Gandhian Nonviolent Verbal Communication: The Necessity of Training

by Arne Naess

The combination of humility and militancy in emotionally charged social conflicts has always been rare. It is easy to succumb either to passivity or to verbal or nonverbal violence. Humility in confronting a human being, respect for the status of being a human being, whether that being is a torturer or a holy person, is essential.

People may be trained in nonviolent communication through sessions where they confront others with different attitudes and opinions. In schools and universities such sessions in the form of seminars, or otherwise, are easy to schedule. At the university level proposals of norms or principles of nonviolent communication help students to master conflict situations. From 1941 to around 1993, the set of principles formulated in this article has been used by about ninety thousand working in small groups at Norwegian universities. An emotionally charged topic is often selected, and the students asked to discuss it. Or they receive a written dialogue and are asked to analyze violations of the principles that will be outlined below.

Gandhi, the man, his deeds, and his writings have made such a profound impact on millions of people that it is felt all their lives, even if it does not always show up in social conflict activism. People’s veneration is serious and honest, but few have had, or even try to get, training to face opponents or “antagonists” in a Gandhian way.

The way Gandhi at times described the views of people who opposed him and his influence has made a lasting impression. One deed that struck me as glorious belongs to the area of the practice of communication. Instead of giving a broad historical account I shall describe one series of communications.

Gandhi fought against a state of injustice in South Africa, but a group misunderstood his intentions, and saw him as a traitor. Consequently two members of the group told him that if he continued his nonviolent activism the next day, they would kill him. When Gandhi continued the next day, they did try to kill him. But others intervened and Gandhi was carried to the hospital. In spite of his serious condition, he used his energy to insist that the two people who had attacked him were not to be prosecuted or imprisoned. His arguments and reasons were as follows: (1) It was understandable that the assassins viewed him as a traitor. (2) His own actions and his explanation of their motives had not been clear enough. (3) The group to which the attackers belonged wished as a whole that he should be killed, but only the two attackers were brave enough to try to kill him. (4) The killing of traitors is a duty according to the culture and ethics of the attackers. (5) It could not be expected of the attackers that they should try to reform the ethics of their own culture. (6) Courage is a supreme virtue. The two were courageous.

As soon as Gandhi recovered he continued to fight nonviolently the views of his opponents, not the persons opposing him, even if they used every trick to misrepresent what he was fighting for. He was militant, in a way that promoted contact. He converted thousands who started as violent antagonists.

The speech Gandhi gave at the hospital is a small part of the data available for a description of a Gandhian ethics of verbal communication in conflicts, social, political, and personal. The term ‘verbal communication’ may be misunderstood; no communication is only verbal. The interpretation of the text of a letter is influenced by the choice of envelope and paper, by the style of writing, and the recipient’s relation to the sender. Young professors learn, sometimes to their dismay, that body language and a host of other external factors are decisive in whether the students grasp what the professors are trying to convey. The way a quantum physicist (Harald Wergeland) looked at a famous equation on the blackboard, and his melodious, slightly trembling voice when talking about it, vitalized new energy and sheer joy in the students: “Yes, I’ll go with you all the way, whatever the difficulties!” In the ecological crisis every communication with people not seriously engaged or with fellow activists with different priorities and views depends on all aspects of communication. But this does not make the narrowly verbal aspect unimportant.

If we attempt to systematize the norms and the hypotheses implicit in Gandhi’s work for freedom, we must note that freedom in his sense of the word swaraj, has to do with freeing oneself from the fetters of disruptive emotions and narrowness of scope. Political freedom is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of swaraj. Therefore, communication with the opponents (not “enemies”; they do not exist) is part of the content of satyagraha. Systematization, such as I attempted in Gandhi and Group Conflict, requires at least five norms and five hypotheses explicitly devoted to the topic of verbal communication.1 For example: “Distorted description of your and your opponents’ case reduces the chance to reach your goal.” Perhaps it should be added “in the long run”. In the short run caricatures of the opponents’ views may work.

