Summary of "Self-Limiting Conflict: The Gandhian Style"

Summary of

Self-Limiting Conflict: The Gandhian Style

by Paul Wehr

Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: "Self-Limiting Conflict: The Gandhian Style," chap. in Conflict Regulation, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1979) pp. 55-68.

Self-limiting conflict processes are those that "have built in devices to keep the conflict within acceptable bounds and to inhibit violent extremism and unbridled escalation."[p. 55] One form of self-limitation is self-encapsulation, whereby "certain conflicts are increasingly limited by their own nature and by the nature of the host system, so that the range of expression of the conflict is curbed."[p. 56] Wehr describes Mahatma Gandhi's practice of satyagraha ("insistence on truth") as a form of self-encapsulating conflict. The philosophy and techniques of satyagraha were effective because they allowed proponents to employ increasingly powerful pressures in conflict without falling into uncontrolled escalation.

First, Gandhi intensified conflict in a step-wise, rather than a spiraling, fashion. Conflicts spiral out of control when each hostile action immediately provokes a more hostile response. Gandhian conflict proceeds in a series of clearly distinct steps. The first step is protracted negotiations. Should that step be ineffective, the satyagrahis then move on more intense pressure: direct action. If necessary, direct action will be followed by increasing forceful actions. Actors maintain control over the escalation process by withdrawing from confrontation and engaging in a period of reflection and re-evaluation between each step.

Second, Wehr argues that "socialization into and internalization of the role of nonviolent actor is critical for the self-limiting capacity of nonviolent actors."[p.60] Satyagrahis underwent such resocialization. A strong ideology of nonviolence limits the range of weapons and the degree of violence used in the conflict.

Third, Gandhian conflict techniques take specific steps to control the usual dynamics of conflict escalation. Conflicts typically escalate by broadening and bringing in new issues, by shifting from disagreement to personal antagonism, by secrecy and its attendant misinformation, by vicious cycles of response, and by the replacement of moderate with extremist leaders. Gandhi kept each action focused on single well-defined issue. However, each issue had direct bearing on the larger, more basic questions. The Gandhian model stressed maintaining personal relations with the opponents, and separating persons from issues. Satyagraha avoids secrecy and encourages the open flow of information, including discussion of nonviolent tactics and of the movement's upcoming actions. Step-wise progress breaks the vicious cycle of escalation. Gandhi chose his leaders carefully, and the movement leadership was thoroughly trained in the philosophy and techniques of satyagraha and nonviolence.

Fourth, the principle of self-realization in the philosophy of satyagraha was conflict-limiting. Satyagraha views conflict as a process of self-realization for all parties. This recognition of the opponent precludes the goal of destroying or humiliating them. Conflict is then also seen as an opportunity for empowerment. "Satyagraha as a technique gave the hitherto powerless a strength, a unique identity and a status vis-a-vis their opponents."[p. 64] Power-balancing also tends to limit conflict.

Finally, satyagraha sees the goal of conflict as persuasion, rather than coercion. This shifts the conflict from a win-lose to a possible win-win framework. Wehr explains, "the escalating commitment is not to winning but to the discovery of the truth of social justice, a commitment that admitted the possibility of the opponent's truth."[p. 65]