Human agency has not ended: Hope lies in countering a deceitful narrative : The Tribune India

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Human agency has not ended: Hope lies in countering a deceitful narrative

Hope lies in countering a deceitful narrative entrapping the gullible in our disconcerting times

Human agency has not ended: Hope lies in countering a deceitful narrative


Shelley Walia

There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but it must be taken because conscience tells him it is right. 

                — Martin Luther King Jr

Any dialogue on human freedom is a step towards the analysis of the social and political consequences of diversity, exile, and multiculturalism on some of the most pressing issues of human concern. Our conversations, indeed, help shape our fearless resistance to civil aggression, academic repression and pervasive racism. We, who wake up to this reality, gradually begin to evoke our history, and our poet’s songs where, in the words of Angela Davis, “the insistence of imagining emancipatory futures, even under the most desperate of circumstances, remains a decisive element.”

Living these last few months of vicious turmoil of rising animosities and the wreckage of democracy, I’ve been struggling to understand what we humans have done to ourselves, and the disconcerting world  around us. Good news now feels like a dream. Amazon rainforests vanish, devastating floods inundate the earth, innocent minorities face the madness of lynch mobs. Social activists who dedicate their lives to the welfare of the tribals meet their sad end without a trial.

What kind of thoughts do we then pass on to our fellowmen so as to leave behind a better world? Can we be self-critical and honest? Where is the sense of objectivity when you are moved by the death of a white man while the murder of a black by a cop is taken for granted? The death of a cow can result in lynching and incarceration, but the rape and murder of a Dalit girl ends in hushing up the legal proceedings. How can anyone ignore the flouting of human rights when journalists are detained for no credible reason, democratic dissent hounded and fundamental human values brazenly violated? Secular politics undeniably stands negated by the bourgeoning demagogy of political opportunism. The recent ‘Rushdie affair’ is a stark illustration of the insecurity of religious institutions and political structures that unequivocally take a stand against the freedom of expression and individual right to religious practice. Brutal fatwas and extreme positions point to the insubstantiality of the notion of the ‘sacred’.

I often retreat into the music of fortitude and compassion I find in Bob Marley and Gloria Estefan. I hear the voice of the Civil Rights in Odetta Holmes and Wyclef Jean, the questioning of established dogmas in the lyrics of Leonard Cohen. And more than anything, the rebellious poetry of Kazi Nazrul Islam, the critic of rising religious intolerance, resonates: “I am the rebel eternal, /I raise my head beyond this world, /High, ever erect and alone.” As Herbert Marcuse once said, “It is the air that we also want to breathe someday, and it is certainly not the air of the establishment.”

Such a non-conformist perspective becomes compellingly provocative in Marx, for instance, who on no occasion loses faith in the power and promise of citizenship in a participatory democracy. He remains a stimulating companion of profound thought on the meaning of human emancipation and modernity, and a proponent of emancipatory reason, of a rationalist scrutiny of the world with a commitment to human freedom. He must be celebrated for his dialectical openness scaffolded by an understanding of contradictions and conflicts in social life.

In his company, we are indeed poised at a dramatic moment of resistance to the coercion of free thought, with the aim of seeking alternatives and realising we could make amends for our past by collectively deciding to change our very perception of democracy.  As Gayatri Spivak advises, we must move away from a narrow ethnocentric tradition, constantly remembering that “we are folded together with the other side in a critical intimacy”. The logical upshot to this would be the defence of human rights and fundamental freedoms through the promotion of an atmosphere of inclusiveness, respecting multiplicity of races, languages and cultures.  “Human agency has not ended,” says Noam Chomsky. Our very hope lies in countering a blatantly deceitful narrative entrapping the gullible in our relatively disconcerting times.

Understandably, some of us might be sceptical of certain “truths” or “pieties”, but such a temperament of incredulity is a step towards a secular world that helps to reinforce the institutions of democracy. It is not the pomposity of 18th century rationalism but a critical process that is robust enough to interrogate the dominant narratives without withdrawing into a passivity of abject compliance with historical meaning, experience and knowledge expediently designed to foist the master idea on the masses.


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