One may not have the optimism about antagonists that is implicit and sometimes explicit in Gandhi’s approach. A hypothesis such as this seems to be made by Gandhi: “There is a disposition in every opponent such that whole-hearted, well informed, strong, and persistent appeal in favor of a good cause is able ultimately to convince him.” If one does not believe in this, then there are less optimistic hypotheses of high relevance, namely that the tendency to give up appeals to certain wide groups of opponents characterized as ‘hopeless’ is unwarranted and counterproductive. Gandhi did not believe that he could convince everybody, but he did believe that mass demonstrations of satyagraha in a broad spectrum of the population would undermine and ultimately ruin the support for any tyrant, including Hitler. Nonviolent verbal communication constitutes one necessary component of satyagraha. Vicious verbal attacks, including distortion of one’s position in the conflict, should never disturb one’s equanimity, but should strengthen one’s own nonviolent approach. Don’t defend your own person, but your own views.

The highly emotional atmosphere in group conflicts may lead to wild accusations, irresponsible outbursts, which the “sender” regrets. Few are able to retract in public, but try out some kind of excuse: “What I really wanted to say was so and so.” Not very convincing! Better to retract, and make a new start.

Conflicts often motivate clever manipulation, for instance, by the conscious exploitation of misunderstandings. In what follows, I offer rules that can serve as guidelines in serious discussions, whether they are emotionally loaded or not. I believe that these rules can be derived from the principles of Gandhian satyagraha.

This article does not consider all kinds of verbal communication, but only those in which questions are posed in a serious way and where plain serious answers are expected. I shall refer to this kind of communication simply as a discussion. It excludes pleasantries, witty stories, and other kinds of utterances that make up a considerable, indispensable part of the total verbal communication. Gandhi also made extensive use of such utterances, but in a way that facilitates rather than obstructs the serious exchange of views. Meeting his chief opponents in the morning, he often made a simple joke.

Exclamation marks are used in what follows to indicate the normative or rule-giving character of a sentence. The formulations are fairly short and need precise summaries and comments so that they are clear and unambiguous enough to be applicable fairly consistently in practice. Such sets of more precise formulations, clarifications, and explanation will never be definitive.2 We always have to return to the more vague and ambiguous, and try new avenues of clarification.

First Principle: Avoid Evasion!

PRELIMINARY FORMULATION: Keep to the point, even if it may harm one’s own position and clever evasion would strengthen it!

As a primitive example, consider the following verbal exchange in a discussion about the pros and cons of competitive sport:

(1) A: Competitive sports help to destroy a man’s intelligence and spirit of cooperation
(2) B: You can only say that because you aren’t a sportsman yourself.
(3) A: That last remark doesn’t affect my argument; it only shows that I was right in saying sports help to destroy a man’s intelligence.
(4) B: You are a typical culture snob, carping at sports whenever you can.

At stage 2, B does not answer, but offers the hypothesis that A can only say what he says because of a personal trait. B does not answer or maintain that to answer is impossible. He evades the point.

At stage 3, assuming or knowing that B is engaged in competitive sport, A not only expresses a denial of the relevance of B’s utterance, but seems to offer a hypothesis that to utter such an irrelevant thing supports his view expressed at stage 1. This hypothesis is not, or only marginally, relevant. 3

Another form of irrelevant argument occurs when unnecessary emphasis is laid on some quite generally accepted viewpoint, which even one’s opponent would agree to. It can reinforce one’s own position to subscribe to some sentiment that no one will criticize, but which does not contribute materially to the discussion. Ignoring such banalities, an opponent, by his or her silence on the point, may appear to others to be opposing them. In this way, he loses his credibility and the other gains through cheating.

Accusations that the opponent violates norms of communication lead away from the core of the discussion. Such accusations demand answers, and cannot contribute to solutions. The nonviolent participant ignores the personal accusations and continues to focus on the most relevant and weighty arguments.

Second Principle: Avoid tendentious renderings of other people’s views!

PRELIMINARY FORMULATION: In a discussion, a statement that aims at reporting a point of view should be neutral in relation to all points of view represented in that discussion!

A common bad habit is to generalize an opponent’s view, substituting “all x are y” for A’s “this x is y” or “some x are y” etc. Suppose participant A in a debate says: “Men are better suited than women to be bishops.” If B reports this as follows: “Every man is better than any woman to be a bishop,” B makes a tendentious rendering of A’s view, which sounds extremist, but need not be. The choice of the example may awaken suspicion of antifeminism.

Summary of the Preliminary Formulation: In a serious discussion, a statement that purports to give an account of A’s viewpoint should be such that if we let the report stand in place of A’s own formulation as an expression of the issue in a pro-et-contra survey, the force of A’s view (tenability and relevance) is not lost.

