Saturday, July 24, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8c

Modern civilization has, of course provided enormous material comforts but the Faust-like exploitation of the private ego and its satisfaction by means of financial, military and industrial power has also created some important problems like multiplicity of wants, weakening of moral standards, growing violence, lack of community feeling, emphasis on productivity, throat cutting competition and denial of human capacity to intervene in the social process. Increased production, and technological innovations bring more goods to people but Gandhi sees these successes making societies more impersonal and identities more disjointed. He sees industrialization and the division of labour causing unemployment and poverty. 

He sees the breakdown of communities which helped individuals to face problems collectively and people are left to fend for themselves in the modern world.  Modern man complicates his life, deploys reason in the service of deception, is trapped by the institutions he creates and worships at the alter of wealth. Gandhi believed that material progress is in inverse proportion to moral progress. He criticized the social and political institutions of modern civilization saying that there was a glaring gap between their claims and their performance. 

Modern institutions accentuated rather then attenuated the selfish and baser streaks of human beings. He was dismissive of the idea of trying to make institutions so perfect that they would obviate the need for the individual to be good. Systems are just external manifestations of a person's inner convictions. He demands that ethics be given the first consideration in public life, not the last. Indeed, in certain parts of the world, ignoring ethics even passes for the new, the progressive, the modern. Echoing sentiments similar to that of Gandhi, C.S. Lewis said in The Abolition of Man:

And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. 

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

(By “chest” he doesn’t mean chest-swelling masculinity, but sentiment. His lament is that modern society makes men without heart, i.e. without traditional morality. Certain objects and situations should elicit certain responses from us. The night sky should elicit a feeling of humility; little children should elicit a feeling of delight; a kind act should elicit a feeling of gratitude. The failure to feel the proper sentiment in the face of a particular stimulus cannot be justified on the basis of mere personal preference. Rather, it must be seen as a deficiency in one’s human make-up. 

To those who do not lament what has been lost, it may seem that men without chests are a sign of progress – that they are more evolved, more advanced, more logical and intellectual. But this comforting affirmation is a mirage and an “outrage,” Lewis says. For the chest-less among us do not pursue truth with greater keenness, quite the opposite, since the ardent search for knowledge “cannot be long maintained without the aid of sentiment” — without a bit of passion. In reality then, “It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks [the chest-less] out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.”)

Gandhi claims that the individual is the one to enjoy supreme consideration but his celebration of freedom is very different from the conventional liberal ones. He encumbers agents with duties, assigning them responsibilities to lead a moral life and attend to the good of their community. Gandhi also holds that freedom should not be taken to mean that individuals should be left alone to make their way in the world. 'Willing submission to social restraint for the sake of the well-being of the whole society enriches both the individual and the society of which one is a member.'

But in the modern mechanistic and rationalistic society individual freedom stands for an abstract individualism. Here liberty means absence of every kind of social or traditional restraints. The individual’s happiness is not complementary but contradictory to social development. In Gandhi’s critique of individualism there is no dichotomy between the individual and society. Both liberals and opponents of Gandhi have misinterpreted his argument on self-sufficiency. Gandhi wrote that: “Only a Robinson Crusoe can afford to be all self-sufficient…’. This contradicts the image of absolute self-sufficiency that one finds in Gandhian literature.

Gandhi criticized liberal democracies for being individualistic in the sense of stressing rights rather than duties and self-interest rather than altruism. It lacked moral orientation and turned the state into an arena of conflict between organized groups. This is a version of democracy gone astray. In the short period that Gandhi lived following India's independence, he repeatedly warned that "the first lesson to be learnt is that "Liberty never meant the license to do anything at will. Independence meant voluntary restraint and discipline..." The other side of individualization seems to be  the corrosion and slow disintegration of citizenship. 

With his usual, inimitable wit Woody Allen unerringly grasps the narrow-mindedness of the present-day individuals  when browsing through imaginary advertising leaflets of 'Adult Summer Courses' of the kind which Americans would be eager to attend. The course in Economic Theory includes the item 'Inflation and Depression - how to dress for each'; the course in Ethics entails 'the categorical imperative, and six ways to make it work for you', while the prospectus for Astronomy informs that 'The sun, which is made of gas, can explode at any moment, sending our entire planet system hurtling to destruction; students are advised what the average citizen can do in such a case.'

Many people think of individualism as opposed to despotism. But in Democracy in America, Alexis de  Tocqueville warns that naked individualism may lead to democratic despotism. Excessive forms of individualism and materialism make citizens indifferent to their public duties and therefore undermines their ability to sustain the spirit of cooperative citizenship on which self-government depends. He says that “it constantly leads him back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.” 

