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.


The real Hunger Game: Advice for hunger strikes

  1. Yes, there is always the presumption by the hunger-striker that they are dealing with decent people.

    Chief Spence obviously believes Canadians are decent people.

    Are we?

    • Well we know you’re not.
      You’ve called almost everyone on this forum a “racist” or a “hater.”
      And isn’t that lovely for the biggest supporter of Chief No Invoices..

    • “..there is always the presumption by the hunger-striker that they are dealing with decent people.” Really???? A person goes in front of the national press and announces that their community is being underfunded and taken advantage by the government and that they are going on a hunger strike until they meet with the GG and the Prime Minister and they BELIEVE that the national press will be DECENT PEOPLE and do no investigation into their allegations or past history?

      • Yes, really. I said nothing about the press….this is about the govt that represents the Canadian people.

        Gandhi guessed right, Bobby Sands guessed wrong.

        • Well where are these so-called decent people supposed to get their information if not from the press?

    • If you consider “decent people” to mean a bunch of idiots who’ll bend over backwards to some small time thug, then no, we’re not decent people, nor should we be.

      It’s amazing that you’re stupid enough to believe anybody on a friggin’ diet is automatically on the right side of the argument. But then again, your stupidity astounds me almost daily.

  2. My partner, and a few of her female friends, do annual ‘cleanse’ for no particular reason other than it makes them feel better because they are getting rid of ‘toxins’ from their bodies. I bet there are many vain or dieting men/women who think Spence’s hunger strike sounds an awful lot like their kooky diets.

    There should be a seventh point about knowing you audience or countrymen. Canadian society is very narcissistic – we murder more than one hundred thousand babies a year and think it is terrific – so middle aged woman drinking fish broth is not likely to gain a whole lot of sympathy. And we have to also remember that many Canadians are inordinately proud of the apartheid system we operate for Natives and don’t want to change the relationship between Natives and Canada.

    • Who is Hester Eastman, Tony?

    • From my partner, I would like to here.

  3. I don’t know CC. You’ve laid out a pretty absolutist position [ who could gainsay Gandhi – i believe even Churchill tried and failed] It’s crystal clear what inference is to drawn from this article – Chief Spence’s hunger strike doesn’t cut it. Yet i wonder if there haven’t been one or two successful ones that rated less than full compliance with your list?

    I also think you are missing an important aspect of this story[ along with most non Aboriginal Canadians] just what this means to the Aboriginal community at large. She is a symbol, however tarnished [ and the more the govt tries to discredit her the more she remain so] for a whole lot of bad history, bad faith and bad blood between the GoC and Aboriginal people. She is likely beyond some of your requirements and the PMOs mailed fist now…she’s a symbol, best leave that alone.[ although even symbols can self destruct i guess] There are other tarnished symbols that have long resisted attempts to pull them down…Levesque’s enduring mythology in QC springs to mind, or more topically one Louis Riel. I think you have set the bar a tad high there sir, at least as far as FNS are likely concerned in their present mood.

    • Have you wondered kcm2 why the people who started Idle No More wanted to distance themselves from the Chiefs including Ms. Spence? Incompetence and corruption on the reserves are hurting FN people living there just the same as problems with the federal government are. Problems won’t be solved until everything is out on the table including issues of whether the funding received from the government is adequate; whether or not the FN’s are receiving their share of mineral rights money AND whether the bands are being properly administered by those in charge.

      • No, that has never occurred to me…none of it.[sarc]

    • She’s a symbol all right, a symbol of everything that’s wrong with FN governance in Canada. She’s a symbol of how lazy Canada’s MSM can be when they think they’ve found an issue that will get readers and viewers. She’s a symbol of how easily duped leftist politicians can be when they think they’ve got an angle to attack the PM. And she’s a perfect symbol for how reckless partisan Liberals would be with public funds.

      • Rick Omen…partisan to the very last drop.

        • How is that partisan? I’m simply pointing out that it’s been predominantly Liberals who’ve been flocking to this woman, proclaiming her to be an “inspiration”. And when Conservative’s tried to open a dialogue with her, she refused.

