Zombies don’t need freedom

Mass stupidity, a feature of totalitarian politics, thrives on turning thinking people into zombies. How else do you sustain the politics of hatred?

Zombies don’t need freedom

Purushottam Agrawal

Kant, the 18th century philosopher defined ‘enlightenment’ as coming out of ‘nonage’, which he saw as the inability to exercise independent thinking. In a celebrated essay he wrote in 1784, he invoked the Latin phrase ‘sapere aude’ (dare to know) as the guiding principle of the Age of Enlightenment. Acquiring a rational persona and taking moral responsibility for one’s actions sits at the core of the idea of ‘independence’. A political system can be seen to be valid only if it grants citizens the freedom to escape said ‘nonage’, albeit with ‘reasonable’ restrictions, the kind of enlightened restraints that ensure that nobody wilfully damages other people’s freedom. Reasonable restraints on citizen freedoms, even in the interests of the state, will never degenerate into the deliberate creation of a fear psychosis by a narcissistic ruler and a paranoid government.

How to ensure that freedom is not reduced to empty rhetoric or the privilege of a select few? Even beyond the political structure, the entire social environment must gear to ensure the freedom of the citizen of the least means—it has to be a holistic endeavour. It was with this understanding that the founders of our Constitution framed ‘liberty’ in the context of justice, equality and fraternity. Weakening any of these three pillars is bound to make liberty weak and wobbly.

This fourfold ideal—of justice, equality, fraternity and liberty—must work as a moral compass for any enlightened democratic government. An enlightened State will encourage empathy and critical thinking in society. It will neither provoke nor hurt popular sentiment, nor will it allow these sentiments to encumber a democratic social consciousness. It will allow people to follow and propagate their religious faith, but it will not discriminate among faiths or allow murder in the name of faith. An enlightened State will constantly promote social movement towards an expansion of citizen rights, and protect citizens against threats from ‘hurt sentiments’ of all hues.

The citizens of an enlightened State never live in fear. In fact, freedom from fear is the crux of all freedoms. In his autobiography, Nehru fondly recalls the phrase ‘dharma’ and ‘abhaya’ used by Kalhana in the 12th century classic ‘Rajtarangini’. Nehru reflects: “(It) is used in the sense of law and order, something that it was the duty of the ruler and state to preserve… righteousness and absence of fear. Law was something more than mere law, and order was fearlessness of the people. How much more desirable is this idea of inculcating fearlessness than enforcing ‘order’ on a frightened populace.”

It is in this context, in the 75th year of our national freedom, that we should ask how free we feel as people and citizens? Seven years ago, in a TV discussion on the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, I was chided by the anchor for being an alarmist in anticipating an ‘undeclared Emergency’ under the current regime. By now, even the wishful have begun to see the point: the blatant misuse of law; the selective targeting of opposition voices; the vilification of intellectuals; the frightening pattern of vigilante murders, targeting Muslims in particular; the sadistic pride in bulldozing people’s homes and workplaces…

The most worrisome aspect of this scenario, however, is the apparent popular endorsement of this phenomenon, the subversion of democratic institutions, the utter disregard of the norms of everyday decency. The systematic manufacture of fictions masquerading as facts, the promotion of a mind-numbed, unquestioning stupidity is a big factor in the rapid degeneration of the popular mind.

Do we really need to enumerate instances of this manufacture and promotion? Even during an unprecedented crisis like the Covid pandemic, the supreme leader could not get over his penchant for theatrics: millions of workers, cast adrift at a four-hour notice, were forced to walk back to their village homes. No accountability.

Demonetisation, again at a four-hour notice, threw the economy totally out of gear. No accountability, no real discussion. Cow urine parties as an antidote to Covid—no anger, no questioning either…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident and admirer of Gandhi, was executed in April 1945. His reflections warn us about the diabolical nature of the manufacture and circulation of mass stupidity. He wrote: “That the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent (emphasis added)… He is under a spell, blinded, misused and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.”

Totalitarian politics thrives on the vilification of rationality and intellectualism (recall the phrase ‘intellectual terrorism’). That is how you turn people into fanatics and send them on suicide missions. That is why every totalitarian discourse foregrounds (easily hurt) ‘sentiment’ and attacks rational argument, that is why it privileges subjective ‘experience’ over objective evidence.

Mass stupidity is never a natural disaster; it is a feature of totalitarian politics, which thrives on turning thinking people into zombies, numbing their critical faculties, their capacity to use common sense, their ability to question and reflect, their ‘independence’. How else do you sustain a politics of hatred and violence, if not by debasing people’s intuitive sense of good and evil?

(The author is a writer, academic and political commentator. Views are personal)

(This article was first published in the National Herald newspaper on Sunday.)

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Published: 12 Aug 2022, 8:30 PM