Debunking Popular Myths || Be the Change you want to see wasn’t said by Gandhi

I am about to take a dump on one of the most vapid and popular aphorisms I have come across today, without saying a word. I am going to repost  an article that appeared in The New York Times about 2 years ago.

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Falser Words Were Never Spoken

Published: August 29, 2011

… […]… Gandhi’s words have been tweaked a little too in recent years. Perhaps you’ve noticed a bumper sticker that purports to quote him: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” When you first come across it, this does sound like something Gandhi would have said. But when you think about it a little, it starts to sound more like … a bumper sticker. Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug.

Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Here, Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.

When you start to become aware of these bogus quotations, you can’t stop finding them. Henry James, George Eliot, Picasso — all of them are being kept alive in popular culture through pithy, cheery sayings they never actually said.

But why MrMary ?

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Can this be true? Can it be that so many things that people find inspiration  in fact are well administered propaganda campaigns that seek to sell us a fictitious reality.  The author of the article says it the best:

Thoreau, Gandhi, Mandela — it’s easy to see why their words and ideas have been massaged into gauzy slogans. They were inspirational figures, dreamers of beautiful dreams. But what goes missing in the slogans is that they were also sober, steely men. Each of them knew that thoroughgoing change, whether personal or social, involves humility and sacrifice, and that the effort to change oneself or the world always exacts a price.

But ours is an era in which it’s believed that we can reinvent ourselves whenever we choose. So we recast the wisdom of the great thinkers in the shape of our illusions. Shorn of their complexities, their politics, their grasp of the sheer arduousness of change, they stand before us now. They are shiny from their makeovers, they are fabulous and gorgeous, and they want us to know that we can have it all.


  1. “But ours is an era in which it’s believed that we can reinvent ourselves whenever we choose.”

    And therein lies the problem. I’m not one of those who believes that ‘a leopard can’t change it’s spots’, and I think that if someone REALLY wants to become a better person, they can.
    The issue is that the majority of people (or at least Americans) are lazy. Yes, you can change the way you act for the better…then maybe invoke change in your neighbors…then perhaps your local town/city…and if you’re confident and charismatic enough, then a few people will insist on voting for you…and you too can then be a politician who is subjected to red tape around your great ideas.


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