In Defense Of Liberty

By a friend….

“The person that loses their conscience has nothing left worth keeping.”
-Izaak Walton

The answer to the question ‘Should Collective Conscience Overwhelm Individuality?’ should be an emphatic NO. After all losing a sense of self paralyses the individual and neutralizes any proactive or progressive stance that can be taken. Yet, when people are faced with this question their instinctive reactions are to point out that the success of any initiative eventually depends on the numbers associated with it.
Sitting in a democracy when I stress the importance of the ‘individuals’ right to dissent’ away from the ‘collective’; the concept of larger good vis-à-vis selfish or criminal individualism is often thrown back at me. However, what most miss is that there exists a very fine (but crucial) line of difference between the ‘ideal’ collective conscience and the ‘real’. In reality, ‘collective conscience’ is a misnomer. According to Durkheim ‘collective conscience is a term for the moral consensus that is violated by deviant acts.’ For those who live by this definition, the agency of an individual will always be eyed warily. However, there is a grave misconception in accepting this definition at face value. To begin with who decides what is collective and is the ‘deviant’ an occupant of Foucault’s infamous mad houses and prisons i.e. in reality sane but a threat to the existing power systems? It is only when this line of thinking is adopted that the potency of the question raised dawns upon us. If collective conscience were indeed moral consensus then why wouldn’t individual agency be dismissed as a mere act of anarchy? Also, an analysis of the manifestations of collective conscience will expose us to the reality that the collective does not always uphold the good. The biggest examples being that of widespread communal hatred and gender violence. This is simply because the concept of the ‘collective’ is constructed by a few and not the many who are allegedly quoted!

In reality the ‘real’ collective conscience is far from a mass phenomenon. It is the elite who create the dominant culture in society and every body else falls in line. Thus, in no way can dominant culture include the good of the ‘numbers’ in its vision. The need of the hour is then to empower the individual and enable him to resist and oppose the ‘dominant’ when it is oppressive, discriminatory and exploitative. And the growing conformity of knowledge, of values, of attitudes, which our present system induces is indeed a warning bell. The fact that we value our independence must be the starting ground for creating conditions of learning which make for uniqueness, self-direction and self-initiated learning. For it is the institutionalization of ‘knowledge’ more than economic power that empowers a few, at the same time disempowering millions.
On being questioned, a rioter will never be able to point out exactly why he must wake up one morning and kill his Hindu neighbour with whom he has shared his darkest hours and greatest joys. He will simply repeat that it is public ‘knowledge’ that his community/caste was once upon a time wronged. His complete faith in what the ‘leaders’ have said-blinds him to reason, pleas for compassion and even requests to hear the other sides’ story.

It is this suppression of the individual impulse to spare thy neighbour (atleast!) by a purported collective will that is the gravest situation of all. When mothers, fathers and relatives quote (read: amply misquote) the Vedas and prevent women from attending religious ceremonies during their menstrual cycles by insisting it will pollute the ceremony, they are in fact mechanically mouthing what they think is predominant and therefore sanctified. Little do they know that women are recommended rest and therefore abstinence, considering the immense physical toil of they undergo during this period. But seldom does anyone resist or correct this misconception. It is such myths (of past wrongs to be avenged or conformities to be observed) that trigger the chain of oppressions. And it is only when individuals disengage themselves from the crowd and think for themselves that they will be able to undo and address the wrongs that throng our society.

Blumer in his theory of collective behaviour discerns a ‘circular reaction’ in society wherein people copy one another and amplify their emotional state in the process. Little realizing that perhaps the trend was started by a bigot who in the reigning chaos and unthinking inculcation of his ideas is in fact securing a foot hold (both intellectual and cultural) in the social fabric. In such a scheme of things the collective populous is expendable unless it an incensed clan of worshippers.

The question then is how the individual, the common man can resist this? The answer lies in personal initiative and thereafter community mobilization. We must be willing to acknowledge and privilege the potential of the individual. After all the responsibility does not only lie with the leaders of our countries or with those who have been appointed or elected to do a particular job. It lies with each of us individually. Peace, for example, starts within each one of us. If we consciously choose not to inflict violence or belittle the other we will from that day onwards begin a process of positive change. And history is full of examples of individuals (such as Kurien , Vinoba Bhave, Nelson , etc) who have stood against the tide and have steered ships of social change. Examples of such people must not be limited to felicitation ceremonies or anniversaries. Personally we can and should ensure that. Also what is most vital is the articulation of dissent-be it through the pen, songs, demonstrations, street theatre or the like.

