On Being the Change

There is no shortage of pithy, pseudo-inspirational, questionably attributed social justice quotes. 

Margaret Mead’s apocryphal “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” is a favored target among friends of mine, complete with a compilation of suggestions for making the expression more accurate

I, for one, though, have always found myself intrigued by the quote commonly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

It’s the kind of thing I like to glibly quip in lieu of a well-placed do it yourself.

This is in line with how the phrase is commonly interpreted: if you want to seechange in the world, you have to bethe change: you have to engage in the work and make the change happen. 

It’s this DIY spirit that makes “be the change” a favored expression among service organizations.

Of course, there’s no evidence that Gandhi ever said this.

Rather, the writing that comes closest to this sentiment comes from an Indian Opinionarticle published on August 9, 1913 in which Gandhi wrote:

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him….We need not wait to see what others do.

This suggests a more quixotic vision — it’s not just about doing the work, it’s about fundamentally reorienting your relationship to the world in order to force the world to fundamentally reorient its relationship to you.

In the Salt March, for example, Gandhi used the traditional practice of producing salt from saltwater to protest British regulation and monopolization of salt production. It was more than civil disobedience — it was an act intentionally designed bring the world the protestors wanted to life.

“Be the change,” then, is more than a call to service or an admonition to do the work. It is a challenge to unapologetically interact with the world as if it were the world you would have it be: to normalize realities by treating them as normal, to relentless tilt at windmills until the world accepts the truths you see.

There is something lovely in this sentiment, something inspirational in this vision of living in the world you want to live in, of building a better world by modeling a better world.

Yet, as with many things — reality is far more complicated, and we would be wise to critically interpret Gandhi in the context of his broader personal and philosophical approach.

While I would certainly be remiss to point to Gandhi’s words without acknowledging his deep anti-black racism and concerning sexual interest in young girls — the core commitment to non-violence for which Gandhi is so lauded is arguably problematic in its own right.

Indeed, it’s something of an understatement to say that Gandhi believed in non-violence. Rather, he believed in the transcendence of unshakeable virtue; that pureness of body and spirit could confront the most vile of evils; that suffering voluntarily brings such an inner strength as to provide the greatest thanksgiving, joy and deliverance — no matter what the cost.

That last sentence, incidentally, is taken largely from a November 26, 1938 piece titled simply, The Jews, in which Gandhi wrote: “If the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant.”

So you can see, perhaps, why I would argue that Gandhi’s commitment to satyagraha went too far and even represents a moral failing when taken to its extremes.

It is also worth noting that the Indian Opinion passage above which served as the inspiration for “be the change,” comes from an article (p. 242) in which Gandhi essentially argues that love is the cure for snake-bites:

…one of the best defences against snake-bite is to have only as much as we need of wholesome food…to avoid anger and fear and, even when bitten by a snake, not to fall dead with fear before even a remedy has been tried. One should have confidence in the potent effect of the purity of one’s life and ultimately take courage in the thought that the length of one’s days is that ordained by God.

If only we could “rid ourselves of all enmity towards any living creatures, the latter also cease to regard us with hate,” Gandhi argues.

But regardless of whether I love or hate a snake — it may still bite.

Ultimately, though, the interpretation of “be the change you wish to see in the world” comes down to a question of power.

Power isn’t just about about the ability to control or coerce others, it is, in a sense, more fundamentally about the ability to control reality – to control the topics which get covered, the questions that get asked, and the perspectives that are considered. Power determines the bounds of normal and the imagination of what is possible. Power permeates our lived experience.

What’s inspirational about “be the change” is that it serves as a reminder that you have power, that your mere existence provides a pathway for shaping our shared experience of reality. “Be the change” is a proclamation that only you get to decide the kind of person you will be in this world; you get to decide what kind of world will be built from having a person like you in it.

The trouble is — there are far too many people who don’t get to decide. There are far too many people whose mere existence is under attack, who are met with hate and fear and violence just for the radical act of existing in this world.

You don’t get to “be the change” if you have to fight simply to “be.”

“Be the change,” then, is perhaps better interpreted as a statement of privilege; a commitment to allyship.

It is not enough to talk about making the world more just or more equitable; it is not even enough to engage in “the work” — though that’s certainly an important step.

No. If you have the privilege to be the change, if you have even a modicum of power over the tendencies of the world — then you hold that power in your every interaction, your every choice, your every experience.

Act like it.


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