By Prakash Kona
There is a meaning of neutrality that I do not subscribe to. In this case, neutrality means a calculated detachment or a studied silence in the face of injustice. This is the kind of neutrality Martin Luther King Jr. condemns in the gravest possible terms in his sermon, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam.” “Now, I’ve chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”
Almost every period in history has also been “a period of moral crisis.” The majority of humanity, through most periods of human history, has been ‘neutral’ or ‘silent’ when it came to moral crises. I don’t think that most people reflect on whether something is right or wrong on a daily basis. Dante might think that such people deserve the hottest places in hell. Frankly, I’ve no opinion on the subject of who should or shouldn’t be in hell. But, yes! People who are incapable of seriously reflecting on moral questions are indeed terrible as human beings.
I subscribe to the meaning of neutrality when it is synonymous with ‘impartial’, ‘unbiased,’ ‘unprejudiced,’ ‘objective,’ ‘without favouritism,’ ‘open-minded,’ ‘non-partisan,’ ‘non-discriminatory,’ or ‘disinterested.’ A more distant synonym of “neutral” is also to think independently. Not only do I believe that one should be objective, I also believe that only an independent mind is capable of arriving at the truth.
This is the reason why I couldn’t care less when individuals or groups label themselves as right or left-wing. Subscribing to an ideology is not very different from membership of an organization or a political party; one is conditioned to look at the world in prescribed ways. Most people are content with looking at the world that way. They refuse to make the effort to go beyond the prescription and look at things in an objective manner. The ability to think for oneself in an independent manner is probably the most remarkable of all abilities. To blindly dedicate oneself to an idea or a belief without critically examining it is the road to self-destruction. Creativity, of the most basic kind, demands independent thinking as a precondition. The independence of the mind is vital to social and economic progress. It is at the heart of all change.
The conformism of the political left is not fundamentally different from the conformism of the political right. Both share the same disdain for logic and evidence. Both of them are subservient to authority, at the expense of the truth. Both of them put themselves on a pedestal without careful examining their own motives. Being a member of a group gives one a nice feeling about oneself. It is the ‘nice feeling’ that comes in the way of an honest pursuit of the truth. You cannot turn a blind eye to the truth merely because you want to retain the nice feeling. There is nothing wrong in feeling nice about oneself or about people you know. You just cannot let the nice feeling overwhelm you into a slavish respect for an ideology.
However repressive or permissive a system might be, once it takes away the space for individual reflection, it ends up creating human machines who are just good at taking orders as is happening in the present. In most areas of knowledge, we see a lot of improvisation but hardly any innovation. The dread that an innovator could be socially or politically subversive has led governments and corporations to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Preserving the status quo has become a global priority to the powers that be. This kind of regressive climate is soul-killing because it leaves a large number of gifted people despondent and dissatisfied. Creativity, in the end, is an ethical choice as much as it is an emotional thing. Where the emotions are not left alone to blossom on their own and where ethics is secondary to belief-systems driven by a craving for power, it is unlikely that anything original could be produced.
Nations and societies progress only when individuals are willing to deviate from the norm out of respect for the truth. Creativity, by definition, is deviance from the norm. Where there is no positive deviance from the norm, there is no creativity either. There is just repetition of the same. Personal integrity is vital to anyone who wants to bring about change. Lying and deceit are at the heart of a ‘neutrality’ where the majority is silent and in the end betrays itself. To be independent is to be a minority within a majority and a minority within a minority. No one chooses to be at odds with the world. It happens because one chooses to have a mind of one’s own. Original minds certainly existed in politically repressive periods. It is just that the repression left enough space for individuals to be themselves. That’s not the case with the Age of Surveillance that we live in. One is never left alone until one demonstrates that one is pro-authority in every sense of the term. Big Brother is not outside you. Big Brother is inside you, monitoring every move you make, every decision you take and every statement you utter.