          And you should realize that when you endorse everything and everyone anti-Conservative, that makes YOU the partisan, not me.

          • “She’s a symbol of how easily duped leftist politicians can be when they
            think they’ve got an angle to attack the PM. And she’s a perfect symbol
            for how reckless partisan Liberals would be with public funds”

            Seeing as how almost all of the audits that passed muster in Attawapiskat [2005 – 2011] came under SH’s watch i’d call your remarks partisan and ludicrously off base. Typical Harper road warrior – point the finger of blame at everything in sight, but take no responsibility yourself. You do realise Duncan [ or whoever was minister before him] signed off on everyone of those audits while in co management, don’t you?

            So which is Mr Omen{?] was INAC and the federal minister equally incompetent, or as i think we will find out that Spence and her partner stole nothing and are at best simply guilty of sloppy paperwork and poor office procedure [ incompetence too most likely], a common occurrence on many reserves that have neither the resources or the skilled manpower to keep up with the insatiable demands of the indian bureaucracy? But that wouldn’t stop Pavlovian tory partisans jumping on the accountability bandwagon would it?

          • As I’ve said before, obviously INAC is partially responsible, but they tried installing their own manager, and they were rebuffed by the courts. So what’s the alternative? Cut off funding entirely? I don’t think that forcing the band members to freeze in the dark would be the proper solution to fiscal mismanagement by their Chief. So clearly the funding needed to keep flowing, but perhaps being brutally embarrassed on a national scale might be just the ticket to encourage the necessary changes in leadership at that particular reserve.

          • Maybe…and it might cause the chiefs to walk out or not attend. It was a stupid move, coming just a couple of days before its official release and the working meeting. Just remember if this ends badly who chose to further poison the well instead of reach out. There’s more than one way to skin a cat or discredit Spence if necessary. But Harper only knows the hard way. Chretien for instance would have handled this way better…let Spence discredit herslf on her own if she’s that much of a liability to the goal of improving FNs lives.

  4. Most of us who have good judgement knew Spence was no Gandhi—-but none of us could have shown the contrast as clearly and eloquently as Cosh.

  5. Colby Cosh’s hunger-striker’s-guide is a thinly veiled pose. The fact that Teresa Spence is no Gandhi says almost nothing about the potential effectiveness of her hunger strike. The differences in media, time and gender creates a whole new dynamic. I would suggest that we in the dominant culture should recognize that the Spence parties’ ability to manage this new dynamic is probably more in than their skill set then is government fund fiduciary bookkeeping.

    The Dominant Culture may need Indeginus Culture more than we realize. The no-limits to growth cornucopian attitude (Drill Baby Drill, What Global Warming?) indicated by the current majority conservative government will, in my mind, make future necessary changes more painful and difficult.

    If a thin little brown man could bring down the British Raj, I think it possible that a pudgy native woman on an island in the St. Lawrence river could bring down the current conservative majority government.

    • The difference being the thin brown man had a point and a legitimate grievance, whereas Spence has neither.

      • So you would have been on his side, Rick?

        • Doubtful. Rick would have complained that Gandhi should just shut up and be grateful he wasn’t dealing with the Nazis…and get a job and a decent set of threads…idle lazy layabout.

          • Freedom fighter Rick.

          • It has become a daily ritual to remind kcm that it is wrong of him to assume that he might know how anyone would react in a particular situation.

            His time would be better spent attempting to be clear and consistent on his own position.

          • Mocking Rick(?) is being clear and consistent in my book. And you might profit from developing a sense of humour.

          • Daily rituals -part of the cult lifestyle.

          • It looks like it might become a daily ritual to have to listen to you and FV appoint yourselves blog watch dogs. It isn’t your blog so can it.

    • Because, at this point it’s not what Spence does, it’s what Harper does, or doesn’t do that is going to be critical.

      • Yes, let’s hope EVERYONE ignores Ms. Spence and concentrates on what is best for the people who don’t get to attend the meetings and are at the mercy of the government and FN leaders who are incompetent, like Ms. Spence.

  6. This is a pretty damn good example of proper journalism. Great job here Mr. Cash. Are you the same “Cash” that all those Attawapiskat checks are made out to in the audit?