Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The prophet and the critic: Placing the op-ed and social critique in context

There are dangers associated with writing a regular op-ed, and cramming it with visions of utopia. One of these dangers is the reader’s presumption that the author self-consciously preaches from a position of perfection. This is to say, it is assumed that the author says ‘I am perfect, I have found the route, be like me’. To read the author in this way is perhaps a mistake. Dealing with this situation, the scholar of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant sought to thrust the blame for this situation on the audience. Kant reasoned that it was because of laziness and cowardice that it was so easy for other to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor! If I have a book that understands for me, a spiritual advisor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who decides upon a regimen for me, and so forth, I need not trouble myself at all.

While not as confident as Kant of the reason for this state of affairs, this column would like to grapple with this problem for a while.

An opportune way to enter into this discussion was presented in a response given by Arundhati Roy in an interview with G. Sampath of the Bombay-based newspaper DNA. G. Sampath asked Roy why, given the nature of her politics, Roy had not disassociated from her “big, MNC publisher and shifted to a smaller, perhaps not-for-profit publisher?” G. Sampath’s question could have been framed in another, perhaps more common and direct format: ‘You are not perfect (you associate with corporate interests) and yet you preach (disassociation from corporate interests). Do you not think you are being hypocritical?’

Roy responded that she “could also write these essays and stand outside the station and distribute photocopies. It’s very complicated. This system doesn’t leave you the option of being pristine. If you write a book, even if it’s a book on political stuff, you get royalties, you put it in the bank; even if you don’t do it, the bank invests the money in the stock market, so none of us can be pure, really. And if you are, then you have to live in your own purity and outside of engaging. In that pursuit of pristineness, you end up being ineffective in some way. I have to live with certain contradictions, as do all of us.

Reading Roy and Kant together, it appears that both of them suggest that there are some of us who are willing to break the conspiracy of silence that surrounds issues that ground the status-quo, despite our being immersed in, and benefitting from this status quo. This will emerges merely from an inability to stomach our own discomfort, not necessarily from consciousness that we will liberate the world and lead us on to utopia. A previous column had remarked on the value of Pope Benedict XVI’s caution in his encyclical Spe Salvi against the presumptions of seeing human effort alone as capable of bringing utopia. This caution seems particularly apt here.

The value of the social critic lies in articulating the discomforts in society and speaking the unspeakable. Giving words to the inarticulate is the first step, allowing for a vocal public opinion to manifest. In the course of this process, the critic may also propose possible ways to think about the issue. To see these as THE answers is to miss the point of ‘social science’. As a friend once pointed out, ‘science is about love for questions rather than love for answers.’

One could also see the role of the social critic, indeed as some of us would like to see Roy, as that of the contemporary prophet. But then, neither are prophets or saints (at least the saints of the Catholic Church) free of sin or error. Made from the same flesh as us, they too are entitled to personally struggle with the standards that they may intellectually acknowledge and go on to announce. I seek to make a distinction here between an intellectual understanding of an issue, fairly easy to achieve; and an emotional understanding. It is the journey of emotionally internalising a formulation intellectually arrived at that is often the challenge.

And yet, this emotional inability of the messenger, does not necessarily compromise the validity of their observation. Perhaps we have been too spoiled by traditions that insist that their central figures were without fault, and free of blemish. This tradition prevents us from entering into a dialogue with those who do propose challenges to the status quo and harness the power of moral codes to highlight that something is amiss in our current actions. The claim of self-perfection is one we read onto them, not one that is necessarily self -adopted. On the contrary, as Roy very aptly points out, the search for the pristine location would ensure that we fail to engage with others and wind up merely wrestling with ourselves.

Roy’s comments urge us onto yet another level of engagement, the discomfort with the idea of perfection. Returning to Spe Salvi, Benedict XVI teaches that perfection and utopia, can be the work only of the Messiah, and is hence always delayed. Our engagements with society, our critiques, our grasping towards perfection are necessarily a process. This would be a rather healthy recognition, because while acknowledging that there are problems with the status-quo, it does not fix a permanent solution. It does not set up the social critic (or the critique), as the font of truth. On the contrary, once we are able to reach the possible solution that has been proposed, we recognise new problems, and move toward the attempt to resolve these. While recognising the critic as merely a messenger, this proposition ingrains in us the ‘love for questions rather than love for answers.’ It commits us to thinking perpetually about process, rather than stasis. Stasis represents the establishment of idols, process their continual overturning.

This love for questions, and the insistence on emphasising process rather than stasis, would have been something Kant would have welcomed and delighted in. It also places the regular op-ed in context, it argues, and engages, it does not preach, and refuse to participate in reasoning out the positions it proffers.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 18 May 2011)

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