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silhouette of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi
silhouette of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi

Cancel Gandhi? Absolutely not. How to consider a better way (#141)

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Jean Latting
April 9, 2024
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Jean addresses an issue in publishing her new book where she was confronted with the highly offensive misdeeds of one of her heroes. Read how she worked her way through it.

Preparing for publication

Conscious Change book by Jean Latting and V. Jean Ramsey

I was expecting unusual challenges as our forthcoming book, Conscious Change, moved from being a draft manuscript to an actual published book.

What I was not expecting was that some of these challenges would include ethical dilemmas that tested our/my commitment to the principles and skills we espouse in the book.

Side note: To explain the one we just faced, here is some background on how publishing works. The final step before a book is printed for sale is producing what is called an advanced reader copy (ARC). The ARC shows what the book will look like when published and contains the full layout except for the index.

The pdf of the ARC is the last chance for authors to give the manuscript one final proofreading to find the misplaced commas, inadvertent typos, or other small errors.

We were strongly cautioned not to make any major changes that would affect the layout, because if that happens, we will have to pay extra for it (SheWritesPress is a hybrid publisher).

Since this was our final shot to catch errors, we decided to hire a professional proofreader. We lucked out (as has happened throughout this book writing journey), and the proofreader we found did a superb job. She found any number of tiny errors that we would’ve missed otherwise.

Does Gandhi deserve his reputation as an ethical leader?

I have long admired Mahatma Gandhi because of his leadership in India’s independence through his highly disciplined, nonviolent approach. I have been steeped in nonviolent resistance theory since attending a Quaker high school, and I admired his use of that method to lead India to independence. In short, he has been a hero to me most of my life.

Near the end of Conscious Change, we talk about how hard it is to change habits and adopt the skills described in the book. We recommended this:

Ground Yourself in Your Integrity

Set your intention for who you want to be in the world. How do you want to be as a leader? How do you want others to see and experience you? The skills you choose to work on should lead in that direction.

It’s important, too, to commit to your intention. Use Gandhi as a role model: his approach to self-discipline was to form an “unbreakable resolution” to himself. Once he pledged, he committed himself to it [emphasis added]. Are you willing to make an unbreakable promise to yourself to master at least one of the skills you wrote down?

To my surprise and consternation, the proofreader made this comment about Gandhi:

This is well beyond the realms of proofreading, but I feel I would be remiss not to address it – are you aware of the controversy regarding Gandhi and his views on gender, sex, and race?

He published multiple racist statements early on in his life, the gist of which were to argue that White people should be the “predominating race.” He also wrote (and this is a direct quote) that Black people are “troublesome, very dirty, and live like animals.” He later worked in an antiracist capacity, but some people have (fairly) had a hard time moving past that.

He also is known to have slept naked with young female relatives to “test” his ability to remain celibate. In today’s understanding of power imbalances, that would qualify as sexual abuse.

There are a number of sources if you care for more detail; NPR, Washington Post, and Cornell University have easily accessed online articles.

All of this is to say – you may wish to consider removing this passage. As with my previous suggestions on word choice, I am concerned this may come across poorly to younger readers.

In response to an earlier section, she noted that she was “both a Black person of color and a millennial who works closely with a large population of Gen Z professionals, so may have additional insight into newer generations and the way we view race, gender, and their intersections.”

At that point in her comments, I reflected briefly on the generational warfare that sometimes makes the news, and appreciated the fact that our book was being reviewed by a millennial, a different generation than Jean Ramsey (my co-author) and myself.

JeanR (as I sometimes call her to distinguish from me – JeanL) sent me a text immediately after receiving the comments. She suggested removing the reference to Gandhi altogether, which would lead the critical passage to read like this:

The skills you choose to work on should lead in that direction. It’s important, too, to commit to your intention…. Are you willing to make a promise to yourself to master at least one of the skills you wrote down?

She added:

The question here would be if you could come up with two lines (approximately 20-25 words) to replace the ellipses. That would keep them from having to renumber the pages in the chapter. Otherwise, it will affect the layout of text from pp. 226-243 as well as require the renumbering of the Notes.

Remember, we had been admonished not to change the layout and only proof minor errors. How to handle the situation at the last minute was a terrific challenge for us.

Delete Gandhi?!