However, beyond an endeavour to reform one’s self we must also facilitate generation of knowledge. A safe and secure place must be created to articulate critique, to question ‘popular’ versions of history etc. As in the words of Derrida ‘the endless play of knowledge’ must be harnessed. And this can be achieved by a critical engagement with the judiciary, the media and the academicians. Consciousness-raising thus should be the thrust of our actions. The process would entail making individuals or groups aware of and understand (via political and critical structural sociological analyses) that other people share with them common cultural experiences, that others too are restricted and damaged by certain cultural practices, patterns of relations, beliefs, stereotypes, myths, expectations, and social structures. People must be exposed to the relationships between their own biographies, other people’s biographies, history, and the social infrastructure. It is only then as conscious individuals will they resist the collective versions of history that homogenize and polarize into opposing blocks. However, the ability to mobilize public opinion must not remain an individual pursuit beyond the point of envisioning a plan of action.

We all know that the right way is not the easy or the popular way but the idea is to take it up anyway. The possible success of such initiatives must be emphasized. The rural population must be snapped out of its ignorance and the urban out of its complacence. I firmly believe that though everything can be taken away from a man, what he can never be robbed off is his attitude to circumstances. And therefore I am hopeful. I totally agree that the development of the individual requires far more overhauling changes in the allocation of resources and other societal and political reforms, however, the onus for change cannot always be on the faceless amorphous ‘them’.

What is important is the need to stress that the organization of a large scale movement is not the pre-condition for making a valuable change. After all it is individuals who will disengage themselves from societal complexes and pressures who will be able to create a positive thrust. With one person, a family of four or more may either change their way of thought or at least become tolerant of an alternate view. Friends of this familial unit and friends thereof will also be influenced. After all individuals have led other individuals by not even consciously attempting to lead. A very simple example would be in fashion, phrases of expression etc. Thus, this ‘informal’ dissemination of ideas, beliefs and systems will definitely make a difference and create an alternate centre of power-which for a change will perhaps empower.

We must recognize and critique the various mechanisms of thought control be it religion, notions of behaviour, descriptions of identity etc. And this is possible if we recognize that we make the society & not vice-versa. We define what societal norms are. We decide on what’s “good” & what’s not. We define social prerogatives. And we keep changing it. What was forbidden is now in many cases allowed & given social sanction to. To underestimate society’s adaptability is folly for it wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t accommodative. And even if radicalization of society is difficult and idealistic, that of individuals from within isn’t. It isn’t that hard for one person to try it. Humans pride themselves as superior beings & conquerors of earth, so I m sure one can conquer themselves as well. In this there is nothing utopian. Rather than being dependent on what we are taught to feel and think, we should privilege the individual’s free will. When people dare to dream & act/do, nothing is difficult to do. The World does not exist by itself- it is made of individuals.

As in the words of Peter F Drucker ‘the individual is the central, rarest, most precious capital resource of our society.’ It mustn’t be overwhelmed.

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My post Script…

Written a while ago, the reason I post this today on my blog is as follows. SFI- the student wing of the left lost the Delhi University elections, at a post election party meeting, I criticised communist policies- namely, the concept of ‘the greater common good’. For a card holder of SFI that is blasphemous- I was painted being anti-people. This is what I have to say about the individual- this is what I believe, that liberty of the person is the first duty of mankind-just like Vladiir Illich Ulyanov Lenin, the architect of the Socialist Russian revolution said: …. ‘Man’s dearest possession is life and since it given to him to live but once, he must so live as to feel no torturing regrets for years without a purpose; so live as not to be seared with the shame of a cowardly and trivial past, so live, that dying he can say, ‘all my life and all my strength were given to the finest cause in the world – The Liberation of Mankind’.”

One thought on “In Defense Of Liberty

  1. Good piece! The logic only seems to falter in the last para when “liberty” and “liberation” are assumed an equivalent connotation, for there are lots of differences between them and as well in the given context.

    I truly agree with the need to protect the individual against the “tyranny of the majority”. However, I don’t agree with the method to achieve that.

    Solutions are not only about “what is to be done?” but also about “who is the most suitable person to do it?”. It is easy to suggest solutions in terms of “what to do” but then you fail to take into account the incentives of the persons involved in this operation, therein lies the danger of the incentives getting misaligned and you have an arbitrary community or government taking charge of “what to do”, the slippery slope begins and soon we find ourselves in the wrong hands. The “we should do…” solutions soon tire itself out for lack of sustainability or fail to make large scale impact.

    A better operational solution is in private property rights, do what you can but you cannot force down your will somebody’s threat (if you find a TV channel unduly influencing you, the option is always there to switch it off!), but not so in the case of majority mandated influences.

    Why private property rights? Example: you have a newspaper factory, you have a certain set of objectionable opinions about the government and u did like to make it heard, you go ahead and do so but you soon find the govt bearing upon you, without private property rights you will soon find yourself “nationalized” and out of harm’s way for the govt.

    Moral of the story: Liberty is important both in terms of means and ends; and without property rights, liberty cannot be protected for long!

    PS: That was interesting! “Little do they know that women are recommended rest and therefore abstinence, considering the immense physical toil of they undergo during this period. But seldom does anyone resist or correct this misconception.” I didn’t know that!

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