Occasionally, a report has to be made substantially shorter than the original. In that case, it must inevitably diverge from the original in respect of some reasonable interpretations. The divergence, however, should not be biased. Distorting quotations is a familiar enough phenomenon. A sentence quoted without reference to context may make quite misleading and unfair sets of interpretations become “reasonable”.

It is often helpful to introduce counterarguments through if-so sentences: If A means so and so (T1), then I agree. But if he means that and that, (T2), I disagree, because…”

Third Principle: Avoid tendentious ambiguity!

PRELIMINARY FORMULATION: Resist the temptation to strengthen your case by the use of ambiguities that mislead the opponent!

Let us say that a general proposes a truce to the enemy. They agree to a thirty-day truce. The same night the general makes an attack, and wins an easy victory. Afterward, he says they agreed only to a daytime truce. Their answer accepting thirty days was intentionally ambiguous.

This is a crude example, because the common convention is that “thirty days” in a relevant context includes nights. It is not a clear case of ambiguity.

A more elaborate formulation of the principle would be: A statement in a serious discussion violates Principle 3 if and only if (1) the listener is likely to interpret in a way that is incompatible with the way intended by the speaker, (2) that way it is apt to put the statement in a favorable light, and (3), the speaker should be aware that a misunderstanding is likely to occur.

Consider this example:

(1) A: I have nothing against sport, but according to the view we Christians hold, I must say . . .
(2) B: “We Christians”? Who are they?
(3) A: People like me, who actively subscribe to Christian beliefs.
(4) B: But think of all the people who call themselves Christians. Do you speak for all of them?
(5) A: Of course not, actually I meant members of the Christian People’s party.

We will now analyze the relevance of this statement  fragment. Let us note the following interpretations:

(a0)   We Christians
(a1)   We who actively subscribe to Christian beliefs
(a1.1) We who actively subscribe to Christian fundamental beliefs
(a1.2) We who actively subscribe to Christian beliefs politically and otherwise
(a2)   We members of the Christian People’s party
(a3)   We who adopt the Christian faith and morality

A uses a0, a1.1 and a2 as if they were cognitively equivalent. Probably a1.2 and a3 are reasonable interpretations, and A can be presumed to be aware of this. But A employs a special usage. If in this context, by a0 he means a2, his hearer will tend to confuse the reasonable interpretations. Thus there is a quantitative and evaluative overrating of the group that A represents. Members of the Christian People’s party make up only a small part of those normally referred to as Christians, in the sense understood by a1.2 or a3. If A did represent the whole spectrum, his standpoint would not be politically colored and would therefore acquire a greater authority. But then he would succeed in arousing the opposition of Christians in senses other than a1.2 and a3. By adopting sense a0 A might find it easy to influence his hearers into accepting his own standpoint. A’s use of a0 is therefore a sign of small relevance.

In regard to the relevance of A’s argument, it is also in A’s favor that at stage 5, A recognizes his or her special usage instead of attempting to cover up with some irrelevant remark. If A had deliberately produced an irrelevant argument, there would be, psychologically, less likelihood of his or her stating stage 5, since this statement clearly confirms one’s suspicion about irrelevance.

A tendency to irrelevant argument can perhaps be detected at stage 3. Quite likely, A understands what B hints at when B utters statement 2, but does not manage immediately to resist the temptation to offer the ambiguous expression a1 instead of the more precise a2.

Stage 2 is in the form of a question, but presumably B is aware that by a0, A probably means a2 and that A does not imagine that all persons subsumable under a1.2 or a3 are in favor of his or her own standpoint. Perhaps B thinks the rest of the hearers are aware of this. Under these assumptions, B interrupts A with stage 2, and draws the attention of possible opponents to A within group a1.2, and at the same time deals A a blow. According to the above assumptions, the interruption cannot be justified as a technique in discussion, and is definitely misleading.

Fourth Principle: Avoid tendentious argument from alleged implication!

Suppose someone, B, argues as follows: “My opponent A says that he accepts T. But from T follows U and U is untenable. Therefore, T is untenable.” Here, it is important to know whether the opponent does in fact accept that the clearly untenable U follows from T. If the opponent does not and yet we proceed under the assumption that he or she does, then we have broken an elementary rule for relevant argument. And quite apart from this, of course, it can be quite tendentious for us to bring in U at all before we have discussed whether U does or does not follow from T.

