Killing neighbours who until yesterday shared curds and broke bread together. Allowing dogmatism to overrule reason by following fatwas of Islamic clerics or Hindu extremists. Allowing ourselves to be misled by people whose moral credentials are at best suspect. Taking a minor traffic brush as a religious attack and turning rage into a serial killer on roads.
Never before has this trait, this prime differentiator between men and all other species, been needed as much or in as many. Unfortunately, never before has this ability — to think, to arrive at conclusions and take decisions that help take individuals, groups, neighbourhoods, societies, civilisations forward — been so wanting.
In cities, behind the brittle safety of our EMIs, SUVs and digital wealth, we watch this insanity streaming through TV, that while ‘taking us to the event’ pushes us further away, as we transact a vacation on Blackberry during commercial breaks. Under the imagined protection of anomie, we “dissolve restraints on the passions of humans” and turn into a mass of bodies that work, buy and have sex with one another, but remain aloof.
In that aloofness lies thoughtlessness, says Roger Berkowitz, assistant professor of political studies and human rights at Bard, in a recent paper titled, Solitude and the Activity of Thinking. Analysing the work of Hannah Arendt (1906-75), he links lack of thinking with the rise of totalitarianism.
“I have long been struck by Arendt’s suggestion that totalitarianism depends on thoughtlessness that is itself rooted in the experience of loneliness. Loneliness, she writes, is the ‘common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government.’ As the ‘experience of being abandoned by everything and everybody,’ loneliness deprives one of a common sense and a common world; cut off from the experience of taking another seriously, of hearing the voice of conscience, and of listening in other ways, lonely men are uniquely susceptible to the delusional fellowship promised by ideological and totalitarian fantasies. Thrust back on his own insecurity, the lonely man is prone to embrace a coherent and stable world offered by ideological extremism.”
I see this extremism manifesting itself in ways that break down the warm comfort that anomie — defined as personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals — offers. It happened in Mangalore, where Pramod Muthalik donned a mask of morality and is now strutting around sprinkling his frustrated seeds of hatred, even as the issue gathers political momentum. The shock of women being beaten up and molested by thugs camouflaged behind self-righteousness must have broken this anomie, as it did in Nithari and Singur.
Berkowitz has an explanation: “The ‘isolated human being’ amidst the breakdown of tradition and the uprooting of friendships, loses his place in the world, and ‘seeks his place only from his belonging to a movement.’ The last 100 years are witness to what men are capable of in the service of a movement. And today, the current struggle between jihad and democratic capitalism has extended further the proof of mankind’s potential for depravity.”
Talking about jihad and its equally abused twin fatwa, none can match the viciousness, brazenness and crudity than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s seeking Salman Rushdie’s death proclaimed on Radio Tehran, ironically on Valentine’s Day in 1989 — a day that Muthalik and his goons decided to bash up girls in Mangalore. The event celebrates its 20 years with a brilliant book Midnight’s Diaspora: Critical Encounters with Salman Rushdie, edited by Daniel Herwitz (whose work I need to, and will, follow) and Ashutosh Varshney (who is an amazing observer of, among many other things, the political economy of India). I seriously recommend this book to thinkers and doers, voters and politicians — and most importantly, to all who believe that individual expression is a human right. The book is yet to reach India but when it does, don’t miss the last endearing chapter by Rushdie.
Thinking, Berkowitz suggests, separates individuals from the mass and inoculates the thinker from the contagion of conformity. Thus, the activity of thinking is the last barrier to the lonely and conformist uniformity of the blood-dimmed tide. The activity of thinking needs solitude, which Arendt notes is different from loneliness.
“Loneliness, Arendt writes, is the loss of the experience of being with others that can strike one even when and especially when one is with others and lost in and amongst them. In contrast to loneliness, solitude demands that one actually is alone; and yet, in the being alone of solitude, ‘I am “by myself,” together with my self.’ It is in solitude, Arendt sees, that we are least alone. Amidst the plurality that attains in solitude, there is the possibility for the activity of thinking that interrupts totalitarianism and fosters political action.”
But without passing any value judgement, I see that as a culture, we go out of our way to fill our solitudes with people, noise, events, activities…anything to help us not think. What are we afraid of, our thoughts? And if so, can we think our way out of this?
If this paper sets you thinking, read Berkowitz’ other paper, also on the work of Arendt, Thinking in Dark Times. When I think about it, Arendt’s ideas need mass assimilation. Man, with this key differentiator in the evolutionary cycle of life, must engage and rediscover his intimate relationship with thinking. And in that process, hopefully, rediscover himself.