Regimes that use fear as a technique to keep a population under check through constant surveillance end up creating a citizenry where passive submission to authority becomes one’s second nature. Alcoholism and drug addiction among the young are the outcomes of that kind of politics. To rebel against authority is an element of human nature. Once there is no space for rebellion of the heart and the mind what is likely to result is a volatile order ready to implode at any point in time. Children should be allowed to challenge authority without being penalized for doing so, either in the name of respect for tradition or with the intention of inculcating in them the habit of obedience.
The worst thing about a person who is taught to be afraid before they are taught to be honest is that they fall into the habit of deceiving themselves. A man who is afraid is also ashamed of those fears and is unwilling to face them. He will go to any extent to disguise his fears as beliefs that he holds dear and do everything possible to convince himself and others that he is acting out of conviction rather than fear. Regimes built on fear are notorious for bringing out the worst in a human being. Dishonesty with oneself is the road to betrayal of both oneself and others as well. Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie “The Conformist” (1970) is about a mortally scared man whose public life is as suspect as his personal life; his life essentially revolves around a series of betrayals. Conformity turns a man against himself and makes him disloyal at the core.
My point is that the spirit of innovation cannot be separated from an attitude of open-mindedness. This does not mean that brilliant people don’t exist in a repressive order. Brilliance and originality are two different things. Brilliance shows in grades; originality is the last thing that grades detect. Brilliance shows in the kinds of schools that one goes to. Originality has nothing to do with the schools one goes to. Brilliance depends on one’s social circumstances; that’s the merit of a meritocracy. Originality is the trait of an independent mind that is capable of drawing its own conclusions based on its own observations. Being independent does not mean that you are always at odds with the system that you are a part of. It doesn’t mean that you make a virtue out of nonconformity. It just means that the world you see is not black and white. It may or may not be grey either. The pursuit of truth like the truth itself defies the imagination. To let one’s imagination constantly be defied by the truth – that’s the sign of an original and an independent mind.
Unfortunately, brilliance and conformity have always gone together. The end result is inevitably mediocrity. Some of the brightest South Asians in countries like the US tend towards mediocrity, which often shows in the kind of ‘neutrality’ that they practice, which actually is indifference to the world around them. I’m not an adherent of the cult of individualism. On the contrary, individualism, which is all about oneself, is a form of conformity, actively promoted by votaries of the free market. The congenital conformity of South Asians is owing to their blind submission to authority, whether the family, religion or the political system. Authoritarianism and mediocrity have been bedfellows through much of history.
The “authoritarian personality” that Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford talk about is a product of a system where children are taught not to ask questions. Children are instead taught to memorize and regurgitate “facts” in their exams and projects. The most creative phase of their lives, their childhood, is destroyed in the process, thanks to an unhealthy kind of over disciplining of children. What they learn might fetch them grades and a lucrative job. What it’ll never give them is the ability to contribute to change in a meaningful way. If some students happen to be brilliant, it is because the system defines the parameters of a child’s performance in acquiring the knowledge necessary for the order to continue. Unlike brilliance, original thinking and the order normally stand in opposition to one another.
Higher level, abstract or conceptual thinking is rarely about brilliance. It is about breaching firewalls to reach out beyond the confines of a secure position. It is about challenging oneself. That’s the kind of thinking that we are deprived of in the current system. A system that has space for children who raise the right kinds of doubts in and out of the classroom is a system that is investing in the future. Once you teach a child to stop asking questions, we’ve the kind of people who go to top universities and pursue challenging courses but whose mindset leans towards an authoritarian system, where freedom is relegated to a second place with ‘security’ from imaginary enemies being the priority.
People who are independent-minded, impartial and objective are the need of the hour. Conformism in the short run gives the illusion of security and therefore seems like a good thing. In the long run conformism is a disaster. Societies stagnate where mediocrity is the norm. Whatever we call human progress depends on people who are truthful, open-minded and empathetic to those around them, without being judgmental.