A rather common way of proceeding is first to impute a consequence, U, of the acceptance of T; a consequence that the sender of T rejects is a consequence. Then, ignoring the arguments against U’s being a consequence, the opponent imputes a new assertion, V, as a consequence. Both U and V express rather stupid or strange assertions, and the audience may start to feel that there is something wrong about T, even if it is open to doubt whether U and V are consequences.

When I say, “Every living being has intrinsic value” (T), it is sometimes said that from T follows that it is ethically unjustifiable to kill any living being (U). But if this were a consequence, how could I really accept T? It is impossible not to kill if we want to stay alive, and to stay alive must be justifiable. Therefore, T is untenable, if U follows. My view is that we are justified in trying to satisfy our vital needs, and that requires killing. But I also ask how U could follow from T. That is, one should ask what additional premises are used or whether the implication is considered completely self-evident. I do not at all find it irrelevant to discuss whether U follows from T. What is important here is that what is a consequence according to some people may not be a consequence according to others. If one is willing to use a lot of time and effort to clear up questions of implications, one is generally led into specifying different sets of premises. From some of them, U follows from T, from others not. We are led to consider systems, not isolated sentences.

No philosopher that I know of has offered summarizations of “x has intrinsic value – x has inherent value” or “it makes sense to do things strictly for x’s own sake.” These statements are fairly easy to understand and are acceptable for most people who are interested in the use of the terms.

Fifth Principle: Avoid tendentious firsthand reports!

PRELIMINARY FORMULATION: An account violates Principle Five if it leaves something out and lays emphasis on other things, otherwise conveys a distorted and unfavorable impression to the hearer, or gives a directly false impression that serves the interests of the speaker!

Let us now consider this illustration:

(1) A: We have to leave now to catch the train; it’s already 9 o’clock.
(2) B: No, I’ll change my clothes first, it’s only a quarter to.

In fact, A’s watch shows 8:55 and B’s 8:50. A gives a false impression of what he has observed. So does B. A’s tendentious report of what she sees supports her wish to be getting on her way, while B’s account is designed to cater to his inclination to linger a while.

An analysis of this kind will be less sure the closer A’s and B’s accounts come to that of some independent witness, and the less anything depends upon casual observations.

Summary of the Preliminary Formulation: A particular statement, T, in a serious discussion violates Principle 5 if and only if (1) T provides an incorrect or incomplete account of observations (or of the relation between observations), or T holds back information which must be considered relevant in judging the validity or relevance of an argument, and (2) deviations that occur are intended to strengthen the speaker’s position in the debate.

For example, suppose a correspondent of a foreign newspaper reports the result of a parliamentary election as “The Party A increased its vote.” A more balanced and comprehensive account might show, however, that although Party A increased its vote, its proportion of the total votes decreased. The telegram presents Party A, which the correspondent favors, in a favorable light at the cost of the others. We conclude that the correspondent has violated Principle 5.

Sixth Principle: Avoid tendentious use of contexts!

PRELIMINARY FORMULATION: A matter should be presented in a neutral way, in a neutral setting!

This principle concerns the context (or conditions) in which the matter is brought forward. In this category, we include in the context non-cognitive as well as cognitive components in, or accessories to, the argument; that is, expressions of the following kind: “When a hypocrite like Mr. H starts saying what he feels, one knows that . . .” Any use of terminology of a scornful, abusive, or otherwise non-argumentative nature, can get into what we call the “context” of the discussion. In addition, there are properties of the broader context in which the discussion is presented, for example, the use of music, pageantry, the serving of expensive food and drink, and any other accessories of persuasion and suggestion. In the case of newspaper articles, for instance, it can be a question of the selection of fonts, photographs, and so on.

Summary of the Preliminary Formulation: A statement matter in a serious discussion violates Principle 6 if and only if the context in both a wide and a narrow sense strengthens the speaker’s position without its influence being attributable to the cognitive context of the matter. Evidently, there can be no clear border between acceptable and unacceptable contextual favors.

Applications of Nonviolent Verbal Communication within the Ecology Movement

Supporters of the ecology movement disagree on many issues related to the ecological crisis. It is important that the real agreements and disagreements are made clear and misunderstandings eliminated. Otherwise, common policies are more difficult to implement than is necessary.

Mutual accusations of violating norms of public debate, whether Gandhian or otherwise, are generally ineffective. Substantial clarification can be brought about with few accusations, and little publicity.

