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May 2008

Person of the 20th Century

Dear PMG:

Your article about remembering Gandhiji is interesting. Something about it resonates within me, but also seems "obvious." All influential people leave their mark, whether on one individual or a whole country. Remaining fixated on that single influential person, though, brings about stagnation and inertia. If we aren't ready to accept other influences, then I don't feel that we can evolve into better people. I think you alluded to this in some sense; I suspect that if Gandhi were alive today, he would be open to changing his mind, because he was known for his open-mindedness. I understand that he was a great man, and he did great things for his country, and for the whole "Peace on Earth" movement, but even so, I can't help feeling that although this influential man's message resonates quietly amongst many of us, unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be heard by those who are now the "influential men."

I do have one point of criticism: on what basis do you make the claim that Gandhi is "the 20th Century's most influential social and political leader"? I know that it may sound unfortunate, but if I had to pick the most influential leader, more than Gandhi, MLK, and even Einstein...I'd say it was Adolf Hitler. I feel that our world would have been VERY different without him (or with him if the war had ended differently).

Neal, Evanston

Dear Friend,

“It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?” (M. K. Gandhi’s letter to Adolf Hitler, 1939).

The argument for considering Hitler as singularly more influential than Gandhiji is an interesting one.   Indeed, Gandhiji himself suggested that Hitler was the “one person” who could prevent war.

However, I would suggest that there are three flaws in your logic.

1. Hitler’s “contribution” was hardly original. Conflict has been part of the human condition from the cave to the White House. Hitler merely exploited this psychology to extreme brutality. 2. The Nazi leader’s impact was not universal. World War II is a misnomer; it was a European war that spilled over into African and Asian proxies. 3. While your value-neutral use of “influence” is academically pure, it misses the inspirational quality associated with the socializing influence of role models.

Whether or not Gandhiji should have been Time magazine’s person of the century, as a messenger of peace, nonviolence, and tolerance, he certainly was original, universal, and inspirational.

(Dr. Rajesh C. Oza, president of the OrganiZationAlignment Consulting Group, serves as a consultant to organizations and individuals requiring change leadership. We invite questions for consideration in the PMG column at raj_oza@hotmail.com. Along with your submittal, please include your full name and location. You may request that your name be withheld in a published question.)

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