Saturday, January 24, 2015

Dreams That Blunt Our Humanity.

Wise words by the deputy Secretary General of the UN

We continue to witness terrible atrocities committed in the name of religion, or against individuals targeted simply because of their ethnic or religious background. These abhorrent crimes are intended to cause fear, hatred and deepening divisions.


Education is one of our best defences against prejudices that can lead to extreme violence. We must instil in our youth a spirit that embraces pluralism and rejects all forms of discrimination or racism. All generations must be engaged in breaking down the mind-set of “us” versus “them”. All of us must join in the task of building societies that embrace our common humanity.

Someone wanted to know why this wasn't understood and carried out as a matter of course? She asked, “Isn't humanity what comes naturally to human beings?” 

Here’s what I think. Humanity comes naturally to human beings but so does pride in one’s culture and community. Nobody knows why this is so. It just is. It isn't xenophobia - a fear of foreigners. It is a positive feeling, one of pride in our traditions. If that is the case why would it blunt our humanity? 

“Most of us accept that while we follow our own traditions, we need to let other communities follow theirs. We also understand that there is a handful, for example, that old uncle of ours or our darling grandma, who feel threatened by the very presence of other communities. They feel their culture is being swamped and overshadowed. In their minds, secularism, or tolerance for another religion, another culture, other ways of doing things, pose threats to our own. It might be a perceived threat, but to them, it seems very real. They long for the ‘good old days’ when they lived within their own community without having to contend with the strange ways of others. Their very identity, the identity of their community, is wrapped up in their own rituals, habits, traditions and language. If any one of these is under threat, then who they are is under threat.

They resist even a slight divergence from their own culture. Civilisation, as they see it, is represented by no other. They are keen to preserve everything about that great culture for it is their rightful heritage - their khandaan."

They perceive the desire for change as criticism … criticism for their ways. How can anyone call themselves a true Hindu (or a true Muslim, Sikh, Christian or Parsi),’ they ask, ‘and still desire a change from our norms and traditions?' And yet they see it happening all the time.

They see others in their own community openly keen to join the modern world and all the changes it brings. To an extent they accept changes too - changes in communication and travel, science and technology, and in modern medicine. What they can’t bear is to witness their own kind enjoying differences in rituals, habits, in how they work and behave. They feel stung. Almost betrayed. Everything they stand for seems to be falling apart before their very eyes. They feel vulnerable.
The liberal minded go ahead and experiment. And we feel really sorry for our traditionalists. It must be difficult to live in this fast changing world. The traditionalists are a mere handful and yet, here’s an amazing fact, their opinion is slowly gaining the upper hand in Mumbai. Why?

The reason is simple. They have … organised.

They have organised under the leadership of someone who understands their fears and wishful thinking; someone who promises our traditionalists a chance to return to their previous days of glory.  The plan is simple. It is consistent and it is universal. The first part of the plan is to ridicule the traditions of others, so different from their own refined ones. The leader is strident and loud in his or her condemnation. This emboldens our traditionalists to voice their feelings of murmured discontent; to let off steam; to believe that here is a person who will protect their faith, their community and their very identity. And is there a price our traditionalists have to pay? Of course there is. There always is. That is the second part of the plan. The leader lets it be known that he or she can make good their promise only if voted to a position of greater power and authority. This leader’s motives aren’t my concern today. Let it suffice that the traditionalists do not look beyond the promise to ask what the leader’s actual plans are. How does one make good on a promise to return to the ‘good old days’? Force the others to renounce their own culture or religion? Or send everyone back to where they came from? Or the more liberal minded from within their own community to stop experimenting?” As mentioned before, the traditionalists do not look beyond the promise. Bolstered by the strong front behind which they stand, they become strident in their own verbal attacks.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for those verbal attacks against a whole community to become an attack against individuals. They might have a neighbour or a co-worker who belongs to the hateful ‘others’. How long before one or two verbal attacks spark off physical abuse? When that happens, what do our traditionalists do? For the sake of the glory that was and which they want back so badly, they are willing to accept that some individuals from other communities - decent though they might be - could sometimes get hurt. They turn a blind eye.

Incapable of hurting an ant under normal circumstances, our traditionalists’ attitude has undeniably hardened. So where have we, the tolerant majority, gone wrong? We aren’t the ones hurting others so why are we to blame? We might not like some of the things they do in the name of tradition but what can we do? Disapprove of someone’s grandfather or an old aunt? Take a stance against our own?”

So WE turn a blind eye.

Others amongst us prefer to distance ourselves from the whole thing - why stick our noses into something that doesn't concern us? 

One way or another, we all take a vow of silence.

This is where our silence has led us. We are beholden to, and victims of, the organised actions of a small proportion of people from our own communities. Or, from a different perspective, we are victims of the inaction of the tolerant majority. Either way there is extreme mistrust between communities. Already great cracks have appeared in our secular umbrella, in one law for all, in peace and harmony, in live and let live. If things are allowed to carry on as they are, in all probability, this secular umbrella is going to crumble."

