The real Hunger Game: Advice for hunger strikes

Colby Cosh on Gandhi and not eating as a political tool

Congratulations! If you are thinking of conducting a hunger strike to advance some very important cause, this guide is for you. Think of it as a sort of Anarchist’s Cookbook for those who intend to stop eating for political purposes. The hunger strike is very nearly the greatest weapon of protest available to the truly powerless. In its potential for non-violently multiplying the revolutionary leverage of a single dedicated person, it is perhaps exceeded only by the act of setting oneself on fire in the public square–a tactic which, it must be admitted, does have a slightly better record of influencing the course of history.

The formal hunger strike is made prestigious by its association with Mohandas K. Gandhi, who (probably uniquely) applied it several times with devastating effect in various contexts. Because hunger strikes have often failed, however, it is worth considering the reasons Gandhi was able to make it work–implicit conditions you should, before you proceed, make sure of your ability to satisfy.

1. Gandhi had enemies who were vulnerable. The hunger strike is a tactic which appeals inherently to an audience, consisting of the institution one hopes to defeat and the public to which that institution is responsible. The imperial government Gandhi opposed was democratic in character at home; even if its officialdom did not care whether some particular little brown man lived or died, they had to answer to those who could not withstand the spectacle he choreographed in the mass media of his day. Gandhi also turned the weapon of the hunger strike on Indian institutions, which were answerable to the masses who revered him, and even on offenders within his own circle.

As has often been pointed out, a hunger strike would not have gotten very far against the old Soviet KGB or the Nazi apparatus of terror, both of which willingly massacred the owners of mouths that they preferred not to feed. It would be futile to hunger strike against anyone consciously pursuing a policy of genocide. A hunger strike in earnest is an appeal to conscience, founded on hope: there is no sense in playing chicken with a bulldozer. From a certain standpoint it expresses respect for the human feelings of one’s institutional opponent, and indeed requires them as a premise, as your critics will be quick to point out if you decide to go ahead.

2. Gandhi had a reputation for asceticism. No one doubted that he could follow through with a hunger strike to the point of death; several times he flirted with it. You must not only be certain, before you go ahead, of your own willingness to die: you must be able to persuade others from the outset that you are willing to go through agony, humiliation, and the slow, inexorable failure of your organs, senses, and mind. Anything in your past tending to suggest a love of luxury or a weakness for material things makes you an inherently poor candidate for a hunger strike, and your self-scrutiny ought to be very searching. The greater the forces arrayed against you, the more important this self-scrutiny is.

You are one person, perhaps demanding that dozens or thousands or millions obey your will because reasonable argument has failed. A hunger strike is literally taking oneself hostage. And all must be able to take you seriously, ideally on instinct: ask any hostage-taker. If you simply intend to demonstrate your earnestness by dying, there are quicker, less painful and sordid ways to go about it.

3. Gandhi was respected as a writer and speaker. He was witty; history leaves hardly any record of a journalist or photographer who left his presence uncharmed. Many of the most memorable hunger strikers have been poets or thinkers: Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, was a celebrated playwright whose Ethics of Revolt and Principles of Freedom still bear reading, and even poor Bobby Sands was a pretty good jailhouse polemicist for the Republican press. A hunger strike involves establishing a personal, intimate relationship with one’s audience, as a writer does. You must create the conviction that you are dying for clear ideas that you can elucidate well; it would help if you had already achieved recognition as an intellectual leader.

It would, after all, be an absurdity to run the gauntlet of hunger for a mere feeling, or over a vague sense of offendedness, or in the spirit of generalized sympathy with the downtrodden, or for anything that was not remorselessly logical. Again: if you merely mean to die to show off your deep sentiments, that is no more than a thousand messed-up teenagers do every year.

4. Gandhi’s charm and intelligence led to other advantages he was able to exploit, and the most important one was his relationship with the polite Western liberal media. Lose them and you have lost all. A hunger strike does not work without an audience; it is not something that can be executed in secret. To build up the moral pressure that is the essence of a hunger strike, you will need the media on your side. That means bending over backward to treat reporters politely at every opportunity and in every regard. It means taking rude questions and giving candid answers; letting them investigate your arrangements for the strike; and providing a constant flow of specific details about your medical condition.

The latter is particularly important. The whole essence of a hunger strike is to create a public narrative of declining health. You may wish to make some nonfood nutritional arrangement to protect against irreversible damage to the body in the early stages of the hunger strike, and that is usually considered quite fair, because a hunger strike is not supposed to be simple suicide. You must profess, as Gandhi did, to be quite happy to eat and get well if your demands are met unconditionally in good faith.

But a person can live indefinitely on a liquid diet; so the striker ought, in his own tactical interests, to consent to regular examinations by a physician which are then reported to the press. You should be weighed before the strike and as often as possible during it. Why wouldn’t you? You do not want people to think you are “playing a game” (though it is in fact a game, with readily established rules: that is the point of this little guide). Still less do you want to raise suspicions of vanity. Any bluff will be called, immediately and brutally.

5. By the same token, your demands, as Gandhi’s generally were, must be specific at the beginning of the hunger strike and should change as little as possible during it. Keep saying “No”, as the Mahatma did, when you are asked “But look how much we’ve conceded; isn’t it enough?” This requires a transparent, explicit chain of authority involving a single named spokesperson, which is something you’ll want anyway at the point at which you lose the power of speech. There should be no doubt about who speaks for you, and no contradicting claims or bargaining positions emerging from a vague cadre of “friends”.

Ideally it is best not to have a plethora of “friends” around you at all; at some point, being surrounded by people who have agreed to watch you die will make the audience wonder just how much they want it to happen. You cannot afford to let spectators wonder whether your decision to risk death was completely free and individual.

6. You should, of course, be above personal reproach. Faced with your effort to inflict your will, your enemies cannot be expected to be anything but unscrupulous in looking for facts or biographical wrinkles with which to embarrass you. A hunger strike, though it is nonviolent, is a sort of declaration of war; that is how it will certainly be greeted. And it is as important for you to establish that you are not pursuing a vendetta, or trying to create a distraction for private purposes, as it is to convince the audience that you are sane and intelligent. What could be more damnable than an insincere hunger strike?

Many of these rules or conditions can be summed up by simply observing that people will not want to believe that you, as a hunger striker, fully intend to die a slow death for your beliefs: the whole point of the exercise is to create a vivid, heartbreaking tableau that is unbearable to contemplate. The corollary is that they will tell themselves anything–that you are crazy; that you are a fanatic; that you are engaged in a ploy for immortality and fame; that you are secretly eating–rather than believe the terrible proposition you are putting forward to them. You had better be in possession of the truth. If not, you should throw down this guide and never return to it.

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