Setting people free may make them indifferent. The individual is the citizen's worst enemy, de Tocqueville suggested. The despot, he observes, “readily pardons the governed for not loving him, provided they do not love each other. He does not ask them to aid him in leading the state; it is enough that they do not aspire to direct it themselves.” This will make people surrender their right to govern themselves, handing themselves over to the rule — perhaps benevolent, but perhaps not — of an all-powerful government directed by one man or perhaps a small elite.

PS; As a current example, the article The Fundamental Question of the Pandemic is Shifting, shows that individualism is not the best response in a pandemic.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8b

 Among Gandhi's most well-known (as a caricature not its substance) 'non-status quo' positions is his critique of modernity. Gandhi identified India's real enemy as not the British rule in India, but the civilization that the British had brought with them and had begun to impose on the nation. He was thinking of the way of life that came into being with capitalism and the industrial revolution. He is not thinking of the culture of the west in general, much of which of course he admired and even drew upon in the elaboration of his critique. 

Gandhi was constantly reading Western scholars, albeit those with dissenting views like Tolstoy, Ruskin, and Thoreau, unlike Savarkar who was consuming the works in the mainstream, which were at the time dominated by ideas and thoughts that would later lead to Nazism and fascism. Like most educated middle-class people, Savarkar had absolute, uncritical faith in the modern-state system and its secular imperatives, was a die-hard rationalist and advocated mechanization, market-driven economy, strong military and scientific temper. David Hardiman writes about Gandhi in Gandhi in His Time and Ours:

He did not condemn Europe in any blanket fashion - in contrast to those demagogic nationalists who whip up support by preying on popular ethnic and racial antagonisms. Too often, the critique of the latter of Europe and 'eurocentricity' is deployed to condemn anything which they dislike in the modern world - eg. human rights, women's assertion, democracy, socialism, secularism and religious toleration - while modern technologies of organization and disciplinary control which are of use to them - eg. the authoritarian state,  new forms of surveillance, policing, torture and armaments - are all absolved from being Eurocentric or anti national... 

Gandhi said to Tagore in 1921, a truly memorable statement: "I do not want my house to be walled in all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any." He asserted that the very things modern civilization boasts of, its medicine, its legal system, its parliamentary democracy, are in fact destructive and degrading. This condemnation dismayed many of his friends and admirers who thought he would soon outgrow it. On the contrary, he publicly reaffirmed these ideas on many occasions afterwards. 

Gandhi was not normally given to such vehement condemnation. His critique of modernity is often taken as a crude attack on the West; his attack on industrial civilization is caricatured as an obscurantist retreat into agricultural primitivism. He was nobody's fool. He knew that the genie of modernity was out of the bottle and cannot be put back in. But he was one of the most relentless and vocal critics of its confident assertions. (Forget Nazi German, he would have been in danger in modern China as the article 'Why Did Liberal Elites Ignore a 21st-Century Genocide?' seems to suggest) What exactly was he trying to say? 

It will not do  to simply say that he was hopelessly idealistic and simplistic about history and civilization, where unfortunately he allows his religious and moral intensity to colour his judgments about the condition of the world. Many issues that he raised are also echoed by other thinkers like de Tocqeville, Max Weber, Hannah Arendt, Lewis Mumford, Jaques Ullul etc. Ronald Tercheck writes in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:

When Gandhi gazes at most recent scientific and technical accomplishments, he sees many of the same things that Westerners do: increased productivity, efficiency, and greater control over nature. For many, these phenomena are positive goods that mark the progress of the human race. 

But Gandhi links them to the worst features of the age: new forms of poverty and inequality, unemployment, a growing alienation and a ceaseless restlessness, and a more destructive form of violence and a readiness to use them. 

Akeel Bilgrami  says that Gandhi seems to have located a very general instrumentality that he opposes: “How and when did we transform the concept of the “world” as not merely a place to live in but a place to master and control?” In Gandhi’s work, we find that he breaks it down to four different detailed questions: How and when did we transform the concept of nature to the concept of natural resources? How and when did we transform the concept of human beings to the concept of citizens? How and when did we transform the concept of people into the concept of populations? And, how and when did we transform the concept of knowledges (to live by) into the concept of expertise (to rule by)? 

Gandhi saw that they all reflect an increasing alienation and disengagement in our outlook on the world — in our understanding of nature, human subjects, and human knowledge. He thought at the time of his writing that India was at the crossroads that Europe was in during the Early Modern period and he was anxious that India not go down what he thought was a lamentable path that Europe had from Early to Late modernity. 

