July 06, 2020
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Gandhi@150: How Dissent And Tolerance Co-exist In Gandhi’s World

Mahatma Gandhi allows us to ask if it is necessary to assent to and obey all that passes for 'law'

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Gandhi with his laptop as imagined by artist Debanjan Roy
Gandhi@150: How Dissent And Tolerance Co-exist In Gandhi’s World

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same

—Achilles’s Shield, W. H. Auden

The meaning of dissent is implicated in the meaning of tolerance. We dissent when something is intolerable—“I just can’t take this anymore…enough is enough”. No one has the power of infinite tolerance. The liberal doctrine of politics expects these two concepts, dissent and tolerance, to lead parallel lives such that they never encounter one another. But it is imperative that we introduce them to one another through the theological lessons of M.K. Gandhi

Gandhi allows us to ask if it is necessary to assent to and obey all that passes for “law”. Is it our obligation to receive all that the rulers give us: imp­risonment (Yeravada jail), illegal occupation (of India), banning of books (of Hind Swaraj), mass murder (Jallianwala Bagh), and economic catastrophes (the Bengal famine)? Gandhi had something of an answer: But there come occasions, generally rare, when he considers certain laws to be so unjust as to render obedience to them a dishonour; he then openly and civilly breaks them and quietly suffers the penalty for their breach.

The term dissent den­otes in our everyday use, especially today, the act whereby we publicly exp­ress disagreement or shock over something illegitimate implemented by the government, or blatant acts of political crime tolerated by the legal system. The asperity of the present can be seen in the slogans we shout these days and the responses they are met with: “not in my name” with “who are you?”; “I wasn’t there” with “so what?”; “take back my awards” with “where is the rest of you?” We must not forget that three rat­ionalist philosophers and a journalist were killed in recent years in the same way that Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist conspiracy in 1948; death looms over dissent and tolerance.

Infinite Suffering Is Death

Dissent is possible only when something is capable of receiving or feeling some other thing. One must be able to receive sound in order to say that “it is too loud”, or see light to say that “it is too bright”. One must be able to assent to the very thing up to a certain deg­ree in order to dissent from it at another degree. The ability to receive the world and res­pond to it is called sentience.

Liberals expect dissent and tolerance to lead parallel lives such that they never encounter one another.

Sentience is the power in the living to feel and inhabit a certain range of the world. The sentience of animals can be observed in the way they move into or away from the gradations of heat; the ectotherms such as turtles are cold and slow in the mornings, and they seek the sun. If a living being suffers more than the tolerable range, it would perish. Increase in suffering is terminated by death such that there is never something like absolute tolerance. A rock, on the other hand, receives everything without movement and complaint, in the same way that a cadaver surrenders to the surroundings. Living is assenting and dissenting in every moment to what is rec­eived from the world as sensations. This explains why there is no such thing as absolute dissent either. If we dissent from everything it would be suicide, the way philosopher Simone Weil died of hunger through her dissent from the world. Absolute dissent and abs­olute tolerance both find death. Here we must dep­art from Gandhi who said, “There is no time-limit for (a) satyagrahi nor is there a limit to his capacity for suffering”.

Tolerance, understood as the limits of the sentience of the living, shows us the range of the world—its heat, poisons, pressure, hardness, sharpness—over which something is able to live. These ranges vary from animal to animal, and from human to human. The range of sound waves that a bat is able to receive is different from the range of the human ear. The super-rich can withstand environmental disasters more than the poor, which makes the former more tolerant of environmental changes.

We can already see that dissent is a function of tolerance, and that at the level of sensations as tolerance increases dissent decreases. Tolerance can be altered and regulated through external means. This is what we do when we cook our food and thus externalise digestion. Gandhi experimented with the limits of dig­estion without external means when he consumed raw food over a long period and learned that the range of food sources available to us decreased as a result. A system of tolerance, such as winter clothes and int­ernal heating, makes the world bearable for those who can aff­ord it. In a way, it has been the work of the human species in all these millennia to make the world more and more bearable in order that we become Atlas himself. The name Atlas meant “to endure suffering”, which comes from the Greek “  ” meaning to tolerate, and from which the Latin “tolero” and “tolerance” itself descend.     

Absolute Dissent Death

Everything we found so far ref­ers to the survival of the living at what can be called the biological level. However, politics is never the matter of mere survival; if one finds oneself in the survivalist nightmares of dictatorships and camps, where each thought and action must be considered in its possible relation to death, then one is already emba­lmed in the cadaver of politics. Assassinations and genocides eliminate not just the people they kill, but also, through the inc­eption of fear in the survivors, they kill the possibility of any fight. In other words, if a few words spoken—“this law is a crime”—can kill, then politics has alr­eady died.

Politics begins with the exp­ulsion of the fear of death when we come together to form institutional means and fight for freedoms. There had always been men who had less to fear and more to inspire it. Politics, ideally, develops an egalitarianism of fearlessness. This explains why those who would like to inspire fear des­troy the political institutions first. The creation and implementation of an idea, such as the internet, is impossible in the condition where all men are afraid of death. In fact, a shared life of ideas which creates the future (the sciences, metaphysics, poetry, bionics, calculus, human rights) is possible only on the condition that politics remain at work.

Shelf Life

A Gandhi ‘caganer’ clay figurine sits with real/fictional personalities at a Barcelona shop.

