The sword, the shield

How does radical become normal?

In the 1916 novel The Home and the World, Nobel prize-winning poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore tells a story about colonial Bengal. Tagore offers a glimpse into what westernization and social unrest looked like at the time. He does this through the eyes of three main characters: Nikhil is presented as a forward-thinking rationalist who opposes violence and is willing to embrace certain western conventions. By contrast, Sandip is a steadfast anti-imperialist who fights to preserve Bengali traditions. Trapped somewhere between both ideals is Nikhil’s wife, Bimala. She feels compelled to join Sandip’s fight, but ironically, she also recognizes her traditional role in the home with Nikhil. In one scene, Bimala laments:

“I felt a strong desire to snatch down the orchid and fling it out of the window, to denude the niche of its picture, to lay bare and naked the unashamed spirit of destruction that raged within me. My arm was raised to do it, but a sudden pang passed through my breast, tears started to my eyes. I threw myself down and sobbed: 'What is the end of all this, what is the end?’”

The story is complex, as Bimala is both fighting for tradition and seeking to break from it. 

Tagore was part of the Swadeshi movement, which called for Indian independence and the boycotting of foreign goods. Yet his novel was criticized for not taking a hard enough stance against colonialism. All three characters are layered with complexities. 

Years later, we can see this same dynamic playing out in other revolutions, from the civil rights movement to marriage equality. The dual biography The Sword and The Shield, for instance, tells a more nuanced story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Despite the narrative that tends to portray the former as a peacemaker and the latter as a firebrand, they weren’t “nearly as antithetical as we’re made to believe,” writes Sean Illing at Vox.

As Tagore’s story illustrates, revolution is often much more complicated than the binary way we tend to think about it. “Any movement that has a lot of ground to cover needs a sort of more radical arm that is not taking any guff from the other side,” says Michael Rosenfield, a sociologist at Stanford. “But [the] truth is that you can't make progress — I don't think — without having an arm that wins votes in Congress and convinces strangers to come over to your side. You need them both.”

Three years after Tagore published his novel, British troops fired into a crowd of unarmed civilians in Amritsar, Punjab, killing nearly 400 people. Following the massacre, Tagore renounced the knighthood he was given by King George V. In a letter to the British Viceroy of India, he wrote, “The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilised governments.”

Despite the brutality of the massacre and the injustices of colonialism, Tagore held on to the idea of an “essential humanity” that was more significant than national, religious, or political affiliations. In a 1930 conversation with Albert Einstein, he said, “Our passions and desires are unruly, but our character subdues these elements into a harmonious whole.”

ON THE PODCAST

March 8: For generations, it was difficult, even dangerous, to express a sexual orientation other than heterosexuality in the United States. But in recent years, much has changed. This week, we revisit our 2019 episode about one of the most striking transformations of public attitude ever recorded. And we consider whether the strategies used by the LGBTQ community hold lessons for other groups seeking change.

March 15: Why is my friend late? How does nuclear fission work? What happens when I sneeze? Human beings ask an endless number of questions. Psychologist Tania Lombrozo discusses our drive to make sense of the world, and how the stories we tell ourselves can lead to discovery, delight, and … disaster.

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“You know that thing where you read or repeat a word over and over again until it just looks or sounds wrong? It’s called semantic satiation, and here’s an interesting article on why it happens and how it works.” – Kristin Wong

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