Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

What was Gandhi's intent?

It's not just the social justice crowd that adheres to or at least proclaims that one must "be the change they wish to see in the world". Lots of people advance this idea. But, I wonder, what exactly did Gandhi mean when he said this?

Most of the idea is simple enough "[blank] the change you wish to see in the world", that's pretty straight forward. But what exactly did he mean when he said "be"? I wonder, what was the nature of this imperative. Was it a suggestion, a compulsion to action or simply a state of mind or spirit to be in? Let me explain.

I think there's two ways to interpret the verb in the quotation. The more common understanding, I suspect, is a call to arms by Gandhi. He meant for us to go out and do things in the world. To live the change we wish to see by performing deeds and actions. He meant for us to focus on our actions, strongly. This is a command of the deepest sort--to be--make agitation and action your existence. He meant for us to transform the world through service.

Or did he?

Did Gandhi put character in front of action in his advice? Perhaps Gandhi, when using the verb "be", deliberately did NOT provide a call to arms and instead urged people at an individual level to live more virtuously. In other words, maybe "be" meant to have more character. His advice could have been to live better more noble lives and change the world by living an example that others could follow.

Surely, many will understandably complain about my analysis because Gandhi obviously meant to do both or his idea could reasonably be extended to include both interpretations. But, his primary motivation is what concerns me because it seems to underpin his philosophy on change...what's in the drivers seat, changing institutions or changing people? Again, a complicated question because the two are symbiotic actors.

Which interpretation would Gandhi advocate for?

I bring this up because of some reading I've been doing--The US Army Leadership Field Manual. The Army believes the following: Be, Know, Do. This roughly means, have character, have competence, combine the two through action. For the Army, the two interpretations outlined above are different ideas (Be and Do). I wonder if Gandhi felt the same way.

Nevertheless, this quote has lost so much value when people recite it. I really believe that motivational speakers and the like say it without thinking really critically about what it means. As I hope to have demonstrated above, it can mean radically different things.