Nearly a century ago, Mohandas Gandhi started a new publication to share his vision of nonviolent organizing, filling it with inspiring quotations and political insights. He titled the journal Young India, to indicate that its teachings were intended to help the people plan for eventual independence, fusing the methods of building a movement with those required to begin (re)building a nation. Gandhi saw the means and ends as interconnected, and reflected this in his personal practices and societal aspirations.
Of particular interest is the March 23, 1922, issue of the journal, which recounted proceedings from “The Great Trial” in which Gandhi was charged with attempting to promote “disaffection” toward the British colonial government. The exhibits against him were three articles he posted in Young India, including one titled “Tampering with Loyalty.” Gandhi pleaded guilty to the charges (three counts in all, one for each article) and was sentenced to a total of six years in prison; during sentencing, he accepted this punishment graciously, while still affirming the right of dissent: “Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence.”
I was struck by this narrative while doing some reading for an upcoming series of college classes where we’ll be looking at the history, theory, and practice of nonviolence. As part of the class process, current events play a role in shaping the discussions, including last week’s tragic school shooting in Parkland, FL. Reading the story of Gandhi’s trial reminded me how often one hears it said that young people are “disaffected” in terms of their political engagement. Being fortunate to have the opportunity to work with college students for two decades now, this caricature of youth has never resonated for me at all.
It’s probably the case that every generation is branded at some point as being apathetic or detached. But this may have more to do with the entrenched powers in place at any given moment, and the ways in which older generations seem to forget their own trajectory from being politically marginalized to taking the reins of government. Once there, it becomes convenient to cast young people as being either disaffected or, if they show signs of mobilizing, as ungrateful or immature. In the 1960s, for example, Ronald Reagan essentially launched his political career by openly scorning student activists at Berkeley.
But that was then, and this is now. Today, following the Parkland shooting, young people are meeting the elected elite on an equal footing in the realms of new media. The President himself set a precedent for expanding policymaking and governance directly into the Twittersphere, and many of the survivors from Parkland have been eloquently taking the conversation right to the halls of power via that space. Their words are pointed and poignant, filled with outrage over adult inaction while conveying a sense of hope for the future by their very presence. Find them online and engage with their voices directly—they don’t need anyone speaking for them, and frankly, in a contest between this generation and the one mostly holding high office right now, I have no doubt which side will show its aptitude with social media.
Beyond this, we’re seeing the emergence of a force turning media opinions into movement organizing. Some of the Parkland students have put out a call for a March for Our Lives (on March 24th), rapidly mobilizing through their dissatisfaction with current policies and leadership: “Change is coming. And it starts now, inspired by and led by the kids who are our hope for the future. Their young voices will be heard.” Reflecting on what makes this episode different, one of the planners told ABC News, “This is it.”
Perhaps we will someday look back on this time in a manner similar to how Gandhi saw India a century ago, on the cusp of a mass mobilization aimed at rebuilding a nation. Movement activities around the world and across the US in recent years have indicated an emerging pattern of youth activism online, in the streets, and in the councils of governance. As Gandhi said, people “should be free to give the fullest expression” to their disaffection—and likewise to their hopes and aspirations for making a better world.
Writing on our ostensible culture of violence in the aftermath of Parkland, Matt Taibbi asks: “Why are peace and nonviolence impossible to embrace as national values?” Martin Luther King Jr. famously cast his vision in terms of a dream, and spent the balance of his years trying to turn it into reality. In an open letter to African-American youth in September of 1966, King validated their frustrations while offering gentle guidance and thoughtful encouragement to struggle for “the kind of America that is really free”:
“I do not ask you to ‘cool it’[;] on the contrary I urge you to become active in the freedom movement and to make it an irresistible power. I urge you to be prepared to use your great energy in nonviolent mass action protests in your community. You can march in the streets and make this nation aware of your just grievances…. Finally, let me congratulate you for your sense of discipline and responsibility in the face of grave frustration and often brutal provocation. Here again I understand.”
Both King and Gandhi, of course, were killed by gun violence. But their words and visions live on, remaining more powerful than the weapons used to take their lives. The path to a more just and peaceful world is a circuitous one, asking us to synthesize motivation from disaffection and to draw purpose out of senselessness. As Wired editor Nicholas Thompson tweeted: “America: Where the high-schoolers act like leaders, and the leaders act like they're in high school.” The seniors have had their time—let’s give Young America a chance.