Where has all the critical thinking gone?

Where has all the critical thinking gone?

Through the Looking Glass

Sharell Cook. Credit: DH Photo

Having lived most of my life in Australia’s highly individualistic culture, adapting to the traditionally collectivist culture in India posed some challenges. Growing up, the goal was to become independent and self-sufficient. Like most teenagers, by choice, I had a casual job so I could start earning my own money. It was empowering. After university, as expected, I left home to pursue my career and lead my own life. I valued the autonomy and flexibility to do as I pleased. If I didn’t move out of home, I would’ve had to pay rent to my parents. To society, it would’ve looked like my parents had failed to raise a responsible, fully-functioning adult who was capable of looking after herself.

Not surprisingly, it took me a while to come to terms with India’s hierarchical system, social structures, and need to act in accordance with the greater good of the community. In a collectivist society, belongingness and acceptance are important. I was acutely aware of how all of this contrasted with my strongly individualist mindset. However, the past year of the pandemic has left me wondering whether the distinction between individualistic and collectivist cultures is as great, and as fixed, as it seems.

What has shocked me the most is how rare it is for people to think for themselves. The world has been taken over by a herd mentality that happily goes along with the mainstream narrative being fed to it. Anyone who questions the narrative is likely to be called a conspiracy theorist or Covid denier. (Evidence that the virus came from a lab just keeps on growing though). Is a desire to fit in and not be ostracised driving people to conform to the norm, even in supposedly individualistic societies? Look at what happened to Sweden, the outlier country which shunned strict lockdown and was globally condemned for it. Or did people never actually think critically in the first place?

A society’s individualistic or collectivist view is said to influence the extent to which it accepts government involvement and cooperates with laws. Australians perceive themselves as easy going and anti-authority but most obediently gave up their rights and freedoms for the “common good”, in return for “being kept safe and protected”. (The Victoria state premier was labeled a dictator by some, but his overall popularity grew in proportion to the extent of restrictions). The widespread conversion to collectivism in Australia during the pandemic has enabled the government to introduce rules so draconian that no one is allowed to leave the country unless they obtain a rarely-granted exemption.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has stoked India’s individualism, with many people ignoring health guidelines and finding ways of getting around the system, in some cases out of necessity to try and earn a living and survive. How can there be a common good in India when mass measures such as lockdowns are detrimental to a substantial part of the population? What’s more, instead of having faith in the government, people felt abandoned during the worsening second wave when political rallies continued to take place across the country and very little support was forthcoming. Everyone had to focus on looking after themselves and their immediate families in whatever ways they could.

Admittedly, I remain stubbornly individualistic. I like to do my own research and make my own decisions instead of relying on authorities for direction or assistance. I guess there will be limited place for me in the world as the pandemic spells the end of western individualism as it was known. Transformation into a global collectivist society is well underway with increased government surveillance mechanisms aimed at tracking, monitoring and controlling people at all levels. Think digital identifications linked to health/vaccine records. There’s no going back from that. As former US president Herbert Hoover once said, “Every collectivist revolution rides in on a Trojan horse of emergency”.

(Sharell Cook is a travel writer from Down Under who has made Mumbai her home and is trying to make sense of India one ‘Like That Only’ at a time)

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