The power of 'Hunger Strike' in Modern Politics...

The power of a hunger strike, or the threat of such, has been an awesome thing in modern politics.

It may not be especially effective or directly influential in delivering the actual wishes of the protagonist(s), but it certainly acts as a major propaganda coup (and recruitment aid) for the given cause and attracts a strong level of media attention and focus on the situation which the striker represents. This in itself can be claimed as a victory, especially if the ‘enemy’ is seen as those who denied the sustenance to the hunger-striker for whatever reason.

The idea of hunger striking has a long history, and has been commonly used in Ireland from at least the 12th century as an effective way of shaming a debtor into complying with or repaying a debt owed to the striker. In modern times, it has been used to score political points and bring attention to specific causes in many varied forms, from Bobby Sands and the Maze hunger strikers, to Kurdish asylum seekers in the UK who have no wish to be deported back to their country of origin, through to Palestinians acting against the perceived injustices of harsh Israeli rule. Animal Rights activists, Anti-Globalisation protestors and many others have considered this tactic legitimate. Even Carlos the Jackal used this form of protest to bring attention to the conditions he was made to endure in prison.
The questions I wish to set in this regard:
[li]How effective a form of protest do you believe hunger striking has been in historical terms? Has the death toll in this capacity been sufficiently high profile, and public, to warrant the loss, in respect to forwarding the represented cause and, perhaps, alleviating future suffering? Or is it seen as completely uneffective?[/li]
[li]How widespread is the practice compared to the amount of coverage certain causes receive? Is this form of protest always a guaranteed headline grabber, or is it generally ignored unless the cause is deemed ‘worthy’ of being mentioned in the headlines regardless? Does this practice happen frequently in other places where we in the West never hear of it?[/li]
[li]To what extent will the threat or act of hunger striking in face of a perceived injustice help or hinder future causes supported by those desperate enough to perform it? Will it still continue to retain its strength to shock and galvanise citizens to focus on the desperate situation that has driven the individual to perform such a self-depreciating feat? Or will it soon be discarded to the dustbin of history as another failed method of attracting attention to a chosen cause?[/li][/ul]

I’d like to see some answers to these questions too (I don’t know enough about hunger strikes in history to be able to provide any).

People talk a lot in vague terms about how groups with grievances ought to be using non-violent protest tactics instead of supporting terrorism and that sort of thing. But it seems that very few people know anything about, or express any interest in or respect for, non-violent resistance strategies as actually practiced.

I hope your OP will in fact inspire a knowledgeable debate about the past and possible uses of hunger striking as a non-violent political tactic. But I ain’t holding my breath.

Another instance of hunger strikes-women suffragists, who were imprisoned for demonstrating would often go on hunger strikes while in prison.

Unfortunately, many of them were then force fed with tubes down their noses.

We’ve had a few hunger strikers demonstrating in front of the Dáil (that’s the Irish Parliament to most of you). Generally, they last a few days and then give up. Unsurprisingly they aren’t taken too seriously.

Last term however there was a guy out there for a couple weeks, protesting over the State’s treatment of him as a victim of institutional abuse. In his case it worked, as it seemed he was prepared to go the distance.

Personally, I’ve always viewed hunger strikers as morally equivilant to hostage takers: “If you don’t do what I want, the hostage dies!!!” This does not strike me as morally admirable, even if the hostage-taker himself is the hostage.

It seems to depend on circumstances.

The hunger striker needs two things:
[ul][li]Publicity, so that lots of people know he/she is fasting and so that the pressure of knowing that he nears death is exerted on lots of people, and [/li][li]To be universally beloved, such that pressure is actually exerted. It would be difficult to see how Fred Phelps could bring about social change of any sort by going on a hunger strike. Many people are going to either say “Big effing deal - let him starve to death and good riddance” or simply not notice.[/ul][/li]
I don’t see hunger striking as a bad tactic, but often it is a ineffective one. It is a voluntary act, so it is often easy for those in power to shrug their shoulders and call it suicide, or the “Gimme what I want or I’ll hold my breath until I turn blue” tactic. It depends if it is seen as a noble act of self-sacrifice, or a temper tantrum, and that generally depends on what the cause is.

Gandhi made it work, because he got the publicity and was widely admired, and because he was dealing with the British, who actually cared about world opinion. It is hard to see how a hunger strike against, say, some policy of North Korea is going to do much good.


Sorry guys, was busy all weekend, never got a chance to look back at this thread.

Violence is something everyone can easily understand – it is black & white. The act of non-violent protest makes the observer dig deeper to find out and understand the underlying cause that has made the protagonist consider the action necessary. This can make for very complex discussions, which the striker is having to hope the public will take the time to learn about so that support can be found. Violence makes the point more succinctly and quickly, even if it does lead to polarisation due to the devastation it causes.

Although, can hunger-striking be classed as truly non-violent, if the act itself ends in death(s)? It is laying the blame for the death on the hands of the chosen ‘oppressor’, or at least attempting to –saying their policies or actions have forced the hand of the striker.