There is a view that is widely held among economists, social scientists and intelligentsia that there is  some sort of ‘iron laws’ of history and political economy, whereby what happened in Europe in the Early Modern period will happen everywhere else, including Europe’s erstwhile colonies. For eg., Amartya Sen declared that ‘England went through its pain to create its Londons and Manchesters, India will have to do so too’. Gandhi saw that such reasoning that was prevalent in his time was incorrect. 

When people who eked out an agrarian life were displaced in England in order to create its cities, they moved to other regions of the world and set up life there as settler colonists. There is nowhere for the poor of various parts of India to go, except to its already glutted metropoles where they have no future but to squat illegally in vast unlivable slums ridden with poverty and disease. This is even more true today in a time when capital can fly out of a nation at the press of a button while national immigration laws severely restrict the mobility of labour. 

Gandhi does not deny the benefits that modernity brings but draws attention to the costs that individuals will have to bear in order to get those benefits. He constantly challenges modern assumptions that many take to be certain like the power of reason or the inevitability of progress. In  his opinion modern civilization placed the idea of bodily comforts on too high a pedestal. The space that self-interest will occupy in a system where comforts and luxuries are considered not only desirable but the highest achievements of civilization is bound to be rather large.

He felt that modern man is a passive victim of an elaborate humbug that is strengthened by schools, legislatures, armies, churches and hospitals. He thought that ‘life-corroding competition’ had blinded the consciousness of people resulting in their bondage rather than freedom. He said, ‘I maintain that the humbugs in worldly matters are far worse than the humbugs in religion.’ He calls into question uncritical acceptance of Enlightenment values. 

Gandhi thinks that modernity does nothing to rein in the dark side of humans which always lurks beneath the surface even in best of human beings and this progressively reduces their ability to take charge of their lives. He continually points out the long-term costs on various social goods when focus is on short-term gains by chasing abstract measures like growth, productivity and efficiency. He does not offer final solutions that are frozen for all time but rather tries to enlarge the debate that many thought was already settled. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8a

Arundhati Roy calls Gandhi 'Saint of the Status Quo'. She seems to have a limited idea of what 'status quo' means. I would have had similar views till some years ago. Reading zombie-like during the impressionable childhood and teenage years is different from reading it in your fifties (or at least, it should be). Gandhi's seemingly bizarre comments on various aspects of modernity can be seen as a window and a mirror. Far from being a utopian writer, Gandhi’s economic realism comes from his frequent reminders of what is neglected or discarded in the modern economy. As somebody said, 'The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear.' 

Ms. Roy seems to think that 'revolution' can only mean 'violent revolution'. Gandhi had rejected many of the pet notions and prevailing trends of the time. He advocated non-violence when key thinkers everywhere were advocating transformation through violence. Nehru once declared he wanted revolution and Gandhi replied: “When your exuberance has subsided and your lungs are exhausted, you will come to me, if you are really serious about making a revolution.” In conditions wherein wickedness seemed to predominate in humans, Gandhi repeatedly affirmed the essential goodness of humans. (As a counter to received wisdom, see Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman.)

In a period of ethical relativism, he pleaded for certain ethical norms as permanent and fundamental for human conduct. In an age of materialism and craze for a higher and higher standard of living he preached wantlessness, self imposed simplicity and austerity in living. While the modern world was taking to more and more gadgets and was advancing towards a computer civilization, he rejected modern industrialism and advocated the cause of village industries. Amidst the increasing urbanization and the growth of metropolitan cities, he preached the values of a rural civilization.

 In a world where distances were being annihilated, he stood for economic self-sufficiency at the village or regional level. While the world trend is towards political centralization and increase in state functions, he pleaded for decentralization of political power and held that, 'that government is best which governs the least.' In an age of increasing armament and violence, he stood for disarmament and non-violence. Though a staunch advocate of economic equality, he rejected nationalization and expropriation, advocating "trusteeship". To a world that has come to look down upon physical labour as an evil to be avoided as much as possible, he insisted that physical labour should be a part of Basic Education. 

Gandhi challenges much that has been taken for granted both in India and the West and shows the hidden costs of modernity to community and individual freedom. He criticizes the celebration of the power of reason, the promise of science, the benefits of economic growth, and the inevitability of progress. He insists that just because society is losing its simplicity, there is no reason for it to lose its standards. He reminds people that they can be the reason for allowing their weaker selves to dominate by becoming seduced by the glamour of modern civilization. Ronald Tercheck writes in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:

As a problematizer, Gandhi continually questions many of the principles we take as good and many of the 'facts' or theories we take as true. In raising the questions he does, he tries to show that we will never be able to address, much less challenge, the dangerous sides of our truisms if we unreflectively accept them.
 He rejected any authority ‘if it is in conflict with sober reason or the dictates of the heart’ adding that ‘authority sustains and ennobles the weak’ only when it is ‘the handiwork of reason’, for when it supplants reason, it serves only to degrade. He held that untouchables were as capable of exercising responsible office as the brahmins. He had no argument in favor of the retention of untouchability and he had ‘no hesitation’ in ‘rejecting scriptural authority of a doubtful character’ if it supported a ‘sinful institution’. All these statements would have scandalized the orthodox. 

