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Writer Shankar Vedantam speaks on nonviolence at BYU

By Ashtyn Asay - Daily Herald | Jan 25, 2022
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Shankar Vedantam speaks at BYU in the Marriott Center on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.
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Shankar Vedantam speaks at BYU in the Marriott Center on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.

Shankar Vedantam came to Brigham Young University armed with a message of peace and history.

The journalist, author and former NPR correspondent spoke on the power of peaceful protests Tuesday in a forum at the Marriott Center at BYU.

Vedantam is the creator and host of the “Hidden Brain” podcast and gave a speech entitled, “The Science of the Beloved Community: The Psychological Genius of Non-Violence.”

Vedantam spoke of his two self-proclaimed role models, Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the way that they truly embodied the teachings of Jesus Christ in his Sermon on the Mount.

“They were great proponents of nonviolence,” he said. “What are we to make of people like Gandhi and King? Today, of course, we revere them as being noble figures, important towering moral figures, but I think many of us ought to think of them as being someone quaint.”

Vedantam stated that although we may have come to view Gandhi and King’s methods of peacefully protesting to be outdated or irrelevant to today’s society, he believes that the nonviolent approach to ending oppression is as effective as ever.

He referenced the Salt March, a 24-day march led by Gandhi that took place in India in 1930. Vedantam retraced Gandhi’s steps in 1998 as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and he said that as he undertook the Salt March, he began to consider the tactical brilliance of Gandhi and King — in addition to their upstanding character.

“I think we have greatly underestimated their strategic and tactical brilliance,” Vedantam said. “They won not just because they had moral fervor and not just because they were fighting for the cause of justice … It was deep strategy that went into their moral thinking.”

Vedantam told the crowd that the Salt March was so effective because it connected ordinary citizens of India with the political issues of the time because they used salt, which was being rationed and sold by the government, in their everyday lives.

“When I retraced the Salt March I asked myself the question ‘why salt?’ There were so many issues to focus on.” Vedantam said. “I realized there were several reasons for it, and the first and most important reason was that he was looking for an issue that connected with the lives of ordinary poor people in India.”

Gandhi and his followers marched to the sea, where they were ultimately able to make crude salt by extracting it from saltwater in an act of civil disobedience. Gandhi and his followers were able to reveal weakness within the English government without inspiring it to respond with violence by peacefully protesting the Salt Act.

Vedantam likened the strategy used during the Salt March to those used in peaceful protests that occurred in the United States during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

“There were many African-Americans who were fascinated by what Gandhi was doing in India,” Vedantam said. “Many of them traveled to India to learn Gandhi’s techniques.”

Vedantam provided graphs which showed that ultimately, nonviolent protests are twice as likely to succeed as violent protests.

“If you go on the street and ask most people which kind of movement is likely to be more successful, I think you would hear the answer… that most people would predict that violent movements are far more likely to succeed than nonviolent movements,” Vedantam said.

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