Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Anti-intellectualism and the Goan environment

To be an academic and an ‘intellectual’ is not necessarily about abstract thinking irrelevant to everyday life. On the contrary intellectualism is about asking hard questions and thinking issues through. It is about not being satisfied with the obvious and the commonsensical answer, looking for the linkages between particular acts and larger trends within society, and offering more informed answers to them. Why then, is there a strong tendency within Indian and Goan society to shrug off the intellectual, and when engaging in academic work to resist asking the hard question, and instead to engage in delightful descriptions of a situation? The answer to this question lies I believe, not with the irrelevance of academic work to daily life, but to the answers that it will reveal. Answers which will eventually shakeup the status-quo on which Indian and Goan life are ultimately based.

The difficulty of being an academic in Goan society has bothered me for a very long time. Only recently however, after random conversations with activists who have been in the thick of the fight to ‘Save Goa’, did the possible answer eventually fall into place. The first episode in this revelation came from one of the ‘leaders’ of the campaign. “Arrey Jason”, he said “what you and I write is all very nice on paper. At the end of the day the battle is being fought on the ground, and it’s a dog-fight out there man”. The suggestion was clear, essays that probe current events for their meaning and implication have no value in ‘real’ life. Episode two is a conversation with the supporter of one of the fronts spearheading the resistance to the legislative destruction of Goa. I was arguing with her that the position that the front took of being ‘apolitical’ was in the end a position that undermined popular action and allowed for backroom manipulations. At the end of the day, every small individual action is also political. Her response to my elaborate argument was simple “Aaanh! But that is thinking too much no?” Episode three involves a recently emergent populist leader of the resistance to the State, who at the end of a discussion observed “Intellectualism is used to create false bogeymen and complicate the uncomplicated”. If these are the responses of the leaders of the Goan resistance, to academics, intellectual probing and asking hard questions, then my friends we are in serious trouble.

There are two kinds of responses to academic reflections; the first as illustrated in Episode two says that it’s too hard to think. The second illustrated by Episode one claims that it cannot understand, or that the thinking is irrelevant. The first response is sheer stupidity and laziness; the outright refusal to think. Why would be refuse to think though? In episode two, my attempt was to show how the front’s claim to being apolitical, was in fact a political position that fulfilled certain ends. It allows the front to selectively pick issues that it will fight, and rather than following democratic processes of resolving the issues, engage in backroom deals. Backroom deals at the end of the day are concluded primarily by groups that are committed to the status-quo; that is they differ on minor points, but are in agreement on the fundamental bases on which society is structured. The refusal to think therefore buttresses the social dominance of the members of the dominant groups in Goan society. Since we refuse to think through our positions, and how our positions are structured by our class interests, our actions rather than challenging a status-quo that unfairly privileges certain groups, go on to further reinforce our vested interests.

The second response to academic probing has us throwing up our hands saying it is unnecessarily complicated and irrelevant. If the claimants of the first response genuinely don’t want to think too much, the second response is the response of those who do in fact think, have realized the implications of the thought and use this statement to dismiss the thought to irrelevance. Any idea that has the capacity to disturb and upset the status-quo is thus laughed away as impractical nonsense. Thus episode one above is not about the irrelevance of abstract thinking, but the conscious choice to think about the problem in the established manner. It is the outright dismissal of another way of thinking through the same issue. The act of deeming academic reflection irrelevant is thus a profoundly political act that refuses to allow set ways of thinking to be challenged. What we have to necessarily remember is that a good amount of our common-sense is in fact the result of an entire edifice of thought, not unlike the elaborate reasonings of academic thought. Academic reasoning accepted today, forms the common sense of tomorrow.

Episode three is by far the most disturbing response to intellectual endeavours within our State. It charges the intellectual with unnecessarily complicating a simple issue and sowing the seeds of division and discord. This response stops short of suggesting what every totalitarian regime has proffered to its dissenting voices and intellectuals, get rid of (read kill) them. The tendency to see an issue as simple, with every possible aspect understood is one that marks populist movements and totalitarian states. Both systems see the dissenting voice, which suggests that all is not well with the diagnosis of the problem, as the enemy. This is increasingly emerging as one of the problems of the movements within Goa today, where simple diagnosis that blame the migrant, the foreigner, the non-enforcement of morality, are increasingly becoming popular. Within such an environment, the skeptical voice of the academic will not be a welcome one. Yet, this is exactly what Goa needs at this point of time.

I have tried to suggest that a single malady lies at the root of the anti-intellectual environment in Goan society and the ongoing campaign against Governmental corruption. The malady is a refusal to think issues through and a disinclination to ask the hard questions necessary for societal change. This discomfort can be traced directly to an unwillingness to challenge the inequitable social relations that are the basis of our society. Simply put, it is not that we are unable to think, we refuse to think because it will make us face the inequity that pads our otherwise comfortable existence. If this is indeed the case, then we must realize that the revolution we are engaged in is also severely limited. It is limited to being a battle between two elite groups who are agreed in continuing the inequity that allows them to be elite, and is hence compromised. If the current revolt is to truly become a revolution, then we must agree that the agenda of the revolution must take on board the concerns of Goa’s most marginalized communities as it own. Until then we will be engaging in merely cosmetic changes, leaving the reason for the rot untouched. There is no option but to face the hard questions, to pursue the answers they throw up, and then, reluctantly or otherwise pursue the paths that they open up.

(Published in the Gomantak Times June 11 2008)

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