On the other hand, I was in a different mindset altogether. I was frankly undone at the very thought of removing the reference to Gandhi for the reasons the proofreader cited.

I texted Jean Ramsey:

I’m annoyed that people get canceled and their whole lifetime of contributions can be wiped out because of something they did early in their youth. Note that our proofreader did acknowledge that later he became antiracist, but she said members of her generation were not forgiving, and despite his huge contributions, these early statements were enough to effectively cancel him.

Now I didn’t put it in writing to JeanR but did have mixed feelings about him sleeping naked in the bed with young women to test his willpower to abstain from sexual temptation.1 The proofreader said that would be considered abuse by today’s standards.

I certainly agree with that. As I delved into it, I’ve learned that Gandhi slept in the same bed with two of his grandnieces as part of a celibacy and self-control test. This practice did tarnish his reputation even at the time and challenged the idealized perception of him as having impeccable virtue and ethical conduct.

Yet I don’t know any heroes or sheroes without blemishes or who have not engaged in actions unworthy of commendation. The early suffragettes who led the fight for women’s right to vote also made highly racist statements at the time. Does that negate their achievements?

a black hand and a white handing touching fingertips

Everyone I look up to in previous generations had flaws. Are we supposed to act as though we live in a world where people are either all good or all bad? 

I am not the only person concerned about cancel culture, where one unethical act can ruin someone’s career and eradicate all the good they have done. What plays in my mind when I see this is the phrase, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Gandhi liberated a nation and inspired the civil rights movement. Do his negative acts cancel out these tremendous accomplishments?

I stewed over all of this and tried to figure out what to do with the passage about his “unbreakable promise” to himself.

Seeking a way out I could live with

Even while I was stewing, it was clear to me that we could not leave the text as it was. It had to change. So I crafted two options.

The first acknowledged that Gandhi had become a controversial feature because of his early statements and later indecent behavior with innocent young women, but the concept of “unbreakable promise to oneself” is useful as we think about forming new habits.

In the second option, I came up with a new quote altogether to make the same point about how to form a new habit:

All of us have experienced making – and then breaking – a promise to ourselves. To avoid this, we suggest you begin by selecting any one skill that will be an easy stretch for you. Then seek opportunities to practice it. Give yourself grace if your efforts flounder, especially initially. Just keep plugging away until you have had two or three successes. Celebrate! And move on to the next skill.

In lieu of the original footnote about Gandhi, I added a footnote about what it takes for persistence in trying to achieve a goal. To quote from the abstract, “We argue that persistent goal pursuit is a function of three processes: resisting the urge to give up, recognizing opportunities for pursuit, and returning to pursuit.”2

I thought that this new explanation about expecting to flounder when forming a new habit – but to keep plugging away – was a worthwhile substitute for Gandhi’s “unbreakable promise.”

We still had the challenge of making sure we didn’t mess too much with the layout as we had been instructed by the publisher. I explained this also in the note to Jean Ramsey:

The original was 113 words over 10 lines (counting the heading Ground Yourself in Integrity and the space between paragraphs). The footnote was 4 lines.

This substitution has 111 words over the same number of lines and the new footnote has 4 lines.

My hope is the new footnote will save the time and trouble of renumbering everything.

I sent both options to JeanR for her review and consideration.

Once I got them off, I took a hard look at what I was thinking and feeling.

I had been gearing myself up to take a principled stance on behalf of Gandhi and argue for the first option, which acknowledged his malfeasance while making the broader point that heroes do not have to be perfect human beings.

I wasn’t, and still am not, prepared to let him go as a crusader and champion; he led India to liberation! And his role modeling for nonviolence in the civil rights movement paved the way for me to be in a position to even write this blog post. Was I expected to bite the hand that fed me?

But, at the same time, as I acknowledged to Jean Ramsey, in my heart of hearts I knew those brief sentences about unbreakable promises to oneself were not integral to the book. If I were to take an ethical stance about some passage in the book, this wasn’t it.

I was still mentally stewing, walking around the house mulling over what to do, when it became clear to me that of the two options presented to Jean, the second was actually better than the original statements about Gandhi’s unbreakable promise. It made the point clearer and cleaner.

I was now in a battle with my ego. I did not want to admit that I was willing to take Gandhi out of the book for his reprehensible actions, for reasons I’ve already explained. Yet for the sake of the book, the second option omitting reference to Gandhi and with the new footnote made our point much better.