The above is an excerpt from the book, “Never Mind Yaar”. In the excerpt, I've stated, “This leader’s motives aren’t my concern today." 

Perhaps it is time to define what I believe are those motives. 

As you've seen from the excerpt, his or her strong actions against the ‘hateful’ others immediately gives the leader credibility, and followers. And you've also seen that the strong front the leader presents is nothing but an impossible-to-keep promise of the return to the mythical days of glory. 

The more savvy leader understands he or she need only reveal their ugly side to a select few. The trick is to be seen to be a leader for all communities while their army of paid ‘helpers’ hurl verbal and physical abuse at the ‘hateful’ others. The army does the dirty work. The leader remains untouched. He emerges pristine, smelling of roses. It is important to keep up appearances even if everyone suspects the leader is in collusion with the ones who perpetrate the actions intended to physically and mentally cow these hateful ‘others’. 

The end game is eventual power and wealth (or luxury) for themselves. It is couched in evoking the longing for a fuzzy, rosy dream. Who would want to verify the reality of such a glorious vision? The leader has fully understood that humanity doesn't hold a candle to “if only”. To selling an impossible dream. 

He knows the vision he’s created has cleverly and effectively blunted our humanity.

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  1. Note from the author: The Delhi elections are within a few days – on the 7th of February. Hopefully, every Delhi-ite will vote. And hopefully, even if the elections are fought unfairly by some parties, they will be unable to perpetrate any fraud like booth captures by goons or exploiting the vulnerability of the EVMs to their advantage. I would vote for the party that has laid out detailed plans and the budget for various issues that trouble Delhi-ites. But also, I would vote for the party that sells the dream that ENHANCES our humanity by promoting unity between communities.

  2. Somehow, I tend to have a different opinion. I tend to think that people find little reason to respect themselves AS people and use religion, community, caste etc. as crutches to bolster their respect for themselves. SO, when someone questions any of these OR question the rationale for pride in their ethos, they react violently because it questions the very roots of their own self-image. The less powerful a person feels as himself, the more adamant he seems to be about the privileges of the group he belongs to. Pride in culture is one thing - this atavistic rejection of any questioning of any facet of it stems, in my opinion, from the fact that the query seems to cut at the roots of the person's self-image for those people.

    This, in effect, means that most of the 'tolerant majority' may also only deplore the methods used but NOT necessarily the basic tenet of "I am better than he is' and 'Nothing in MY ethos is open to question'

    1. Great reasoning. The intolerance could also be there for a third reason - genuine belief in the superiority of one's community and that the rest are all 'heathens'. We are both agreed that the intolerance exists and that is the cause of indifference to another's physical and mental pain. As for the tolerant majority there are layers within layers there too - some feel superior but .know it is better to show a refined humanity, some feel curious about the others, some enjoy people of different cultures and some might not like them but like the methods used by certain members of their own race to denigrate or hurt these people, even less. At least they don't condone violence. What many of us do is dislike the violence but keep our noses out of it - self preservation enters the picture. Only, the picture changes so rapidly that no one remains safe anymore.

    2. You mention the 'heathens' attitude of intolerance probably on account of the colonial period. I differ there as well :) Genuine feeling of superiority does not feel the need to express itself in violence. The violence of that period was primarily on account of greed and not intolerance, in my opinion. The expressed intolerance was a salve for broaching the "Thou shalt not kill" etc. of their religion to salve the conscience of the more religious peoples of those times. The "It is not my fellow-man I am killing only a mere heathen" defense :)

    3. You and I like debating :-).

      The word 'heathens' is in English but the sentiment is pretty universal. It is found in every community on earth. Pride in one's community is good as long as it doesn't translate to superiority - genuine or otherwise. And never to violence. The point of this post is to understand how people who abhor violence are equally responsible if they keep mum when they see it being perpetrated by a few from their own community. They could unite and speak out if they don't feel safe speaking out as lone individuals. But they should speak out. This 'vow of silence' is what blunts our humanity.

  3. SC, I do hear what you are saying. That people often don't have a positive self image. They don't feel good about themselves and use outside crutches like community and tradition to boost their morale. Hopefully, they'll understand that violence, even if committed by others from their own community to preserve those crutches, won't help. It will always conflict with their own basic humanity. We are lucky to have this amazing resource - the internet! There's so much out there on how to improve self esteem.

  4. Another great thought-provoking post KayEm. I think it comes down to the simple fact that culture gives people a sense of belonging and tradition gives people a sense of predictability. Let's face it -- people generally don't like change unless things get really bad, and like you said... and things like tradition and culture are used as crutches to boost their self-esteem.

    1. Thanks, DK, for the compliment. Makes me happy. Re people not liking change I know it is true for a few. Even they should be made aware that condoning violence in the name of their traditions and habits is where they should draw the line. It is cruel and goes against our inherent humanity.

  5. This article in The Hindu might be on Terror, Islam and The Response of The Liberal Left but it could well be on anyone who perpetrates violence in the name of religion.