Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Art for/of Tolerance in the Time of Intolerance

(Shoonya Buddha by K.S.Radhakrishnan)

Finally I have found out a solution for preventing the growing intolerance in our country. People just need to empty their minds of all preoccupations regarding religion, nationalism and caste politics, and should let all kinds of art forms to occupy those empty spaces. Empty minds?, you may ask. Empty mind is the Devil’s workshop, they say. But it is not necessarily be so. We have reached a saturation point in our minds that we need to de-saturate it by emptying all kinds of arguments. I remember the famous story of a Zen master asking the visiting Professor from the US to empty his mind in order to know anything more. Like the American professor, people in our country have become the vessels of information and opinion to the brim. A drop of reason cannot be poured into it as there is no space. People, literate and semi-literate varieties, always have had their opinion on things. But they used to listen to the scholars and learned people speaking or writing about them and used to make self assessment of things and situations without being vociferous about it. Today, as the noted art historian R. Sivakumar puts it, most of the people in the social media express their opinion without research or substantial knowledge. They have an opinion like their predecessors, but unlike them, these people have the avenues to express it. Democratically speaking, having an opinion and also having a platform to express it help to grow a just society. But too many unsubstantiated opinions circulated over the social media make our society much intolerant.

The debate of intolerance has reached to such heights that nothing makes sense anymore. The act of returning awards to their source organisations by the writers, film makers, historians, artists and scientists, though had been lampooned, ridiculed and severely criticised by so many people, calling them intolerant in turn, has however produced strong results in controlling the negative social processes and also has prevented the country from falling into the vicious dungeons of self aggrandisement, chest thumping and aggressive nationalism. The intolerance level has reached to such heights that the confessional voices of internationally acclaimed films stars in our country could be taken out of context and used for publicly shaming them. Noted ‘spiritual leaders’ double themselves up as art historians and makes elaborate assessment of the works of art that allegedly have hurt the sentiments of the majorities. While the publicly shamed film actors are from the minority communities and the ones who become art historians and moral guardians in our society come from the majority community. The identification or membership with the majority (community or religion or political part or caste), especially in a scenario where the ideology of the majority has political power in the democratically elected government, gives many the authority to articulate what is not qualified as a researched and substantiated opinion. The irony is while we do not allow an unqualified person even if he or she is from the majority community to operate upon our physical body for an ailment, we happily accept the unqualified therefore unjustified arguments or views of the people on subjects that need thorough research and knowledge only because they belong to the majority community or politics or ideology.

(Arundhati Roy)

This is not the kind of mindset that would take a society to the path of development for development is being the mantra of these days. In my opinion, the intolerance level of this country has reached to the unprecedented heights mainly because of three major reasons: one, the government, though the ruling party has a very clear political ideology which draws its energy from the majority community and religion, has completely failed in abiding by the democratic norms of being a government of all therefore failed in curbing the fringe elements in the majority community going berserk and letting loose the reign terror on anything that has a dissenting attitude. Whether it is eating beef or it is about not ‘standing’ while the national anthem is on before the screening of a movie, what becomes operative in curbing the freedom of the dissenting people is the false sense of power given to anybody who could brag on his or her nationalist credentials. Only in a fascistic atmosphere such a situation would develop where citizens turn against fellow citizens on any flimsy reason. Trolling and public shaming of people and ideas over the social medias is a strong evidence to my claim that the government while trying to control the internet users through various bans and jamming of bandwidths, lets the majority opinion flow freely in the same domains however arrogant, deviant, perverse and threatening they are for the dissenting and level headed people in the country.

Secondly, the media which is called the fourth estate therefore one of the strong pillars of parliamentary democracy, no longer plays its role effectively and impartially because the news making and distributing have become a part of the business which has a lot to do with the political lobbying during the elections and after the elections. In my view, nothing in our society or in any other country is separate from our lives today. We have become very intricate components of the gigantic machinery called the global market. Politics which used to be different from the dynamics of market, with the globalization has become an extension of the business and market.  Governing, today means making the business processes of the multinational corporations easier and profitable through policy changes even if such changes would drastically affect the lives of the common people all over the world. As media belongs to this machinery, it can no longer be different and hence it has become a promoter of what is being sold in the market; if it is majority politics then the media also sell the same. To hide the policy changes and to keep the common man from the complexities of power sharing between politics business, a lot of brain numbing entertainments are given to the common man so that his attention would be always diverted. More than wars today entertainments kill people. Wars are necessary for the international arms and ammunition businesses and geographical resource sharing between the most powerful amongst the nations. Entertainments are necessary because they keep people distracted and spiritually dead. A cursory look at the news channels in any country would reveals that news is no longer a serious issue but sentimental courtroom dramas where everyone gets a chance to voice their opinion and to appear like a saint. In some countries news hours have reached to that level of entertainment where news readers (women) slowly strip as they read news and by the end of the news they will be totally nude. What  kind of democratic values could be imparted by such news, I wonder.

 (Aamir Khan)

I do not intend to say all the media look the other way when serious problems come up in our society. No there are mediums that give their considered opinion both in television and an in print media. But mostly, today news media means entertainment. Because of the onslaught of information and argument around issues, and also the liberal nature of the media in giving the culprit also a chance to appear as a saint, confuses the viewers thoroughly and eventually the purpose of news itself is lost. There are reports from the backward areas of our country and there are several sob stories of human suffering elsewhere in our media. At times media become the voice of the downtrodden. However, as it comes closer to the power centres, the media blatant becomes the sycophants of the powerful in order to survive in the competitive market of news making and advertisement revenue sharing.

Thirdly, as I mentioned, the unconsidered views expressed by any literate or semi-literate kind of person against the people who demand a tolerant society via social media and the kind of permissibility given to such people by the authorities. In the social media, there are some automatic controls that prevent overtly obscene images and items from circulation. There is another kind of censorship possible in the social media; one, by trolling someone and abusing him or her for expressing the voice of dissent. Two, by mass reporting to the admins of the social media about the people who dissent. Of late there have been several incidents in India where people who demand or argue for tolerance are hooted down or forced move out of social media by the literate volunteers of the hate rule. In the name of democratic freedom and freedom of expression one cannot just abuse people like Romila Thapar, Girish Karnad, Amartya Sen, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Arundhati Roy or anybody of such status and repute. I am not being too much a status quoits or I do not say that they are the ultimate words of tolerance but I do say that in their respective fields they have contributed immensely and their voices could influence people and that’s why they are invited to express their opinion. It is not fair to troll them and shame them once they openly speak their minds. And imagine, those people who troll them are absolutely unqualified people like some office goers or local party workers or some nobodys only because they read newspapers (really?) or they see their favourite and biased television channels and have got a facebook account. I should not be partial when I say this and I insist that those people who lampoon the majority community and counter troll from that group also should not get into the same mode which would vitiate and aggravate the situation of intolerance. As Gandhiji had said, an eye for an eye would render world blind.

(Prof.Amartya Sen)

Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen in his book, the Country of First Boys, speaks of how partial we are in our arguments. He says that often we cite Bhagat Gita for justifying many of our actions because Krishna had advised Arjuna that he should do his ‘karma’ and should not think about the consequences. Taken out of the context, Sen says that it could be a justification for any kind of injustice. He insists that we should see it as the answer to the scepticism expressed by Arjun in saying that a war of that scale would be futile if he was to kill all his kith and kin and wrest power. The post war scenario definitely, Sen says, proves the scepticism of Arjun right. In that way we all should see every scriptural diktat in context as most of are not autonomous in themselves but form the part of a continuity. Sen says that all the scriptures including the Vedas should be seen it in this secular liberal context than a religious context. We should heed these words of this wise man carefully because most of the social media opinions on tolerance and intolerance come without a context. They are the results of hearsays, gossips, beliefs, superstitions, traditions, rituals, practice, routine, habit and so on. We need to accept that there are learned people who speak from the depths as well as from the heights of research, practice and experience in the concerned areas. A person armed with bullishness, ignorance and some blind faith in a religion or a political party cannot abuse the intellectuals and also cannot say a definite opinion against intolerance only because he or she has a facebook account. If it continues to be so, we are going to get into a dark age of information confusion and unfounded opinion.

At the outset of this essay I mentioned the need for emptying ourselves. Our half baked knowledge has become a huge hurdle before us in crossing several social barriers. This also prevents us from engaging ourselves in intelligent conversations. We need to unlearn and listen to the wise people speaking. The word Upanishad means ‘sit near around’. This is how knowledge was imparted at some point of time in our country. The guru used to sit under a tree and the disciples used to sit near around him. Gurostu maunam vykhyanam means the silence of the guru could also be an explanation. Guru taught, spoke and even made his disciples do his household works. But all were part of the learning. This Upanishadic experience tells us to be silent and listen to the masters. The Zen master had asked the professor to come back empty headed. We also should empty ourselves of our half baked knowledge about things. Either we should get into a research mode or we should just shut up and listen. If we get into the real research, like the young barrister in Chekhov’s story, the Bet, we would leave the material world and seek our solace in silence, in the wilderness. Unfortunately, we are mere mortals but we can shut ourselves up and listen to the sages of our times.

(Shah Rukh Khan)

Also I said that the remedy for all kinds of intolerance is to turn to art and cultural things. A person who could look at a painting for a few minutes will not think about killing someone or looting someone. A person who could touch a sculpture cannot shoot someone; but he could shoot a selfie with that sculpture. A person who makes a work of art cannot think of harming another person. A person before the presence of anything beautiful cannot think of negating the beauty inherent in another view or argument. A person who listens to music cannot elbow someone for space. A person who dances cannot make a coarse movement even inside the bathroom. Writing is a way of creating art so is reading. A person who reads cannot push and pull the other people around. A person who writes does not get time even to think of discarding something or someone. We all know the temples were the places of learning and art. They became the places of worship slowly. Then they became the seats of power, money and arrogance. Today we cannot find solace in temples for their spirituality is bartered for money. But we can turn the galleries, museums, cafes, libraries, concert halls, theatres, clubs, libraries and all into places of learning and art. Walk into a gallery without any intention to buy a work of art. Sit or stand before a work of art for at least two minutes, forget everything and even forget the fact that you are in front of a piece of art. When you come out you come out as a different person. The world will look different. Listen to a good piece of music, you will turn divine. Read a good book, you will become the world. Tolerance happens when mind becomes empty and to that void allow all the goodness of art and culture pour in. I am sure the future belongs to art and culture, of any kind. Paper money eventually returns to its intrinsic value- zeor, said Voltaire. But art and culture never returns to zero because they start from zero and moves towards the sublime where the word intolerance has no relevance. 

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