Increasingly we seem to live in a world where everything is Binary. Perhaps it began post 9/11 when the US started looking at the world outside purely in terms of friend or foe. Perhaps it was an outcome of George Bush’s policy of ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’. It seems to have cascaded around the world ever since, be it the outpouring of support for either side post Charlie Hebdo or the current public discourse in India. We seem to have become incapable of seeing finer shades of colour rather than pure black or white, or being able to appreciate a hundred and fifty shades of grey.
Each event, each utterance has to be reacted to, and the only way is either total condemnation or wholehearted praise. It shows in the wave of indignation that has greeted Bhagwat’s pronouncements on Mother Teresa for instance. Isn’t it a fact that Mother Teresa was a Christian misisonary and therefore as such her first duty was to proselytize? How does that negate or decry any of the wonderful work she did in tending to India’s poor and sick, many of whom found no other doors open to them? Why should Bhagwat’s stating a fact have the Church or politicians cry foul and hurl opprobrium at him? But the popular reaction today is – either you support Mother Teresa or you support Bhagwat, there is no space for one agreeing a little bit with both sides of an argument.
The discourse against Pakistan runs so deep in some parts of the country that it is impossible to have a reasoned argument in which Pakistan could ever be in the right. Jaswant Singh and Advani provoked indignation not only among the BJP but across the country for merely saying a few positive things about Jinnah. Similarly, God forbid anyone say anything scandalous or remotely critical about Nehru when the Congress was in power. If someone laughs at a joke in a private setting that someone else disapproves of, FIRs are filed faster than you can buy a pack of chips. An average Joe thinks it’s perfectly fine to slap a female actor in public because he disapproves of her wardrobe choices.
The moral absolutism that seems to have become the esprit du jour means that we fail to note that there are hundreds of opinions, each of which could have nuggets we agree with and nuggets we disagree with. Each of those nuggets however put together, could enable us to have a much richer, deeper understanding of key issues. Be it on religion or sports, nationalism or politics, nuance seems to be on the verge of extinction, replaced with an absolute moral certainty that is probably based on pure emotion.
Tolerance is born out of the fundamental notion that there are many ways to do something and they can all be correct. But to an ignorant or uneducated mind – which by no means denoted ‘illiterate’, mind you – it is dangerous to admit new or different ideas because then the way ahead is not crystal clear and the mind will have to stress itself to actually think and evaluate choices. Far simpler, then, to merely discard or preclude such dangerous developments and insist on one’s own. Totalitarian regimes, from Nazi Germany to China under Mao did precisely that, burning books and libraries and carefully prescribing and proscribing what citizens could read.
When you’re lost in the darkness and can’t see anything except one path, you assume it’s the right one. But when the darkness lifts a little, you can see hundreds of paths and they may all be correct. Lord Tennyson said, well over a century ago “There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds”. It increasingly seems to me the mark of an educated, open mind that there must be doubt, there must be uncertainty as to which is the right way.