When I said as much to Jean Ramsey, she noted that she preferred the second option because having a disclaimer about Gandhi took away from the meaning we were intending about habits. As a side point, it was a distraction and not an addition.

Reluctantly, then, I let it go. The second option was better for the point we were trying to make.

My takeaways

First, having a growth mindset is important to me. It is one of the skills in our Conscious Change framework.3 In contrast to a fixed mindset, where people are assumed to be unchangeable, viewing people as having growth potential despite their errors paves the way for people to change and grow. 

Removing Gandhi from Conscious Change felt like I was going against our principles of a growth mindset, succumbing to the demand to cancel people without consideration of the good they have done overall and their potential for growth. Recall that the proofreader did acknowledge that Gandhi made those racially offensive statements early in his career and later became antiracist.

And speaking personally, I did some things in my youth that I certainly hope never cancel out any good I have done since.

I am reluctant to cast stones because I don’t want any of them hurled at me.

The second takeaway is how stubbornness can blind us to new possibilities. I mentioned the battle with my ego. I was indignant and wanted to take a stand on behalf of Gandhi and against all of those who want to cancel people for a single infraction. 

Nevertheless, two things would not allow me to stay stuck in indignation:

  • When I learned more about Gandhi’s actions with the young women and how even some of his own followers dropped out of the movement because they were so offended. I had to acknowledge that his actions were more serious than I had initially considered.
  • Because I had to revise the statement about Gandhi, I now had two new options to explain what we wanted to say about forming new habits. And despite my defensive reactions, it became clear to me that the second option omitting any reference to Gandhi was actually superior.

If I had been irrevocably opposed to changing the sentence about Gandhi on the principle of the growth mindset and not explored other options, we never would’ve ended up with the better passage.

A rigid stance would’ve had me feeling proudly defiant that I was sticking to my principles and morals, and I might not have ever known that my defiance was costing us a superior outcome.

The third takeaway is an enhanced awareness and unease with the ultimate impact of canceling people forever for their misdeeds. Canceling implies we are so contemptuous of someone that they are unforgiveable. It hardens our hearts, further dividing us into an illusion that there are only good guys vs bad guys. 

In an interview, Trevor Noah, the comedian, talked about a famous podcast host who was exposed for using the N-word multiple times during the early years on his show.4 People immediately called for the celebrity to be cancelled. He was then approached by podcast sponsors whose audience would have welcomed hearing the N-word. 

As Noah pointed out, do we want that as a society? Do we want to drive people into the arms of the wrong crowd by making them outcasts in ours?

In reference to the original quote we had about Gandhi, the proofreader had written, "I am concerned this may come across poorly to younger readers." 

I agree with her concern, only from a different angle. I am concerned that the younger readers she is talking about are practicing an absolutism that helps perpetuate polarization and exclusion in contradiction to the ideals of inclusion and equity. 

We can't have inclusion if we declare some people don't deserve to be included. Let's instead help build a world where we may make mistakes, are allowed to account for what we have done, and in the process, learn and grow from the experience.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. How do you regard people who made serious errors before learning better? When do errors become unforgivable? How do you forgive yourself?
  2. What proof of change do you require before offering forgiveness?

Conscious Change skills
covered in this blog post

Coming July 9th!  Available for preorder:
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Leading Consciously

We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.  

It’s the assumptions we have about people’s lives that are the biggest obstacles to growth, awareness, and success. We help you understand how those assumptions are preventing you from becoming the best you can be as an organization, an inclusive leader, and a person.

Let’s start a conversation. Email us at jeanLC@leadingconsciously.com

1 Frayer, L. (2019). Gandhi is deeply revered, but his attitudes on race and sex are under scrutiny. NPR: Houston Public Media.

2 Moshontz, H. and R. H. Hoyle (2021). "Resisting, recognizing, and returning: A three-component model and review of persistence in episodic goals." Social and Personality Psychology Compass 15(1): e12576.

3 Latting, J. K. and V. J. Ramsey (2024). Conscious Change: How to Navigate Differences and Foster Inclusion in Everyday Relationships, SheWritesPress.

4 Noah, T. (2022). "The Daily Show." India.Arie - Unconscious vs. Conscious Racism & Unfair Treatment of Artists | The Daily Show. Aired February 14, 2022.