Suppose somebody says or writes: “We must take better care of the nonhuman environment.” Let us call this formulation T0. Among the interesting interpretations of T0 there are two I wish to mention:

T1: We should distribute our present total care in such a way  that nonhumans get relatively more of it.
T2: We should enlarge our total care in such a way that there will be more care for non-humans.

If person A, who is an author of articles or books, engages in humanitarian work in Africa and hears or reads T0, it may be tempting for him to choose T1 and not T2. Let me make the unlikely assumption that A rejects T0, insisting in his articles that humans should not get less care than the little they get, because the vital needs of people living in an area with protected animals must be given more care, not less. Those who accept T0 are heartless and irresponsible. But why should T0 imply less care of the animals? Why choose T1 rather than T2? If a person B tries to apply Gandhian guidelines in communication, B will try out T2 before T1. If there is no conclusive evidence that the author of T0 means T1 rather than T2, why bother with T1? If B accepts T2 as an ethical norm, B will join and support A, because it is important to encourage and support each other in social conflicts.

Sentences are never unambiguous in a very strict sense. T2 may be misunderstood. There are two interpretations possible:

T21: We should enlarge our total care only in such a way that there will be more for nonhumans.
T22: We should enlarge our total care also in such a way that there will be more for nonhumans.

It may sometimes be important to use T22 because those engaged very actively in the care for nonhumans are often suspected of not esteeming people who are very active in promoting better care for destitute humans.

Perhaps most people do not need to study norms of nonviolent verbal communication in social conflicts. They have “internalized” the norms, and formalities only confuse them. Or they are firm adherents of confrontational styles. They may hold that sometimes violating all such norms in flagrant ways may awaken people and lead faster to desired ends. That may be so, but I am convinced that power obtained through violent means tends to corrupt more than power obtained without, and in the very long run, that is the only way to go.


1 Arne NAESS. Gandhi and Group Conflict: Explorations of Nonviolent Resistance; Satyagraha. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1974 (1st edition); currently available in Selected Works of Arne Naess.  Dordrecht: Springer Verlag, 2005 (SWAN); vol. 5.

2 Precise formulations, clarifications, and explanations will always need revision, because of the unending change of background, linguistic and otherwise, of the participants. This “revisability” has made some people with certain backgrounds propose that the term, norm, which sounds too absolutist, should be dropped and guideline be used in its stead. Due to my background in methodology and logic, I do not find norm an absolute. Nor does the exclamation mark remind me too much of authoritarianism or giving orders. The formulations that follow in this section are in part translations from my book Elements of Applied Semantics, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget & London: Allen and Unwin, 1966; currently available in SWAN, vol. 7.

3 Perhaps we should write “This hypothesis is hardly relevant”? “Hardly” might be inserted because, looking at the matter from an extremely formal point of view, a tendency to utter irrelevant things in a discussion might be seen as a sign of a lack of a spirit of cooperation, a lack that might be seen in this situation to be a result of too strong an engagement in competitive sports. This is so far-fetched, however, that the insertion of “hardly” may properly be seen as an instance of sophistry.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912-2009) was one of the foremost environmental thinkers of the 20th century, and is often referred to as “the father of deep ecology”. He was critical of environmentalists who did not seek to address the institutional causes of environmental degradation, or seek to change them. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) made a deep impact on him. And in the late 1960s he undertook a thorough study of Gandhi’s theory of nonviolent active resistance.  In satyagraha Naess found the answer to his quest for a strategy to address the ecological crisis: Gandhian nonviolent active resistance could be synthesized with deep ecology. This Gandhian side of Naess’s thinking is acknowledged but not well enough known. He was a major interpreter and theoretician of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent active resistance, on a par with, if not subtler than, either Joan Bondurant or Krishnalal Shridharani. In this work, his reinterpretation of the meaning of Gandhian strategy remains one of the most trenchant discussions of Gandhian philosophy thus far written.

Naess’s philosophical work was in the area of linguistic analysis, applying mathematical set theory to the problem of interpreting language and statements we make to each other. Every statement can have several interpretations, or sets and subsets. How do we evaluate these? He was also concerned about creating a new language for his environmental thinking, coining the term ecosophy, from the Greek words for environment and wisdom, to describe his belief that every living being, whether plant, animal, or person, has the right to live and blossom, to self-realization.

WEB REFERENCES: A useful critical appreciation has been written by David Orton of the Springer 10 volume set. The article serves as a useful guide also to the contents of the volumes.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi