By Prakash Kona
In politics as in life: truthfulness with oneself and moderation in everything else, is the answer.
In the novel Christopher Unborn by the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, the unborn Christopher who observes the world while still in his mother’s womb makes the point that extremes are alright in art but not in politics or in life. Writers and artists are entitled to thinking in extremes because there are no limits to the imagination but not people in general; certainly not in how they conduct themselves with their fellow beings or in their own philosophy of life. Politics is about people. Serious limits have to be placed on “normal” people in order to avoid abuse of power.
I live in a country where the majority of people cutting across divisions have a repressed hatred of themselves and an immoderate suspicion of everyone else. Much of the pointless aggression in day-to-day behavior that has become an endemic part of Indian life is also triggered by the violence of films and sitcoms where the characters are ready to strangle each other for the flimsiest of reasons. Simple acts of politeness, accommodation and kindness, that could play an immense role in forging bonds between people or in eliminating tensions, are conspicuous by their absence. A tendency to avoid getting into trouble is the usual excuse for doing nothing at all. Irrational fears are known to exaggerate the perception of threat and what results is indifference or aggression that is often projected on someone who cannot fight back.
I am amazed by the negative energy that fanatics generate especially when their motives are religious and sometimes political too. Some of the nicest men I ever met and some of the worst kinds I encountered either in person or through other sources, both of them happened to be strong believers in the presence of a God or gods. The strange paradox is that the violent and abusive believers are oblivious to the irony that the gods or God who created them in theory has to be exactly the same gods or God who created their enemies. If it is not the same God or gods then what is the point in believing someone like that! If it is indeed the same God or gods who created both of you, then the other person is entitled to the dignity and humane consideration that you expect for yourself. If this blindness in logic never occurs to the ones consumed with hatred, it is because most people who claim to be “religious” or adherents of some ideology or the other are in fact nihilists of the worst kind. They don’t even qualify for atheism because the latter is still about believing in something. It is crass materialism that passes off for religious belief or a vague political doctrine with an apocalyptic mission to create a utopia in the next five minutes.
Since there is little scope of the world changing anytime soon, what instead can be done through education and mass media is to encourage a certain kind of moderation in day-to-day life. This is particularly important in the less developed countries of the world where because of glaring social and economic inequalities, the potential for violence over the silliest of things, is simply staggering. Blake says somewhere that “children of the future age” would discover, perhaps with some degree of surprise, that “love, sweet love, was thought a crime.” But, what about the stupidity part! Stupidity cuts across class, caste, education, region, religion and at times gender too. What would children of the future think of the kind of stupidity that passes off for normal on a daily basis!
The golden rule is simple, which is what makes it golden. Do what you like as long as you are aware that there are others around you, whose feelings matter, one way or the other. Dealing with the “hell” that is “other people,” as a character in a Sartre play says, is where the ambiguity lies. There is no end to that ambiguity as long as we belong to the human species or until we evolve into a higher consciousness in the remote future. The foundation for the golden rule is equally simple and profound: people are neither all the same nor always the same. You cannot have one theory or formula for any individual or group.
As a principle (something that travelling has taught me) I don’t allow external differences to come in the way of how I relate to people. For that one reason, I enjoyed the company of people from different languages, communities and nationalities. I don’t think everything about me or my country or people who belong to my group are great. I don’t think that everything about others is less than great. I am not interested in whether a person is right-wing, left-wing or centrist, from my country or from a part of the world that people of my country have been taught to like or dislike. I am only interested in how they relate to me as individuals and what I mean to them. It doesn’t mean I agree with them. It doesn’t mean I will not oppose them either. But, either way, I don’t intend to reduce their humanity to any kind of a formula or subject them to contempt that they may not deserve.
If all generalizations are wrong, then this one is certainly the most wrong of all, which allows a person to either idealize or despise people of an entire group when you have barely met a few members of that group. Except in the rarest of cases, no human being should ever be unconditionally admired or hated. Unconditionally hated, surely, never! They are people and they have limitations. You have to make sincere attempts to understand them keeping the limitations in mind.
This is the great thing about a politics of moderation. Portia is right when she tells Shylock, “Though justice be thy plea, consider this—/ That in the course of justice none of us/ Should see salvation./ We do pray for mercy,/ And that same prayer doth teach us all to render/ The deeds of mercy.” If we relentlessly went on a quest for absolute justice, it goes without saying that somewhere we must all be equally guilty, if for nothing else, at least for the fact that we have not done enough to reduce the inhumanity or the suffering of the world. Therefore, people with a judgmental attitude should reflect on themselves before they unequivocally condemn others.
Pope John XXIII, to whom we owe some of the core ideas of liberation theology, is supposed to have told a man on death row for having murdered his wife, “Young man, I’ve never been married. But, you know, if I were married, I might have killed my wife.” On one hand, it speaks volumes for an extraordinary man like John XXIII to empathize with a criminal by humbling himself to the level of an ordinary being; but, on other hand, it is also an acknowledgment that the other person is as human as oneself. Apparently the man, who was reluctant to talk to the Pope until then, turned around and embraced him.
This is the reason why I rarely or almost never give unqualified support to resistance groups or movements, whose intentions might be good and whose goals are sincere, but who have a monolithic view of human nature. One thing I know for a fact: if you want to know the true nature of a person just give them power or money or both. Very rarely have I seen individuals retain their true self in the face of the temptations to abuse that come with power and money. Therefore, I see no reason why people should not be able to relate to one another, no matter what the differences and no matter what the politics surrounding these differences.
I am convinced that only a philosophy of moderation is compatible with what we call democracy, despite its majoritarian character. My own observation is that people who are honest with themselves are incapable of taking extreme positions, because they know that people are people and you don’t expect them to be anything more or less than that. Cynical and suspicious people are usually dishonest with themselves and by default with others as well. They need to cover their dishonesty by being abusive and violent with those they perceive as weaker than themselves.
Fanaticism is more dangerous than the venom of the spitting cobra and the black mamba put together. Moderation is the antidote to fanaticism and self-righteousness. Those who judge others without seeing that they themselves are capable of the same excesses are victims of their own pasts as the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz dedicated his literary genius to proving through his work. “Man remembers what hurts more than what pleases,” Mahfouz says at the end of his Nobel Acceptance Speech. Sadly, the temptation to irrationality and immoderation is mostly because we forget the pleasant moments that make so much of life fascinating and instead unforgivingly cling to the memory of what hurt us, however briefly, as if we would be nothing without the pain.