Can we ‘save civilisation’ if we are bereft of our individual humanity?

Making music has little to do with producing melodies or rhythms. It has everything to do with being able to listen.
Last Updated : 01 July 2023, 20:00 IST

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Watching all of us shout at one other over every incident or comment, drift rudderless behind hatemongers, and refuse to address the deeper issues staring at us has been scary. There have been days when I have not known how to address the noise that is consuming us. We are facing an existential crisis, but unable to see it because the raucous public life has imprisoned our mind. We are intoxicated with its commercial tangible avatar, and in love with the intangible, the seductive voyeuristic virtual world. These operate in such a manner that violent thoughts, actions, visuals, fake news, and the casual belittling of others provide sadistic joy and instant vindication. We come together like packs of hyenas looking for prey. And without a moment to lose we laugh, ridicule and share this vulgarity with others. From within this mental dirge, we seek citizenry!

If you think my description of where we are is an exaggeration or false narrative, then I implore you not to read any further. But if you are even partially in agreement, it is imperative that we think together. It is ludicrous to expect us to behave as awakened citizens when we are lost as individuals. We have become more insular than ever. We get up every morning looking for information that tells us horrible things about someone else or a group of people. Their life, actions, beliefs, social practices are to be condemned. It is convenient to say we are manipulated by algorithms, politicians and media, and held in captivity in this bloodthirsty state of hate. But we have, as individuals, also crossed the decency threshold. We actively go in search of people to attack. This is happening in reality and in social media.

Making music has little to do with producing melodies or rhythms. It has everything to do with being able to listen. When I am unable to listen, I cannot sing, let alone touch a person’s heart. It is not just about listening to another’s voice. Am I able to listen attentively to the thought, intention, tone, words, phrases that emerge from me? We feel our own words only through the receiver’s reaction. This is as true of mental monologues, because we are never truly alone. When musicians practice, the applause plays in their heads! Even the pleasure we draw from words and songs come from the target.

When my agenda is to establish my own superiority, the pleasure that is shared is also offensive. With such a conditioned mindset, can we really be sensitive human beings? If I am unable to recognise the vulgarity of my own thoughts and only see them through their impact on another, I respond only to the programmed function of my expression, and not the expression itself. Which means that the only thing that matters is my intention to wound the receiver as an outsider or celebrate him as a member of my clan. If I listen without a receiver in mind, then I will not speak or act in the fashion that I do. There must be something deeply rotten within us if we unable to converse with our own family without it turning into a vicious personal attack.

We have been brainwashed into believing that we are living in a moment in time when we have to act to save our civilisation. Whenever the argument of the ‘larger good’ is placed above self-care, humaneness, unjudged affection, we are drinking from a poisoned chalice. There is another bitter truth. After and beyond buying into various articulations of nationalism, religious affinity and social protectionism, our actions are driven by the pleasure that we draw from the hurt that we dish out. No amount of ritual practice, meditation, internalisation of secular values, Gandhian principles or Marxian quotes can save us from this degradation. We need wake up to our own depravity.

Here, there needs to be a distinction between critique and hate. We know the difference but have chosen to collapse them in order to justify the perpetuation of brutality. Critique of the past, present, the socio-political, philosophical and religious are essential in any maturing society. But its core sentiment is reflection. The individuals putting forth the argument reveal their own vulnerability. Even if the language is harsh and confrontational, this core spirit will be evident. But when we scream and shout down others only to corner them and place ourselves in either a position of moral superiority or false victimhood, it is not a critique. It is an attack.

We desperately need to pause. Not because of the speed of social media or life itself, but to save ourselves. Most Indian political theorists and constitutional thinkers quote Ambedkar’s interpretation of Constitutional Morality. But Ambedkar also had something to say about Public Conscience. In a speech in 1952, he said, “Public Conscience means conscience that becomes agitated at every wrong, no matter who is the sufferer, and it means that everybody, whether he suffers that wrong or not, is prepared to join him in order to get him relieved.”

What Ambedkar sought is impossible to achieve in a socially divided society. But no society will ever truly be united in the Utopian sense. Without personal transformation, both Constitutional Morality and Public Conscience are moot ideas. The osmotic nature of the self, which remains in a state of instability, has to be dealt with. We will cling to identities because, unfortunately, we believe they define us. Collectives and sub-collectives will continue to be formed. But we can remain conscious of this tendency. That lens moves us away from well-laid traps and our own individual follies. Only when this level of consciousness is achieved will we be disquieted by a wrong irrespective of the identity of the sufferer. From this comes the hope that we will, at some point, break the shackles of our social-religious-political boundaries, leap across the chasm, and unjudgementally embrace the ‘other’.

Published 01 July 2023, 18:59 IST

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