Do you think how seriously the striker takes the process somehow adds gravitas to the cause s/he has chosen to rally for? Is it a case that, if one is willing to die for that particular cause, then the cause has increased validity? Or does the serious nature stem not from the commitment of the striker but the idea of the cause being worthy of dying for?

I do find it difficult to understand why someone would choose that form of action if they were not committed to ‘completing’ it? - if they are not serious about their plight, why should anyone else take their cause seriously either? (It was so serious it never even made the news up here!)

This, to me, is the most interesting viewpoint voiced here, and would like to hear more from your perspective.
I’m not trying to claim it is morally admirable (although I would say it is certainly more so than strapping explosives to yourself and boarding a crowded bus), but would think it can have a certain dignified appeal to it, adding shame and guilt to the table rather than casualties and deaths.

Is it just to ignore the striker and allow them to die, on your watch? Or does the importance of the cause represented affect the reasoning as to whether it is worth listening to, or not? Can you ever envisage a situation where it would be morally admirable to initiate a hunger-strike, in you eyes?

I agree with a lot of this – sometimes it seems like a childish gesture done to spite or upset the ‘Guardian’ in control.

But does a lot of how the strike is perceived depend on who is seen as the debtor and who controls the access of information about the chosen cause? A lot of the power of such action will surely stem from “getting the word out”, allowing people to see and connect with the chosen cause – not everyone desperate enough to die in this way will have the connections or support network to publicise the effort and the reasons why. If they rely solely on the media picking up and running the story it will, in many cases, be a false hope.
On another tack:
If suicide bombers, in support of whatever cause, were to give up their bombs in favour of a sit-down hunger-strike (let’s say the deaths due to starvation are equal to the deaths due to bombings, except with the obvious lack of victims / casualties on the other side)

Firstly, would extremist jihadists consider this death a worthy one, as ‘fighting’ for the cause? Secondly, would it help world opinion swing towards their cause which could have time to focus on the complex issues behind the action, rather than only seeing the carnage and death caused by the bombs and holding only visceral hatred for the act.

Shodan: Gandhi made it work, because he got the publicity and was widely admired, and because he was dealing with the British, who actually cared about world opinion.

Recollect that Gandhi also used fasting to influence Indians, e.g. to quell Hindu-Muslim violence after Partition. That worked not so much because they cared about world opinion as because they cared about him.

I just have some difficulty with the concept that anyone should capitulate on a point to save the life of a hostage – especially, as I said before, when the hostage is also the hostage-taker.

It also seems to me to damage the moral quality of the cause if the capitulation is not done because you now see and agree with the righteousness of the cause, but only to save the life of the hostage.

True. As you said, in his hunger strikes against Hindu-Muslim violence he depended on publicity and the “universally beloved” aspect.

Although I think this also demonstrates under what circumstances hunger striking might fail. Gandhi was assassinated by someone who clearly didn’t admire him, and who wasn’t subjected to any pressure by his impending death - just the opposite, in fact.

My perception is that hunger strikes work best againt non-extremist groups. Mrs. Pankert and the suffragettes made it work, because they were able to play off the fastidious perception of women as the weaker vessel. Gandhi made it work against the British because it made it harder to see themselves as the benevolent bearers of “the White Man’s burden”, since Gandhi was being more civilized than they were.

Like I said, it is not likely to be as successful against someplace like North Korea.


If you’re referring to the institutional abuse victim, I found mention of it on
this UTV page. But getting media in the Six Counties wasn’t his aim - getting redress was, and it worked.

Well there is the example of Bobby Sands, a young man who starved himself to death in prison in an attempt to bring the injustices against himself and other inmates at Long Kesh prison to an end.

Didn’t actually take the time to read the OP then, eh?

Well, I think that goes without saying. I doubt anyone would try to stage a hunger strike to protest say, suicide bombers in Israel, or Al Qaeda.

I thought I’d bump this thread to note that Jerry Rubin has announced that he will go on a hunger strike to try and get Ralph Nader to drop out of the Presidential race.

Again, I have problems in general with the concept of a hunger strike as a moral instrument. In this case, where Rubin appears to be attempting to force a person to discontinue his constitutionally-guaranteed right to participate in the democratic process, the hunger strike seems to me to be morally contemptible.

I agree. Compared with the genuinely serious issues of hunger strikers like Gandhi, this just looks petty.

In order to put pressure on your opponents, you have to be apparently willing to risk death. And if the issue you want to prevail on is really life-or-death, people see the seriousness of your commitment as an indicator of the seriousness of the cause.

But just to try to stop Nader from siphoning off votes for Kerry? The undecided among us are far less likely to say “what a noble commitment to a heroic cause” and more likely to say “what an asshole”. Less like Gandhi, and more like David Blaine, in other words.

Has Nader reacted in any way to the news?

Hell, it’s only a month. Like Rubin is going to starve in that time.