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"What Would Gandhi do?"

What would Gandhi do?” is the title of a soul-searching post by Joi Ito about positioning. It reminded me of a passage in William Shirer’s memoir of his time with Gandhi. I’d like to quote the passage, which ends chapter 11, and then add some comments. The context is Gandhi’s visit to England, and in particular, his visit to the Lancashire mills, which were suffering from an Indian boycott on English cloth. Gandhi visited the mills to find allies and support for his goal of Indian independence.

Gandhi was too tactful to mention–to the workers or the employers–a strong impression he had gained after three days in Lancashire. It would have amazed them, I think. But he remarked on it to me the last day in Manchester. He was taken back he said, by the backwardness of Lancashire’s cotton industries.

“I’m no mechanic,” he smiled, “but I’ve seen enough up here in three days to show me that the English are using antiquated machinery. It probably explains there inability to compete with other countries. The machinery in the Bombay and Ahmedabad mills is one hundred percent more efficient.”

So, when it came to searching for allies, Gandhi did not feel compelled to say everything he thought. He was truthful, and had someone thought to ask, he probably would have answered honestly. So I think pulling back from offending your audience so much that they close their ears is a fine thing.

At the same time, sometimes you may not be able to be diplomatic. I think we agree that over the next decade, copyright is likely to change dramatically. Innovative publishers like Baen books and O’Reilly are experimenting with new models. If a publisher wishes to call Baen and O’Reilly’s experiments ‘disgusting,’ they’re free to do so. (Well, they may have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to figure out how likely a change in copyright law is, and how they’d handle it if it happens, but they can still call it disgusting.)

Earlier in the chapter, Shirer discusses how, at the London conference on India, Gandhi ignored the wishes of the rest of the delegation, and announced that Britain should take on India’s national debt. He did this because he thought it was right, and important. I suppose to sum up my reading of Gandhi, consider if what you’re saying needs to be said. If something needs to be said, don’t be afraid to speak the truth.

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