The psychology of fear

The psychology of fear

It seems that as a society we are passing through terrible fear and insecurity. Our psychic, politico-cultural and spiritual foundations have become weak.

No wonder, we are asked to believe that our nationalism has to continually assert itself with its gross and loud symbolism, our religion has to save itself from its ‘enemies’, the brigade of ‘cow protectors’ has to assume the role of moral guardians, and any critique or alternative mode of thinking has to be seen with suspicion, and silenced as quickly as possible.

In fact, as political psychologists argue, this fear is closely related to the power-dynamics of authoritarian regimes. It is never comfortable with the free flow of ideas, the culture of dissent, and the inter-subjective world of communicative interactions.

See the irony of it. The Central Board of Film Certification has demanded the removal of terms like ‘Hindu India’, ‘Gujarat’ and ‘cow’ from The Argumentative Indian — a documentary on Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Why is this fear? Well, one can assume that it is possible to disagree with Sen; it is possible to give counter-arguments. But then, the ruling establishment, it appears, is not ready for it.

Or, is it that in the absence of civilised ideologues (and simultaneous presence of herd mentality)? Is it not equipped with the required cultural capital to argue with a thinker like Sen? The result is violence. Yes, this act of censoring creative ideas and critical voices is a form of violence — subtle violence that looks somewhat different from brute violence manifesting itself in the recurrence of lynching, communal hatred and normalisation of aggression in everyday interaction.

Yes, the propaganda machinery sells the spectacle of ‘development’ — India emerging as a ‘superpower’ with its assertive/media savvy prime minister as the newly emergent ‘world leader’. However, we should not forget that as a community of reflexive citizens, we lose a great deal if the cultural landscape becomes dull, homogenised and incapable of flourishing through plurality of ideas and dissenting voices.

In fact, the beauty of what we regard as ‘Indian culture’ lies in its splendid diversity, plurality and ambiguities. For instance, I celebrate Vedanta — the Upanishadic reflections on the Eternal, the Absolute and the Infinite; yet, I am no less fascinated by Marxist philosopher Debiprasad Chattopadhaya’s commentary on Lokayata — the materialist tradition in Indian philosophy. Likewise, what enriches me is the possibility of multiple interpretations of the Bhagavadgita.
No wonder, this sensitivity creates a mind that is elastic, capable of evolving an art of listening, and experiencing the fusion of horizons. Likewise, in the domain of political ideology, how can I say that only my doctrine, be it Ambedkarism or Gandhism or Marxism, would prevail? In fact, a vibrant democratic polity needs the capacity to negotiate with diverse political readings. Indira Gandhi missed it; the result was Emergency. There were occasions when the leftists in Bengal missed it. And the result was their downfall.

Karl Popper — a great philosopher of the 20th century — helped us know the enemies of an ‘open society’. If you are not ready to refute your own arguments because of new evidence, you are bound to be orthodox and violent. Yes, historically, we see the assertion of this violence in the cult of extremism, be it left or right. Stalin’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini were the classic illustrations of the closure of mind.

And today, there is another kind of paradox we are experiencing. Yes, at one level, as postmodernists argue, the age of ‘certainty’ is over, and we are living with multiculturalism and hybrid identities. Yet, on the other hand, there is the return of the orthodoxy — militaristic nationalism and religious fundamentalism.

Our society too is passing through the same contradiction. We have a rich tradition of plurality, heterodoxy and cultural syncretism (Kabir, Ramakrishna, Tagore and Gandhi were the illuminating stars of this tradition).

However, despite multiple television channels, periodic elections and market-induced choices, a new form of authoritarianism is emerging in India. It mythologises the ‘Gujarat model’; it sanctifies ‘Hindu rashtra; it reduces the innocence of a cow into a weapon of cultural cleansing. And that is why, we see this discomfort with Sen’s viewpoints.

Point of caution

I wish to end this article with a point of caution, particularly at a time when new technology has democratised the possibility of cultural creation. Freedom, we should not forget, demands ethical responsibility; dissent is not devoid of mutual respect and dignity (think of Tagore’s disagreement with Gandhi on a number of issues; yet, the grace and dignity in their relationship); and a sense of aesthetics is needed to fight the proliferation of vulgar cultural products.

Don’t forget that in the absence of these sensibilities and qualities, we are seeing the pollution of toxic social media, irresponsible ‘Facebook shares’, and sexually abusive/pornographic products on You Tube. Technology, believe it, can be liberating only if there is sound ethical/political/aesthetic education. See the game of absurdity and falsehood.

In the name of freedom, we see the celebration of the vulgar — loud music of the Honey Singh kind, glossy ads with overtly pornographic messages, and inflammatory speeches that arouse mob violence. It is ironic that the ruling establishment remains silent about this cultural decadence, while it cannot tolerate a politico-philosophic argument made by a thinker like Amartya Sen.

We need life-affirming education — not merely what the government regards as ‘skill learning’. We need the cultivation of a mind that can see the world from diverse perspectives; we need the courage to realise that one can learn from others; we need empathy, reflexivity and an ethic of care.

Censorship is not the answer. The real answer lies in man’s conscience. And if we do not work on it, there is no escape from violence — the exercise of power and its perpetual insecurity and fear of the ‘other’.

(The writer is Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, New Delhi)
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