Most political and social thinkers have concentrated on the many different and competing ends that people may desire and then thought that any practical means may be pursued to achieve them. Gandhi stands almost alone in his firm rejection of the almost universally held dichotomy between means and ends. He kept insisting that means rather than ends provide the standard of reference. It is not as though violence and non-violence are different means for achieving the same end. As they have different moral content, they will necessarily produce different results. Gandhi wrote the following in Young India: “Means are after all everything. As the means so the end. There is no wall of separation between the means and the end.”

His searching questions on many moral, philosophical and religious matters accounts for his continuing admiration by some and hostility by others. The central message of Hind Swaraj is Gandhi’s warning not to engage with the British on their own terms and he offered his own modes of engagement in the political economic and social spheres. In Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy explains the reasoning behind Gandhi's strategy while fighting colonialism:   

Gandhi acted as if he knew that non-synergic systems, driven by zero-sum competition and search for power, control and masculinity, forced the victims to internalize the norms of the system, so that when they displaced their exploiters, they built a system which was either an exact replica of the old one or a tragi-comic version of it. Hence, his concept of non-violence and non-cooperation ... He thus becomes a non-player for the existing system - one who plays another game, refusing to be either a player or a counter-player.

Gandhi was the sole major dissenter of the view that rapid large-scale industrialization was necessary for India. He was not an economist but he intuitively understood the socio-economic problems of India and challenged many basic assumptions of economists. He recognized the importance of the huge number of small, self-employed producers who produced for their own basic requirements and not for the pursuit of wealth for its own sake. They form a separate social category different from medieval surfs, Marxists proletariats or the self-centered individuals of Capitalist theory.

He maintained that rural unemployment was not due to lack of aggregate demand but was structural in nature. He suggested dispersal of industries in the villages. He did not assess economic growth merely in terms of per capita income. For him growth was measured not only in material terms but also in moral and spiritual terms. He did not accept a morally neutral economics. The Indian intelligentsia laughed at his theories and saw no alternative to rapid industrialization and treading the same road as the West i.e. to maintain the status quo. 

The Russian-British social and political theorist, Isaiah Berlin, considered Tolstoy both a fox, which knows many things, and a hedgehog, which knows one big thing. Similar but also different, Gandhi and Tolstoy were united in their moral and political dreams of changing humanity. As a dreamer who looked for a harmonious universe, Gandhi was a hedgehog, but as a pragmatist who had a devastating sense of reality, he was a fox who knew many things about the insane world of human beings filled with hatred, revenge, greed for power and violence. He would have agreed with Jaques Ellul's commitment to scrutinize technological development:

[W]hat is at issue here is evaluating the danger of what might happen to our humanity in the present half-century, and distinguishing between what we want to keep and what we are ready to lose, between what we can welcome as legitimate human development and what we should reject with our last ounce of strength as dehumanization. I cannot think that choices of this kind are unimportant.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7h

 The world excessively and misguidedly respects leaders who are loud and aggressive. We make them our bosses and our political leaders. We foolishly admire their self-help books, such as How to Win Friends and Influence People. Previously people extolled character. Nowadays it's personality. We tend to think that aggressive leaders are self-assured, but in fact they're comparatively narcissistic and unthoughtful and we're committing a grave error structuring our society around their pompous claims. Give me calm good sense over showy lecturing any day.

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain tells of a famous study by the influential management theorist Jim Collins. He found that many of the best-performing companies of the late twentieth century were run by  CEOs who were known not for their flash or charisma but for extreme humility coupled with intense professional will. When he analyzed what the highest-performing companies had in common, he found that every single one of them was led by an unassuming man who was described by his colleagues with the following words: quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated. The lesson, says Collins, is clear. We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run. 

I came across an interesting statistic. Countries with female leaders like Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Taiwan etc. have managed the coronavirus crisis better than their male counterparts. Resilience, pragmatism, benevolence, trust in collective common sense, mutual aid and humility – regarded as feminine characteristics that are not suited for statecraft - are mentioned as common features of the success of these women leaders. These are distinct from the characteristics associated with the exercise of traditional managerial, supervisory and controlling power.  Studies suggest that men are likely to lead in a “task-oriented” style and women in an “interpersonally-oriented” manner. Women, therefore, tend to adopt a more democratic and participative style and tend to have better communications skills. 

