Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Is the psychological distance between people shrinking or growing? - I

It is said that we live in an interconnected world. Due to globalization the nations of the world trade more with each other and their welfare depends on the welfare of other nations. People travel more and the Internet has made communications easier. But there are forces in the modern world which push in the opposite direction.

The world today faces a rising tide of nationalism.  Nationalist and populist leaders have emerged around the world, ranging from nations as different as the affluent United States, poverty-stricken Philippines and ‘the rising giant’ India. The Internet has helped fuel nationalistic feelings. Revisionist historical literature spewing ethnic and religious hatreds, that would have been difficult to get earlier, are now easy to find online. People in the diaspora give spirited support to various regressive, nationalistic groups. Secure in the knowledge that they themselves will not feel the effects of any increase in violence, they can afford to be more nationalist, bloodthirsty, and irresponsible.

At first glance, the insistence of leaders on always putting their own country first seems good and the obvious thing to do. Nationalism has always been a seductive ideology, not just among us Indians, but for people across the world. But what nationalism does best is to create a sense of “Us vs Them” in nearly every case. The dangers of nationalism are well documented in history and well explained by George Orwell in Notes on Nationalism. His main observations are:
  • By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. 
  • Nationalism…is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
  • A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. ...his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. ...[He]is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakably certain of being in the right.
  • All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. ...Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side. 
  • Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should …and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible. ...Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied….
  • Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. ...The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. ...All nationalist controversy is at the debating-society level. It is always entirely inconclusive, since each contestant invariably believes himself to have won the victory. Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world.
  • All the way through I have said, ‘the nationalist does this’ or ‘the nationalist does that’.…but we deceive ourselves if we do not realize that we can all resemble them in unguarded moments. …and the most fair-minded and sweet-tempered person may suddenly be transformed into a vicious partisan, anxious only to ‘score’ over his adversary and indifferent as to how many lies he tells or how many logical errors he commits in doing so. …One prod to the nerve of nationalism, and the intellectual decencies can vanish, the past can be altered, and the plainest facts can be denied.
  • There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified — still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function.
  • Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort. It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one's own feelings really are, and then of making allowance for the inevitable bias. ...The emotional urges which are inescapable, and are perhaps even necessary to political action, should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality. But this, I repeat, needs a moral effort, and contemporary English literature, so far as it is alive at all to the major issues of our time, shows how few of us are prepared to make it.
Once nationalism spreads past a certain point, it will tend to degrade the overall quality of political debate, and therefore of political thought. In Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell produced a whole vocabulary to describe this process of thought: blackwhite, crimestop, doublethink, goodthink. Nationalism often transforms into racism and xenophobia. Gandhi had no qualms in saying that nationalism was another word for imperialism. We ought to rethink our attitude towards nationalism and curb much of the enthusiasm that goes with it.

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