Sunday, July 12, 2015

Causes and Me

I was in the United States when the news of US Supreme Court disallowing gay marriage bans hit the wire. I did not follow all the developments, but picked up the news dinnertime while looking at the TV in the dinner hall of the hotel. Delighted, I turned to colleagues sitting at the dinner table and declared my joy at such a landmark judgement. The two other non-Americans present at the table obviously agreed, but only American colleague present shook his head in dismay - I am shocked! he said. In the ensuing discussion, I picked up the reasons for his objection, stemming from his belief, some perfectly justifiable ones once you accept the basis - the religious belief - to be valid. And, I do, as I am aware that my delight is also informed by my own preference (and belief) that people should be free to choose who they want to marry! The fact that I continue to believe my colleague is a perfectly decent, rational and reasonable individual, even if he disagrees with what I think one of the most fundamental liberties human beings should have, disqualifies me from being a cause-warrior!

This is important, because I am asked to participate in one cause or another all the time. One could possibly pick up the hint from my blog that while I may not have participated in institutional politics, I have a politics. The person I idolise, though I have never met him, is my uncle, gave his life to revolutionary cause, shot by the police in his sleep! I am an idealist, often chasing goals beyond the norms and requirements of my middle class life, and my reading list is full of books by idealists talking about a better world.So, it is indeed natural to expect me to participate in various protests and struggles, 99% against 1%, Gay Rights, Gender Equality, Atheists against religion, Environment Protection, Animal Rights, Privacy so on and so forth. And, indeed, in most cases, I sympathise, for reasons ranging from general preference of the underdog, to moral outrage in marginalisation of legitimate voice.

However, I have not become a cause-warrior of one kind or another, because I have developed a certain view of any kind of causes. First, I have come to realise that the case for any kind of cause is almost always overblown. This is not because the cause may not be worth giving attention to, but because of the nature of attention in our age, fragmented, momentary and shallow. To attract attention, one must shout - and overstate their case. So, the cause-warriorship is rarely about truth and consideration, and mostly about shouting the hardest.

Second, the underlying assumption behind cause-warriorship is often that there is one correct answer to most moral dilemmas. So, for each group, there is an ideal world, a Nirvana, worth fighting for. But, if one has taken lessons from history, this is rarely the case, and while many prophets have promised us many different paths, we always found out that human life is an imperfect one, with approximate moral answers, which vary in space and time. This does not mean that we should not have desirable standards, but the point is that we would always have many such standards, and the ideal would have to be achieved through negotiations, trade-offs and engagements, and not through breaking down and fighting everyone else.

Third, the business of cause-warriorship is a business, and often, though not always, driven by self-serving interests of the few leading men. While the cause may indeed matter, but the structure of institutional cause-war revolves around the visibility, fame and often money for some interested parties. In that way, it is not unlike usual businesses, and is about turning other peoples surplus time into the service of ego and prosperity of some.

So, the question for me is what else is there other than the bystander option? There is indeed nothing moral in being a bystander in a highly imperfect world, and while there may be no perfect solution, the need for engagement is still there - and in fact, more necessary - in the absence of such. Everyone, seen that way, has an obligation to have a stance on these causes, though, unrecognised by the cause-warriors, this includes being silent about some of them. 

Besides this, there is one other thing. No cause should be big enough to incite hatred and violence, because those things are inherent markers of power, the same oppressive power that these movements are designed to resist. There is indeed great temptation to imitate the ways of the powerful, because the powerless often form their ideas of power around those tools and methods, but it is self-defeating, because, any fight worth fighting is about removing the oppression that those tools bring about. This whole idea that if-you-are-not-with-us-then-you-are-against-us is one of the tools of oppression, often used by cause-warriors, and one of their biggest mistakes. Causes can unite as well as divide, and instead of a pure solution (which is, by any means, undefinable), one should perhaps look for causes that unite. This can work - indeed worked for the Civil Rights movement in the US - where appealing to good nature of human beings worked wonders rather than the aggressive divisiveness that many of the activists now display.

Let me illustrate this point. When arguing for tolerance and diversity, as in cases of gay or minority rights, if one is intolerant and allow no shades of opinion, they undermine the same values they want to promote. When campaigning for a voice, when activists try to gag any dissent! they defeat themselves. Animal rights warriors scarcely believe that their fellow human beings, who have a different opinion or do not consider their causes highest priority, deserve the same decent treatment and respect they want to win for the animals. Each in its own bubble, many activists disengage from the wider world in search of pure opinion, and undermine the very values they seek to promote.

This, then, sums up my attitude towards causes. Yes, I am an idealist and believe in human capacity to change. I believe that we are capable of building a more just and inclusive world. However, we may not build it by being in our cocoons and seek pure solutions - there will never be heaven on earth - but rather by expanding our capacity to be human, to include, engage and listen to each other, by building capabilities to reconcile our imperfect abilities with goodness of our intent. This we do by connecting, engaging and including, not by fighting and being angry, not by rejecting or excluding. My work is on causes that connect, and it is informed by the variety of causes, and diversity of opinions, that we must live with. I am not the worm in horseradish for whom the world is a horseradish, but a human being with frailty, imagination and aspiration. And, this - looking for causes that connect - is indeed a cause by itself.




 

 

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