Violent masculinity exacerbates social conflict and is incompatible with democracy. Democracies are meant to encourage the not-so-masculine values of consultation, negotiation, discussion, compromise; to accept that we might not get all that we want. The strength, firmness, and courage required in such a situation is very different from self-obsession, obstinacy and bullying. The main feature of hyper-masculinity is domination which is incompatible with a peaceful, well-functioning democracy. But  as a species, we seem to be predisposed towards believing that the most confident are also the most knowledgeable. 

Decisive, aggressive, confident, assertive, strong, etc are adjectives to be viewed with caution when used to describe political leaders but they are adjectives that increase a leader’s popularity. The masculine qualities of a ‘real’ man like aggression, hyper-competitiveness, ambition and ruthlessness when combined with political power inevitably lead to violence in society. The instinct of violence has tremendous appeal to the average person’s consciousness. This can be called the 'Age of Anger' when anger keeps erupting in the home, on the street, in schools, at work, during games, between races and religions. 

Films are filled with angry characters and violent behaviors. If you spend any time on social media, you might have a sense that we are locked in a state of perpetual outrage where echo chambers accuse each other of being in an echo chamber. The values that Gandhi had used as basic elements of his vision of India’s future faced relentless conflicts during his lifetime and they have continued up to now. Many Hindu males nurture a sense of humiliated masculinity. They think that for centuries they were subordinated by a sequence of conquerors due to  their tolerant, accommodating nature. 

They turn to history to revive memories of Hindu leaders who are known for the masculine virtue of violence against their oppressors. They are determined to take back the country from 'foreigners' and Make Hindu India Great Again. They identify the sexual playfulness and sensuousness of the Hindu traditions, scorned by the masters of the Raj, with their own weakness and subjection. So a repudiation of the sensuous and the cultivation of the masculine came to seem the best way out of subjection.  Gandhi strongly resisted this Protestentization of Hinduism. 

The valorization of the masculine is seen in the promotion of the more war-like Krishna of the Mahabharata (Gandhi's interpretation was very different) and repudiation of the more playful Krishna of the Bhagavata Purana. One reason why the RSS attracts such a following is the widespread sense of masculine failure. This “Hindu rage” is likely to persist for the foreseeable future and is far from being irrational; rather, it is a manifestation of the pathology of (instrumental) rationality. For this category of people, Gandhi was the villain, Godse the hero. Lewis Mumford says in Technics and Civilization:

As for the sense of self-esteem the soldier achieves through his willingness to face death, one cannot deny that it has a perverse life-enhancing quality, but it is common to the gunman and the bandit, as well as to the hero: and there is no ground for the soldier’s belief that the battlefield is the only breeder of it. 

The mine, the ship, the blast furnace, the iron skeleton of bridge or skyscraper, the hospital ward, the childbed bring out the same gallant response: indeed, it is a far more common affair here than it is in the life of a soldier, who may spend his best years in empty drill, having faced no more serious threat of death than that from boredom. 

An imperviousness to life-values other than those clustered around the soldier’s underlying death-wish, is one of the most sinister effects of the military discipline. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7g

Many Indians today have the belief that anger and retribution are the keys to achieving justice, political change and power. But a show of bravado and flippant insults, such as we see today, does not really accomplish much. Gandhi repudiated anger and showed the world that non-anger was a posture not of weakness and servility but of strength and dignity. But conquering anger is hard work and it is easier to pursue the politics of revenge. If there is a political issue, it is one of a hysterical nationalism, which confronts the injustices of the past rather than the responsibilities of the future.

Gandhi recognized the instinct for violence to settle disputes that most humans possess. He deliberately focused attention on sexuality as an arena in which domination plays itself out with pernicious effect, and he consciously cultivated an androgynous maternal persona. He showed his followers that being a "real man" is not a matter of being aggressive and bashing others; it is a matter of controlling one's own instincts to aggression. He was concerned to stress the complexity of the moral life rather than its simplicity. He was suspicious of formal and mechanical consistency which is the bureaucratic ideal. Consistency was less important to him than moral earnestness. ‘So long as we act like machines, there can be no question of morality.’

Violence uses brute force using bloodshed to force one’s will on enemies who resist change. Gandhi’s strategies were not inflexible enforcements of assertive ideology but were responsive, based on specific situations and are not intended to be a “one-size-fits-all” scheme to be replicated everywhere on earth . He didn’t say what would please his audience; he often said the contrary. His fight was against colonialism, poverty, ignorance, evil practices, discrimination, social inequality, dictatorship etc. The British were not his enemies; their colonial rule was his enemy. 

