‘Hidden Brain’s’ Shankar Vedantam tells BYU crowd that nonviolence wins

Studies show nonviolence is 10 times more effective than violence, but it works especially well when protesters practice love for their oppressors, one of America’s top podcasters said Tuesday at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

“Systems of oppression harm not only the victims, but they also harm the oppressors,” said Shankar Vedantam, a journalist who hosts the popular “Hidden Brain” podcast that draws 3 million weekly downloads and is broadcast on 450 radio stations.

The nonviolent campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are not quaint aberrations or outliers of the past despite American culture’s obsession with violence, he said. They were brilliant strategists and tacticians who are models for fostering modern change. I have included the toxicity on social media as an example of violence.

“The goal is not really to overcome your opponent,” he said, “but the goal is to bring your opponents over to your side, convince them that the right side is your side because oppression is not just bad for you, it’s also bad for them.”

He said both Gandhi and King rooted their movements in Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and example.

“Of course you can see directly the connections here with ideas from Jesus and from ideas from the Bible,” he said.

Shankar Vedantam, a former journalist for NPR and The Washington Post who now has a podcast, “Hidden Brain,” with 3 million weekly downloads, answers questions from audience members after delivering the BYU forum address in the Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday, Jan 25, 2022.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Examples of nonviolent campaigns by Gandhi and King

Walking back and forth on a stage on the floor of the Marriott Center in the style of a TED Talk, Vedantam illustrated his points with two examples. He briefly described Gandhi’s leadership of the nonviolent Salt March in India in March and April 1930 and the strategy King and others used during the Montgomery, Alabama, boycott bus of 1955-56.

Gandhi used the imperial government’s monopoly of salt production to connect the poor people of India to a campaign of civil disobedience against British rule in India. The 60-year-old man led a 200-mile march to the sea, where protesters illegally evaporated saltwater to produce salt. The march galvanized everyday Indians and earned widespread international support, Vedantam said.

The protests included tying independence flags to the tails of cats, putting the government in the position of deciding whether it literally should try to herd cats.

Edgar Nixon and Bayard Rustin organized the Montgomery bus boycott around King and Rosa Parks because they were charismatic young people who would appeal to and galvanize not only Blacks but also whites who would join the civil rights movement. The symbol of Parks as tired seamstress who at the end of a long day refused to surrender her bus seat was powerful.

“The goal of Gandhian philosophy and eventually the philosophy of the civil rights movement was not just to win. The goal was not just how do we get a victory or how do we change the law. The goal was often to say, to people who are part of a group of people who are oppressing us, they also are in need of change.”

Both examples also revealed how nonviolence helps the opposition reframe the struggle, Vedantam said.

For example, the Salt March moved the independence movement away from violent conflicts where the government would always retain the upper hand to a battlefield better suited to the opposition.

“The advantage of nonviolence is that it allows you to pick the battlefield and convey that the power structure is not as imposing as it seems,” Vedantam said.

Shankar Vedantam, a former journalist for NPR and The Washington Post who now has a podcast, “Hidden Brain,” with 3 million weekly downloads, delivers the BYU forum address at the Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.

Shankar Vedantam, a former journalist for NPR and The Washington Post who now has a podcast, “Hidden Brain,” with 3 million weekly downloads, delivers the BYU forum address at the Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

How science and religion support nonviolence

Vedantam’s podcast is centered on social science. He used that background to share the findings of a landmark social science study of hundreds of political revolutions between 1900-2006 that found that nonviolent movements were 10 times more likely to succeed. In fact, the effectiveness of nonviolence movements continues to increase, according to “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan.

The psychological science behind their success is rooted it the way nonviolence recruits new allies to cause. Efforts to love the opposition allow a person or group to see them as human beings and then to devise strategies for how to gain them as allies, Vedantam said.

King’s son, Martin Luther King III, spoke at a BYU forum last fall to launch a theme for the year’s forum addresses about the Beloved Community espoused by his father. Vedantam’s talk was titled, “The Science of the Beloved Community: The Psychological Genius of Non-Violence.”

The direct connection between Jesus Christ and nonviolent movements

Gandhi and King each drew direct connections to Jesus Christ’s refusal to cooperate with evil and teaching people to love their enemies, Vedantam said.

After King’s home was bombed in 1956, and supporters came to tell him what had happened, he told them, “I want you to love your enemies. Be good to them, love them and let them know you love them.”

Vedantam shared that quote and a video clip of King the day before his violent assassination, when he said that he might not live to see the promised land but knew it would be reached.

“The extraordinary thing that Gandhi and King did is they actually walked the walk,” Vedantam said. “They actually practiced what the Sermon on the Mount preached.”

Each also relied on religious faith and examples to forge the courage to chart and maintain their nonviolent courses.

Both men were reviled as traitors by people on their side for suggesting love for the opposition, those who were tormenting their people.

Vedantam said that the core idea he took away from studying Gandhi and King for the forum address was that, “The central virtue of the Beloved Community in fact is not love and not kindness but courage. In the absence of courage it is impossible to build the Beloved Community that King talked about, because it takes courage to actually extend empathy and compassion to your enemies.”

He also found that their reliance on that standard also worked.

“The other insight that I think that King and Gandhi both get from the life of Jesus is that unearned suffering tends to be redemptive,” Vedantam said. “When someone has not done something wrong, and they are harmed by it, they’re punished for it, there’s something that moves us and makes the injustice visible in an extraordinarily powerful way. We are now inclined to say, ‘We want to stand on their side. We want to walk with them.’ If you think about the great achievement of the civil rights movement, it is that it persuaded large numbers of people, even people who were not mad, that the civil rights movement was their struggle, that this is not just a struggle of Black people, this is a struggle for all people, everywhere.”

Vedantam was a late addition to the BYU forum schedule. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson had been scheduled to speak Tuesday but withdrew due to travel concerns related to COVID-19. She will speak to some BYU students by Zoom next week.

Vedantam’s contract with BYU did not allow for the customary broadcast by BYUtv. An estimated 2,003 people attended the forum in the Marriott Center. Others watched by video in the Joseph Smith Building on campus.

Tuesday’s forum was the first of the weekly forums or devotionals held under BYU’s new requirement that attendees at events must show proof of vaccination or of a negative COVID-19 test within the previous 72 hours.

Vedantam is the author of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller “The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives” and “Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain,” which he co-authored with Bill Mesler in 2021.

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