Liberalism out, bullying in?

Openness and tolerance towards differing views are always at hand. Most fail to see it in the cacophony

Just days ago, when historian Ramachandra Guha was appointed chair at the Indian Institute of Science, social media was abuzz with knee-jerk rhetoric. Apparently, ‘Guha’s posting is illegitimate and he would infuse the IISc with Nehruism and a pro-congress spirit’.

Guha may not be a scientist, but surely is a proponent of science for society.

“It would be helpful if more attention were given to the positive advantages of making explicit one’s wider scientific attitude and to its unavoidable continuity with the other attitudes which shapes one’s life…” wrote British philosopher Mary Midgley in Evolution as a Religion.

The point the misinformed online hate-mongers and the masters of bigotry miss is that their dim-witted assessment of news would prove expensive in the future unless they get an education before blathering about in anonymity.

So, is liberalism a rarity today? No, it is perhaps the lack of a broader perspective and connect. Openness and tolerance to differing views are always at hand. Most fail to see it in the cacophony.

“We are witnessing a clash of pseudo-nationalists and liberals. Since the media is driven by corporate funding and pseudo-nationalism is entirely pro-corporate, it has turned anti-liberal. Lampooning and deriding is common. However, a larger part of the media is liberal. But as employees, they do what their owners approve,” noted linguist and thinker G N Devy points out.

Some think the ruin is cyclical

“The dictionary meaning of liberal is open-minded, not prejudiced, favouring individual liberty, etc. With a gradual misunderstanding, the word has come to mean a kind of woolly upper class thinking, with a vague sense of doing good. Along with the word `intellectual’, so debased, it is abused. However, liberalism became a part of humanity only after the excesses of Communism and Fascism in Europe brought about the war. After which, liberalism came in, along with the idea of a Welfare State. This too has had its day and the pendulum has swung to the extreme right. Populism is now everywhere; in India religion is the force driving people, a narrow exclusive idea of Hinduism. Rational thinking has no place where religion predominates. But there are always cycles in human history and the time will come when this kind of extreme rightism too will cease. In the meantime it is important to keep the voice of reason alive. And perhaps surrender the word `liberal’ to those who are against it and call it `humanism’ instead,” observes novelist Shashi Deshpande.

For John Locke, the ‘philosophical father of liberalism’, it was ‘a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions… without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man.’

“That liberalism is dying is a fact. It failed to deliver. From achieving individual rights to protecting them to growth of capitalism promising welfare, its hollowness is exposed. Hence the criticism and the belief of the ordinary in the soft dictatorial leadership,” says political commentator Harish Ramaswamy.

Elsewhere, Vladimir Putin saying liberalism has come into a conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority is nothing but an oligarchic charade.

“Populism is an approach that appeals to ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by the elites -- this long companion of democratic politics has had its ups and downs. Right now with leaders like Trump, rightist upsurges in Europe and the East, including Brexit, it’s heyday for populism. It is impacting the nature of politics and the brute trolls,” explains Ramaswamy.

According to Ramaswamy, the oft-derogatory connotation of liberal is black and white. “Confronting it is not easy. Reversing this requires time and space. Public refutation and rejection are to be used very diligently,” he clarifies.

“The media, maintaining an anti-establishment stance, should be liberal by default. Liberals that crossover are even more vicious. Populism can work the other way too. It is an attempt to prop up selfishness as a virtue. We must continue to speak up against social injustice,” feels rationalist Narendra Nayak.

So, how does one confront the spectre?

“What did it mean to be a Socrates in the age of warring Greek hordes? Or a Basava in the age of feudal caste-ridden society? Or a Mandela in the age of apartheid? The answer to these rhetorical questions is when there is a greater need to hold a mirror to the society, only individuals with courage take upon the onerous responsibility. The rest crawl when they are expected to bend,” Devy elaborates.

Greed, no doubt, is the wolf here in sheep’s clothing.

“Mahatma Gandhi held that at the root of violence is greed. Economic globalisation has unleashed selfishness, profit, greed and aggression, generally covered under the term ‘aspiration’, now considered a positive quality. The social cost of greed garbed as aspiration is yet to be computed. But, wave upon wave of unmitigated violence rise. Often it is structural violence, not seen in visible physical form,” Devy adds.

As long as voices don’t fade away and boldly hold forth, protests for democratic rights like in Hong Kong, Istanbul and the Czech Republic recur, liberalism lives on.

“It is futile to counter propaganda with propaganda, lies with lies, arrogance with arrogance. The countering of violence with constructive work, of arrogance with humility, of lies with truth and of propaganda with rational thought will, alone, revive the broad-minded, liberal, scientific, secular and tolerant society,” asserts Devy.

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