The idea of Swaraj propagated by Gandhi was not just a claim for the native rule but a much more radical idea claiming the complete control of one’s life – the rule over oneself. The "clash within" is not so much a clash between two groups in a nation that are different from birth; it is, at bottom, a clash within each person, in which the ability to live with others on terms of mutual respect and equality contends anxiously against the sense of being humiliated. Gandhi understood that. As Alexis de Tocqueville says in Democracy in America:

It would seem as if the rulers of our time sought only to use men in order to make things great; I wish that they would try a little more to make great men; that they would set less value on the work, and more upon the workman; that they would never forget that a nation cannot long remain strong when every man belonging to it is individually weak, and that no form or combination of social polity has yet been devised, to make an energetic people out of a community of pusillanimous and enfeebled citizens. 

Gandhi rejected the principles of British imperialist masculinity such as 'Might is Right' and 'Survival  of the Fittest’, as immoral. He knew what a person with conscience could be like. “A conscientious man hesitates to assert himself, he is always humble, never boisterous, always compromising, always ready to listen, ever willing, even anxious to admit mistakes.” The public figures of today are expected to have the opposite characteristics. There is disregard by public men for his brand of moral politics. 

He  knew that people are fallible beings but many don’t acknowledge this and their pride makes them attempt to be superhuman. They  think they know the good and think this gives them the license to impose it on others without bothering about their views or the cost it imposes on them. Gandhi said, ‘Few men are wantonly wicked. The most heinous and most cruel crimes of which history has record have been committed under the cover of religion or other equally noble motive.’ 

I was shocked by a report that there is brisk sales of Mein Kampf in Delhi with some management students seeing it as "a kind of success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it". Young people seem to crave success (whatever it means) without bothering about the means employed to achieve it. When there is promotion of aggressive, masculine characteristics in various social settings - in families, politics, films etc. - such sentiments are to be expected. 

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self esteem, and moral idealism. Having high self-esteem doesn’t directly cause violence, but when someone’s high esteem is unrealistic or narcissistic it is then easily threatened by reality, and in reaction to those threats, people often lash out violently. Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it, almost inevitably, the belief that the ends justify the means. It just takes the right kind of leader to push the appropriate buttons for the angel or demon side of people to come out. Tocqueville says in Democracy in America

A nation which asks nothing of its government but the maintenance of order is already a slave at heart — the slave of its own well-being, awaiting but the hand that will bind it. By such a nation the despotism of faction is not less to be dreaded than the despotism of an individual. When the bulk of the community is engrossed by private concerns, the smallest parties need not despair of getting the upper hand in public affairs. 

At such times it is not rare to see upon the great stage of the world, as we see at our theatres, a multitude represented by a few players, who alone speak in the name of an absent or inattentive crowd: they alone are in action whilst all are stationary; they regulate everything by their own caprice; they change the laws, and tyrannize at will over the manners of the country; and then men wonder to see into how small a number of weak and worthless hands a great people may fall. 


Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7f

Gandhi challenges our assumption: why can’t you be quiet and strong? We live with a value system that can be called the Masculine Ideal — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight, preferring  action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. According to this ideal, a strong leader favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. It is a style that values quick and assertive answers over quiet, slow decision-making. The master-of-the-universe types are promoted over the gracious and soft-spoken types. The Feminine personality type displaying sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness is now a second-class personality trait.

But Gandhi showed the effectiveness of this leadership style. He did not, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it of Abraham Lincoln, “offend by superiority.” He tended to listen more than talk, to think before speaking, to dislike conflict. Raising his voice and pounding the table was unnecessary. He was tough and the same time never lost his decorum. Being mild-mannered, he could take strong, even aggressive, positions while coming across as perfectly reasonable. We tend to overestimate how outgoing leaders need to be. He once said, ‘In a gentle way, you can shake the world.‘

He was more interested in listening and gathering information than in asserting his opinion or dominating a conversation. He wasn’t concerned with getting credit or even with being in charge; he simply assigned work to those who could perform it best. This meant delegating some of his most interesting, meaningful, and important tasks — work that other leaders would have kept for themselves. The leaders under the masculine ideal, on the other hand, can be so intent on putting their own stamp on events that they risk losing others’ good ideas along the way. Gandhi said:

I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. A thoughtless word hardly ever escaped my tongue or pen. . . We find so many people impatient to talk. All this talking can hardly be said to be of any benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time. My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. 

