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Thursday, April 09, 2020

Literature can help in restoring integrity to ordinary people within the unfolding politics of the grotesque

What is more difficult is to respond to the loss of a moral compass evident in everyday practices and the simultaneous temptations of crass moralism that marks much of liberal discourse today.

Written by Veena Das | Updated: February 13, 2020 10:49:39 am
Ethics in our times At one level, it would seem obvious that if there is a time to speak out against such politics of hatred, regardless of consequences, it is now.

The Delhi state elections are over, but the residue of the venomous rhetoric that was let loose not only against Muslim communities but also against those who were part of political protests more broadly, is not likely to disappear soon. At one level, it would seem obvious that if there is a time to speak out against such politics of hatred, regardless of consequences, it is now. Yet there are many, otherwise decent people, who seem to find it difficult to speak. Before we hastily move into outright condemnation of the so-called average person wanting a quiet life and reasoning to himself (or herself) that such times force one to make compromises, let us pause for a minute. My concern here is less with those who support the political and economic agenda of the BJP, for such people are easy to condemn. What is more difficult is to respond to the loss of a moral compass evident in everyday practices and the simultaneous temptations of crass moralism that marks much of liberal discourse today. Perhaps instead of turning to the tired vocabulary of moral philosophy with its well tested routes of categorical imperatives and rule following, we might turn to literature to ask how might one restore integrity to ordinary men and women within this unfolding politics of the grotesque.

The philosopher Jonathan Lear reflects on these questions through the work of the novelist J M Coetzee. He argues that a major question for Coetzee is to inquire into ethical awakening within the milieu of severely unjust societies in which torture is routinely practised against those termed as barbarians, terrorists, or as vermin, who must be eliminated. First, through the character of the magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee suggests that the first imperative is to face the fact that even when one has not given explicit consent to practices of violence (torture, lynching, hateful rhetoric), one is implicated in these projects by virtue of being a citizen of such polities. Second, Coetzee does not want to cede to the desire of the reader to find an external authority, to tell her what is the “correct” ethical response in such circumstances? Instead of commanding or prescribing, Coetzee takes to describing what is entailed in ethical awakening, to defeat the very desire for ersatz posturing. I learnt from Coetzee that we can be rightly unhesitating in our admiration for those who speak up in difficult times, who turn up for protests on the streets, who face lathi charges and fight court cases, but we should also make room for other responses, extend some sympathy for those who are only able to join these projects intermittently, or who worry about the consequences of defiance for their families, their aged parents, or their children. Such people are not to be amalgamated to the category of others who come armed with slings to attack peaceful protestors or even those whom Coetzee specially targets, the liberals who are generally against torture but will concede that in exceptional circumstances it is justifiable; or those who are for free speech generally but not when it disrupts a much-awaited award ceremony.

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Those literary figures who have written from within authoritarian regimes invite us to bring a more compassionate perspective to our ethical tasks than to spew moralistic rhetoric. Here are some stunning lines from another novelist, Julian Barnes, in his novel, The Noise of Time, on the great composer Shostakovich and his struggle to preserve the integrity of his music in the brutal regime of Stalin. “He admired those who stood up and spoke truth to power. Those heroes, these martyrs but they did not die alone. Many around them would be destroyed as a result of their heroism. And therefore, it was not simple even when it was clear.” The brutal choices before Shostakovich — silence your music or become part of the propaganda of the Stalinist regime — are not what confront many of us in our daily lives. But the cruelty and brutality of this regime is that even very simple quotidian acts such as the right of my neighbour to buy meat have been put under suspicion. In Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, the magistrate bemoans the loss of ordinariness that Empire has created. “What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in the water, like birds in the air, like children?” Things are not simple anymore even when they are clear — recognising this simple fact may introduce more gentleness in these troubled times.

Now, as it happens, I am one of those who has been able to find friends who helped me speak out whether it was on the massacres of Sikhs in 1984, or in support of students and teachers now. But I have never been able to share how hopelessly defeated I feel by the inadequacy of my responses to the demands of the day; or on how much I depended upon luck to have come out somewhat unscathed by my experiences. In 1984, when I was working closely with the Sikh survivors of the massacres in Sultanpuri in Delhi, one of the local goons against whom I had been compiling evidence fell in step with me as I was going to the bus stop at the end of the day, walking alone. With a studied casualness, he said, “Behenji, I admire your courage but have you thought of what could happen to your children?” I, like many others, lived in private terror for many years and my children had to put up with the panics of an overanxious mother besieged with what they saw as her irrational fears — still I was lucky that the threats passed. But what if they had not? Who would I have been then? Just that thought makes me pause hoping that those who are not able to speak today will find their voice tomorrow.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 13, 2020 under the title ‘Ethics in our times’. Das is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University and Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy

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