Then, politics relies on a different kind of sentience which is made possible through the expulsion of the fear of death. It is founded on the creation and maintenance of the conditions under which one is able to give and rec­eive ideas—a world made up of the sentience of thought. Sentience of thought sets its own limits through thoughts alone, and not through the conditions of biological nature. The intolerance we feel towards those legislation and state actions which, though they do not aff­ect our own wellbeing, yet harm some others, is founded on the sentience of thought; we feel these thoughts occurring in someone else’s mind as unjust, uncouth, repulsive. By dissenting in such instances, as Gandhi said: “The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law.”

One must be int­olerant in order to protect thoughts and ideas, such as the idea of a peacefully shared world.

There are ranges over which bearable and unbearable thoughts are distributed just as there are ranges for tolerable sensations. The thoughts of genocides and of the dest­ruction of people’s democratic institutions are unbearable. On the other hand, when Emily Dickinson writes, “And that is why I lay my Head/Upon this trusty word”, we ass­ent to the poeticality of this thought. Gandhi knew that thoughts can develop into worlds of technological exuberance or of murders. The sentience of thought involves the ability to learn of the range of events that thought can achieve in the world as it unf­olds. So, Gandhi said: “We have known of murders committed by words. Therefore, just as our hands and feet should be kept under control, so should our tongue be.”

Gandhi conceived a different set of conditions to judge his own limits of tolerance for the thoughts of others. Of these conditions, the most important was the act of taking a vow. Once we set the limit of permissible thoughts, we take a vow in order to bind that limit. Gandhi had a simple definition of the vow: “‘The vow’ I am thinking of is a promise made by one to oneself.” We do know that one must not break one’s promises. Then, ‘the vow’ sets the limits of one’s sentience of thought. In this regard Gandhi practised great intolerance when he refused to break his vows for the sake of the others. This is the lesson to learn from Gandhi, that one must be int­olerant in order to protect thoughts and ideas, such as the idea of a peacefully shared world.

The Liberal Superstition

The liberal view is founded on the superstition of the co-exis­tence of all possibilities in politics. Gandhi’s acute awareness of this impossibility defines his political project: “A man cannot commit both civil and criminal disobedience at the same time even as he cannot be both temperate and furi­ous at the same time.” The superstition makes the liberals say “engage with everyone, even the mass murderers”, which is, of course, due to the liberal’s insentience to thought and its consequences. This superstition presupposes that the political conditions of liberalism—constitutional dem­ocracy and rule of law—are unassailable, and hence the liberal allows society to be seized by the very ideas that would destroy its foundations. Now, to explain this in terms of the natural model of sentience, it will be to suppose that a human ought to eat everything, including poison and glass crystals, and superstitiously hope to live on. The wisdom of dissent is to know which ideas can endure a relation with which other ideas. We know that fascism and dem­ocracy are incompatible.   

Yet, there is a way in which societies are able to entertain at their margins those very ideas which are destructive, such as aestheticised anarchy and fascism through pop culture. A system—for INS­tance, anaesthesia to endure a surgery—is constituted in order to transiently receive something that is irrevocably harmful.  In Homer’s Odyssey, such a point comes when the enco­unter with the Sirens—nymphs who lure with marvellous song the passing mariners to shipwreck on their island—is imminent. The Sirens promise that whoever receives their song will be led to the things they know:

We know all of the things that the Argive troops and the Trojans

[…] laboured and suffered; we know all that is on the much nourishing earth generated.

This song seeks to deliver us to the whole past once again and then forever. The thought in politics that claims that the authority of the past in order to lure us into the past will lead us to certain death. Gandhi’s intolerance of the past is well known: he said of traditional medicine: “The vaidyas do not possess the knowledge of the human body as the doctors do”.

To hear the Siren’s song just enough to know that it is inco­mpatible with their journeying onwards, Odysseus prepares himself and his sailors into a system of tolerance. Now, the usual system of relations of a sailing vessel is that all ears are cocked to the words of the captain, all act­io­ns follow from these words and dissent from them will res­ult in mutiny or the scuttling of the vessel. Instead, Odysseus asks the sailors to tie him to the mast so that he will hear the song but will be unable to follow the lead of the Sirens.

The thought in politics that claims the authority of the past in order to lure us into the past will lead us to certain death.

And he in turn must close their ears with wax, make them insentient to the song’s promise and to his orders under the spell of the song, so that they can steadily row away from the alluring past, with their futures intact. The new system of tolerance has the captain tied to the mast listening to the Siren’s song, the sailors deaf to his orders, and has the Sirens failing to lead the vessel. This mutual binding establishes a range over which Odysseus can suffer without wreck. For the while that the Sirens surround them, the mariners must dissent from the furious orders of their captain, so that he may himself dissent from the deadly song that he has minimally assented to hear. The fut­ure survives through the bond of words given by the mariners to each other.

That is, under specially constituted systems of tolerance certain thoughts and ideas can be attended to in order to learn of the ends, or the range of events, to which they can lead; an important example is the care with which “Nazism” is taught in the German educational system ensures that it cultivates an awareness and repulsion of the consequences of such a thought. Then, INS­tead of the liberal myth of tolerance given by the insentience of thought we need to become the sentient animals of ideas, which will take great intolerance.

(Divya Dwivedi & Shaj Mohan are philosophers and authors of Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics. Views are personal.)

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