Susan Cain says in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, 'From a Western perspective, it can be hard to see what’s so attractive about submitting to the will of others. But what looks to a Westerner like subordination can seem like basic politeness to many Asians.’ Don’t mistake  assertiveness or eloquence for good ideas. Appearance is not reality. Gandhi was, according to his autobiography, a constitutionally shy and quiet man. He learned over time to manage his shyness, but he never really overcame it. He couldn’t speak extemporaneously; he avoided making speeches whenever possible. 

A friend of Gandhi said that in  Johannesburg itself, there were 'several of his countrymen whose elocution, natural and unaffected, is far superior to his', that he spoke in a monotonous voice, he 'never waves his arms' and 'seldom moves a finger'. A student who listened to him when he shared a stage with Savarkar in London in 1909 said that he seemed shy and diffident; the students had to 'bend their heads forward to hear the great Mr. Gandhi speak'. His voice and speech were of a piece with his manner - 'calm, unemotional, simple, and devoid of rhetoric'.

While launching an agitation, he believed in systematically preparing himself and his colleagues rather than spontaneously  (or, as he would have it, haphazardly) 'rushing into confrontation.' Another friend says that while a student in London, Gandhi learnt that 'by quiet persistence he could do far more to change men's minds than by any oratory or loud trumpeting'. He was one of those rare individuals who was reflective as well as firm when he finally took a decision. 

But this passivity did not mean that he could be pushed around. An illustration of this point happened early in his life. As a young man he decided to travel to England to study law, against the wishes of the leaders of his Modh Bania subcaste. But he disregarded the order saying “I think the caste should not interfere in the matter.” He was excommunicated — a judgment that remained in force even when he returned from England. The community was divided over how to handle him. One camp embraced him; the other cast him out. Another man would protest for readmission. But he couldn’t see the point. He knew that fighting would only generate retaliation. 

The result of this compliance was that the subcaste not only stopped bothering him, but its members — including those who had excommunicated him — helped in his later political work, without expecting anything in return. Gandhi wrote later, “that all these good things are due to my non-resistance. Had I agitated for being admitted to the caste, had I attempted to divide it into more camps, had I provoked the castemen, they would surely have retaliated, and instead of steering clear of the storm, I should, on arrival from England, have found myself in a whirlpool of agitation.” 

This pattern — the decision to accept what another man would challenge — occurred again and again in Gandhi’s life.  His friends and well-wishers would be upset saying that he was weak, that he should have stood up for his beliefs. But Gandhi felt that he had learned “to appreciate the beauty of compromise.” Gandhi’s passivity was not weakness at all. It meant focusing on an ultimate goal and refusing to divert energy to unnecessary skirmishes along the way. Restraint, Gandhi believed, was one of his greatest assets. But as Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in The Black Swan:

Alas, one cannot assert authority by accepting one's own fallibility. Simply, people need to be blinded by knowledge - we are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups  trump the disadvantages of being alone.  

It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one.  Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes.  This is apparent from a social pathology: psychopaths rally followers.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7e

It is telling that, at his trial for the murder of Gandhi, Nathuram Godse complained bitterly about how the bania (merchant-class) Gandhi had shipwrecked Indian politics with his quaint and enfeebling idea of nonviolence. Gandhi understood well the homology between colonial dominance and masculinity, and he sought to bring to the body politic a conception of politics that valorized the feminine and the non-Brahminical. 

Nathuram Godse thus divined what many others did not, namely that Gandhi represented a threat to the idea of India as a masculine, modern nation-state, indeed to the very idea of “normal politics’. India had emerged as a new nation-state from two centuries of colonial rule, and India’s elites, among them some who were Gandhi’s associates, were keen that the country should take its place in the world as a strong nation-state resolutely committed to modernization, industrialization, and the kind of central planning that characterized the policies of the Soviet Union. 

Yet Gandhi had initiated a far-reaching critique of industrial civilization and the very precepts of modernity in his tract of 1909, Hind Swaraj. His critics worried that his pervasive influence would be detrimental to the development of India as an economic and political power. Gandhi was, though this could scarcely be admitted, a nuisance, even a hindrance; and when Godse pulled the trigger, there were certainly others who thought that the man had died not a moment too soon. 

India’s desire to be read as a nation on the make, a nation that wants to be taken seriously in contemporary world politics has roots in the inferiority complex brought about by colonialism which forever marked Indian civilization with a lack of manliness. Part of the ethos of manliness consists simply in gaining recognition, in being acknowledged. One long-lasting effect of colonialism has been that the Indian continues to look up to the white European male, who confers recognition upon inferiors, and who has established the standard that the Indian (like other formerly colonized people) must meet. 

