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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

In times of great psychic vulnerability, we must also listen to our ‘outsider’ selves

The seeds of bogey-ism are only planted when we start calling COVID-19, for example, the “China-virus”, letting it drag a whole people in its wake, or when we infantilise Thunberg as an “autistic child”.

Written by Rukmini Bhaya Nair | Updated: August 6, 2020 8:49:28 am
What can be a more real threat that fascism or totalitarian thought in any democracy striving to preserve its freedoms? (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

“Other-ism” has been part of the human semantic arsenal for ages. Here, I propose a new variant of this concept more suited to our fast-paced, kill-by-scattershot-meme times — namely, “Bogey-ism”. The idea of “the other”, it goes without saying, has caused wars, genocides and recurrent epidemics of fear, hate and violence for pretty much all the long arc of our species memory. Indeed, many socio-biologists hold that the cognitive processes of “othering” have been an evolutionary constant across cultures.

It seems a plausible hypothesis, then, that an investment in creating narratives of otherness enabled societies to form strong, sustaining self-images in prehistory as well as history. Certainly, epics everywhere would have lost their stuffing ages ago if they did not have Ravana as a foil to Rama, Spartans to scale the Trojan walls or the repeated confrontations between Liyongo, the eponymous hero of the great Swahili epic, and his vindictive brother, Mringwari, to reinforce notions of a good “self” versus its evil “other”. The survival value of myths is precisely their ability to push otherness as a limit concept, as the penumbra boundary of an enlightened selfhood.

More recently, when two world wars brutally broke the spine of the 20th century in half, decolonisation, mass migrations and the redrawing of national borders followed in short order. As a result, old insider-outsider distinctions were dumped and everyone was suddenly a “designated other”, as evidenced in wartime classics such as Albert Camus’ L’Etranger or The Outsider. Meanwhile, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas articulated an “ethics of the other” in which the Other epitomised what he called “the primordial phenomenon of gentleness”. Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are uncontested modern exemplars of such a strong-willed philosophy of toleration in the political sphere.

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I want to argue, however, that we may need to imagine today a more nimble and less portentous cousin of Levinas’ “primordial” Other, one more suited to the current communication technologies that obviously include the ubiquitous 24X7 cycles of “breaking news”, swathes of social media chatter, full-Monty exposures to the spout-mouths of opinion gurus, and so forth. The psychological impact of these hosts of jumping-jack stimulations via simulations is still unclear, but there is little doubt that they have physically affected the circadian rhythms, the sense of location and body space of at least half the world’s population. It stands to reason, then, that our long-standing perceptions of otherness have also been influenced by these mass-scale global changes in the perceived proximity, the mobile intimacies, of the “other”.

Hence, just as the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt suggested in his 2005 bestseller that “bulls**t” was a particular variety of the blanket noun “lie” that most aptly described a substantial part of US public discourse, I want to suggest that “the bogey” is a sub-type of the ancient and baggy concept of “the other” that works especially well as a rhetorical tool in virtual, mediatised contexts. According to Frankfurt, “truth” is no constraint on a person seeking to persuade or woo others through words; he can say more or less anything he likes if not bound by legal oath. Bullsh****ng is not lying; rather, it is semantic leverage. Now, how about bogey-ism as a “disruptive” form of other-ism?

Bogey-ism, as I see it, has at least the following half-a-dozen features: One, it derives its emotional energy from the primal emotion of fear; two, it requires a mythic narrative space in which the teller can quickly locate a “scarecrow” enemy, usually conjured up via a simple stereotypic word or phrase; three, it invariably infantilises its narrative hearers; four, and relatedly, its attitudinal stance is protective and “patriarchal”; five, it thrives in the polarised environment of populism; and finally, six, it is mostly immune to “truth-hood” but can be dissipated, vanquished or diminished by exposure to the luminous rays of reason, scepticism, irony and irreverence.

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Six simple sentences that illustrate the pit-stops of a bogeyman narrative are: The bogeyman is coming to get you. He will snatch from you your freedom, health, well-being and all your birthright securities. He will destroy who you are, your precious, intrinsic selfhood. He will turn you into your dreaded other. But I have your back and will save you from this monstrous scarecrow. Trust in me, then, my dearly beloveds.

Modern nation states are ideologically structured and so, it follows, are their scarecrows. As a consequence, we are quite familiar with a huge array of bogeys: Communist, capitalist, terrorist, fascist and anti-national bogeys; religious bigot and godless atheist bogeys, gendered bogeys and alien sci-fi bogeys; virus, druggie, population explosion and universal corruption in the developing world bogeys. Individuals such as, let’s say, AOC, Greta Thunberg, Kangana, Sonia, Mayawati or Mamata can also be prone to being portrayed as scary threats to a posited “way of life”.

At this point though, I must emphasise that it is certainly not my case that these bogeys — and countless others — are all false or bogus. What can be a more real threat that fascism or totalitarian thought in any democracy striving to preserve its freedoms? COVID-19, likewise, has proven to be a massive attested danger in almost all the world’s nations. How then can we possibly include it in a list of “bogeys”? My point here is that the seeds of bogey-ism are only planted when we start calling COVID-19, for example, the “China-virus”, letting it drag a whole people in its wake, or when we infantilise Thunberg as an “autistic child”.

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Further, it would be naïve to believe that it is the historically or scientifically observed “reality” of bogeys that concerns most of the current legion of populist leaders. No, the fact is that Nazism, Stalinism, McCarthyism and what have you, are too complex a bunch of phenomena, too embedded in the intricacies of history, to explain at painful length to those already suffering from mind-boggling information overload. The health hazards posed by a coronavirus similarly require a patient’s respect for expert knowledge accompanied by the humbling acknowledgement that much about such viruses remains mysterious even to experts.

These are times of great psychic vulnerability when we yearn for authoritative “paternal” voices to lead us out of the deserts of confusion, to direct our intuitive senses of panic, loathing and resentment. Populist rhetoric must thus make swift play for sources of fear nearest to home, be they Mexicans or Muslims, taxmen and thugs; it must be able to pull a bunch of favourite scarecrows out of its closet at immediate notice. To my mind, the best antidote to any such fear-mongering tactics is to listen to our “outsider” selves with intelligent empathy. So let’s bogey, shall we?

This article first appeared in the print edition on August 6, 2020 under the title ‘For Covid, an empathy primer’. The writer is professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi

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