Thinkers are ceding space to reactionaries in this country.
Pondicherry: A documentary made by a foreign news outlet comes along telling us how seriously sick our mindset is. We get angry and express outrage. The outrage is for or against the documentary and it only matters that the outrage is loud; the louder the better. The result is knee-jerk reactions, rushed decisions, a big PR disaster, and another round of moralizing in the name of freedom of expression and democracy.
A badly-researched book surfaces and informs how rotten our worship practices are. We get angry like always for or against the book and loudly shout our outrage. The result is the same as in the case of the documentary.
A young woman is brutally raped and murdered in the national capital. We get angry, come out on the streets, and protest. A committee is set up, existing laws are tightened, and a new law is drafted. But sadly there is no implementation.
Some notoriety-hungry politician with little to do makes a stupid statement. We get angry. There is outrage on TV and the social media. How dare she? As always nothing happens except for a few political points gained or lost by this or that political party for the space of a day or week.
A bill on a national issue is introduced in the legislature and becomes another occasion for outrage. Nobody wants to read the fine print; details are immaterial as long as it permits outrage.
Another dubious documentary will come along tomorrow. Another newspaper column will sermonize. The international media will keep reminding the world how bad we really are. It is the same story repeated ad nauseam.
Where does it all lead to?
Nowhere, except to some more outrage, and to more feelings of self-shame and guilt at being Indian that will creep into vulnerable minds. A sense of alienation will grow among the susceptible.
Nothing really changes bar this. The power dynamics of the global media will continue. The weak will lose their voice and the loudmouths and those with big budgets will persistently steer the direction of discourse.
Maybe some small purpose is served by the outrage; it allows a momentary expression to the deep anger in all of us. But the real outcome is we end up becoming a society of the perpetually angry and outraged. This is a serious problem added to the pile of others ailing our society. In our outrage, we lose sense of proportion, reason and respect for ourselves and others. The real issue is obscured and we are mired in the outer drama. We descend to our lower tendencies.
A core principle of individualistic democracy is that the reason and will of every individual equally must count in determining the government and the selection and arrangement of the essential basis and detailed ordering of the common life. But are we reasonable individuals? Are we living lives of reason or being led by impulses, reactions, biases and conditioning?
Perhaps the problem isn’t easily resolved. In the imperfections of our gross human nature, we are unable to form reasonable judgements; even our reason is limited. In the systems and structures we devise to organize our collective life, we fall short of the ideal. In ages to come the higher mind may be ready with a social-political system above and beyond present democracy; but we aren’t there yet.
Democracy in its essence is not merely the right to vote once every few years. Unfortunately that is all the ideal is reduced to in most places. Democracy is a system of organizing collective life based on the ideal of individual freedom. But in the present state of our individual and collective evolution, the ideal has gone missing. Democratic freedom does not mean a license to do as one wishes driven by the lowest instincts, impulses and prejudices. Both in individual and collective life, freedom ought to be checked and regulated by individual and collective reason.
Reason does not survive when we are in the grip of a vitalistic, sensationalistic and impulsive outrage. Reason requires peace, not frenzy. Becoming aware of the fine print demands patience and keen analysis and not a gut response to a headline. Constructive opposition requires thoughtfulness and not a mere tendency to protest.
All societies have serious problems which demand serious solutions. Serious solutions happen only when we are capable of thinking rationally and using the best abilities of reasoning, discernment and judgment. A vibrant democracy doesn’t need to be a loud and outraged democracy. Our survival and growth as a democracy depends on our capability to reason things out in legislative bodies, TV studios, the social media, and on the ground.
Any democratic society necessitates its citizenry to have arrived at a reasonable level of mental training. Our education system does not always help in this goal. Generally it stokes the mechanical-vital-sensationalist parts of our minds where every bit of new information has the potential to dull or further us into slumber or immediate overreaction.
We are not becoming a republic of thinkers; we are slowly turning into a nation of reactionaries.
Beloo Mehra has a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics. She taught at Antioch University Midwest, Ohio, and is on the faculty of the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research at Pondicherry.
Editor’s Note: The Nirbhaya documentary was made with the express purpose of monetization. It has served that low purpose for its foreign and Indian makers. Its ban can only be symbolic in this era of widespread social media but is nevertheless wholly appropriate and necessary. If anybody can take a call on this documentary otherwise, it is Nirbhaya, and she can’t. Her parents have no business to take decisions on her behalf and the busybodies of the media have no role in this. There are limits to press freedom.