The modernizing Indian middle-classes have been pressing for India’s admission into the Security Council, arguing that India’s might and importance as a nation ought to be recognized. It is the political and economic elite in India who keep saying that India stands third in the strength of its scientific manpower, that it is a member of the ‘Nuclear Club’, that its software engineers are feted in Silicon Valley, and that it is the only Third World nation to join a few of the post-industrial countries as an exporter of satellite and rocket technology. 

Ideas like ‘competitive spirit’ are used to develop pride in the nation, refurbish the ever fragile masculinity of man, and promote a cultural ethos that thrives on such notions as individualism and self-improvement. It is this ‘spirit’ of competition that causes heated discussions every four years about why India has less medals in the olympics than some country that nobody has heard of. 

The Indian political class has accepted the argument about Indian civilization’s effeminacy and the nuclear explosion was an assertion of its masculinity, and thus a second assassination of Gandhi. India is no longer a soft state, it will not present itself to the world with any ambiguity about its manliness. Thus the obsession with personal security of politicians — the Z security, the commandos — that actually terrorizes the ordinary citizen; this contrasts with the 'effeminate' Gandhi’s mingling freely with the crowds disdaining personal security. 

Gandhi was ‘a naked fakir’ not only for Churchill but also to many modern Indians who found his supposed glorification of poverty distasteful and thought that he would hold back India’s future generations. He is symbolically assassinated every year through the empty obeisance at his samadhi and converting him into a saint which is probably the most effective means of removing his influence on Indian politics. His ghost was finally exorcised with the nuclear explosions. Displaying astonishing chutzpah, the first explosion was carried out on Buddha Purnima and was codenamed 'Smiling Buddha'.

What is called “Hindutva” today represents Godse’s legacy, playing out his deep anxieties about the loss of Hindu potency. Gandhi was assassinated. Godse was hanged. But Gandhi vs Godse is a battle that goes on today.  We see, for instance, that the feminine (typically signifying vulnerability, passivity, emotion, and so on) is deployed against the  masculine (typically signifying impenetrability, control, rationality), and both become attributes of not just individuals, but of institutions, systems, communities, and even nations. 

The colonial denigration of the Krishna lore as vulgar made Hindu elites attempt to sanitize their religion. (One British Judge of the Bombay High court even pronounced Krishna 'guilty' of lewd sensuality.) For them a proper God should be like the Semitic Gods - perfect, all-knowing and awe-inspiring. How could a God sing, dance, play with women and steal butter? So the image of Krishna wielding a discus on the index finger of his right hand is promoted. But temples depict the cowherd Krishna rather than the bad omen of the more war-like Krishna of the Mahabharata and popular culture still celebrates the butter thief God.

A crucial characteristic of Hinduism for centuries has been that, unlike other religions, the Gods and Goddesses are neither remote nor frightening. They are not entities outside everyday life but constitute a significant part of it. They are not only part of one’s transcendental life but also of one’s most comic and naughty moments. You pray to them but you can also disown them or joke about them.  They not only maintain lofty principles but also show some of our failings. Ever since the promotion of a masculine culture by the colonial rulers, Hindu reformers have tried to make Hinduism more like the Semitic religions. Educated, city-dwellers are more likely to harbor such sentiments. 

Whenever we see images of violence we notice that typically, only males are present among the perpetrators. It is not that women never indulge in violence: they can be aggressive and brutal, particularly to other women. But the culture that encourages such violence takes pride in its aggressive masculinity and it plays a key role in its recurrence, justification, and glorification. Women are constantly exhorted to be more like men to climb the ladder of success. The most successful women role models have typically masculine hawkish personality traits ; eg. Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton. Thatcher was once described as ‘the only man in her cabinet’. 

Such a conception of manhood assumes that aggression is natural and desirable in men. A ‘real’ man is eager to pick up a fight, must be muscular and unemotional. Crying is construed as a sign of weakness as it is to show empathy and understanding, gentleness and compassion. Part of what it means to be tough is to suppress empathy towards others, to be embarrassed by fear or any other vulnerability. To be counted as ‘real’ men, they must be ambitious and ruthless in trying to attain their goals regardless of consequences to others. They should approach their activities with a zero-sum, 'I win-you lose' kind of mindset. ‘Real’ men are supposed to take independent decisions that brook no questioning. 

All these must be contrasted to features that are perceived to be inherent in women: being irrational, bereft of self-restraint, crying easily, emotional, empathetic but lacking judgment and impartiality. Women are physically and mentally weak, and therefore must be dependent on and protected by their male superiors. It follows that when men display such traits, they become weak, soft, wimpish. Acting like a woman is a betrayal of manhood. Cold-blooded violence shows the opposite: that manliness is fully alive and kicking! In the world of violent masculinities, Gandhian virtues of patience, empathy, understanding etc.  are seen as unmanly attributes fit only for women and the weak.