being made about all victims of the segregation regime, whether they wanted to resist or not, lacked the moral resolve or not.

Would that a white person had objected to the request themselves either by challenging the instruction made on their behalf or refusing to take a seat so vacated under such duress? I think this would have been particularly powerful as an act of solidarity from a member of the class of persons deemed to benefit from superior treatment, but choosing to forfeit that. It took both sides to prop up the oppressive regime, the benefactors and the victims.

Representatives of groups disproportionately targeted because of their race, even today, sometimes make the mistake of claiming that they don’t mind because they have nothing to hide. It’s possible that they have fallen into a self-deceptive trap, to assume that by consenting to their own oppression they are no longer oppressed. The circumstances of their consent are hardly of their own making and the costs of resistance may be too negatively consequential in their minds – but oppressed they nonetheless are, whether they like it or not, for being stopped without sufficient cause and only the basis of a racial characteristic.

Compliancy in such situations is essentially through fear. Perhaps it is instrumentally rational to succumb to fear, from time to time. But at what point is it our duty to resist? Gandhi makes it our directive to act in spite of our fear. For sure, fear is often accompanied by oppression — an appeal to self-interest or self-preservation is used as a pretext for submission. But at what cost of what we are to become or make of ourselves? A fight against injustice or inequality can hardly be tempered by fear, unless it is fear of worse consequences to follow through our own inaction. Gandhi offers us psychological insight:

“When a man submits to another through fear, he does not follow his nature but yields to brute force. He who has no desire to dominate others by brute force will not himself submit to such force either.” [4]


Gandhi Rejects Complicity in One’s Mistreatment

There is something prescriptive about Gandhi’s enterprise. Whilst reckoning with assumptions about human nature, he describes submission to force as acting contrary to it. Yet Gandhi also tables an implication that can be drawn from what we would have ourselves do to others to what we would have others do unto us. This is quite a remarkable inversion of the usual injunction to do unto others as you would have them do unto you; or not to do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. Normally, our moral ambit is taken to be constrained by the power we have over our own actions, including what we choose not to do unto others. But Gandhi here is reckoning with the implicit choice we make when thereby allowing ourselves to be mistreated by others — he shifts the moral basis of evaluation from that of mere submission to that of complicity in our own victimisation.

This evaluative frame of reference is actually quite critical to Gandhi’s nonviolent methodology, is my contention. Philosophers are fond of debating when an omission becomes an act. Your withdrawing life support might seem like an act, but against a backdrop of arguable futility of sustaining a life with a minimal functional consciousness, and impoverished quality of life, with no realistic chance of improvement, perhaps this is only so much letting nature take its course, as if without prior intervention. The omission has less moral bearing on the consequences of the outcome than had it been a full-blooded action.

In Gandhi’s world, failures to act or to refrain from continued cooperation are more likely to have moral parity simply because we are expected to confront our moral difficulties, others as if they were our own, and our own without prevarication or postponement. Thus construed, we are proactive moral agents or none at all, and failure to pay attention, or affecting disinterest are moral choices.



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Human Rights, Thinking on Sunday

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Shahrar Ali teaches at the London School of Philosophy and has a PhD from UCL, in which he tackled the morality of lying and deception. He is also Deputy Leader of the Green Party and editor of Why Vote Green 2015, an impassioned call for environmental action and social transformation.