Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Freedom and the democratic society

I read Dostoevsky's "Notes From Underground" on a train to Bangalore from Mysore, in the summer of 2001, trying, with considerable difficulty, to comprehend his disconcerting thoughts patterns and looking out for a refreshing cup of tea at the same time. I do not quite recall all the reflections he sparked in me. I remember, however, that I thought about the book a lot in the following days & spent my twilit walks around the serpentine Berlie street trying to connect and comprehend the substance of what he had to say.

One of ideas that appealed a lot to my mind, still adjusting and malleable at 23, was one about freedom. From what I remember now, Dostoevsky viewed freedom as a fully blown, all consuming choice. Freedom is not constrained to certain permissible choices in a rule of law. Freedom essentially is a constant and fluid choice between all possible rights and all possible wrongs. It is an exemption from all limiting factors including morality, ethics, discipline and other sundry social codes we are encouraged to follow.

I do not know yet if this is really a practicable idea. Infact, I am probably inclined to think that it is not. I agree that benefits of conformance are manifest in plentiful ways. It does protect us from grappling with myriad choices at a certain level; indeed, it ensures that we are in a synergistic relationship with all that is around us.

However, where I really agree Dostoevsky is that conforming is perhaps a trifle 'safe' choice a society can make.The compromise is really attitudinal. Its a tendency, really, to protect from all that can go wrong than nurture all that can be productive. This limiting philosophy dictates that we learn what is already known and accept what has already been 'understood'. Oftentimes, these barriers are crossed by individuals who differ from this limiting paradigm of choices, who have either unlearnt their lessons or never paid attention in the first place. And we owe a lot to these people for all that we have today. The point, however, is that we, as a society, do not encourage such behaviour. We do not encourage reinterpretation, en masse, in our schools. Dissent is voted out by the majority in our parliaments. We do not reexamine our truths.

Therefore, we wait for our messiahs to deliver. And until they come, we live caged & safe, exactly like everybody else around us!

1 comment:

Huckleberry Finn said...

Interesting. Good intro and flow, and clear juxtaposition of both sides.
But isn't the Middle Path the most obbvious choice in all matters? Neither too much conformity nor too less? Conformity in some areas, and non-conformity in other areas? (Perhaps my Buddhist readings are the reason why I think this Middle Path thing is obvious, so could be a very personal opinion, may not appear so to all readers.)
Secondly, on a content point of view, yes, Messiahs can make a quicker and more visible difference, but I do not agree that we need to wait for them, and that we are caged until they come.
I feel social change can also be brought about by individuals who choose to behave differently in their personal lives, even it invloves a certain risk - others who see them get the courage to also follow suit, and it can spread to a scale big enough to change the face of society. The media, the moment it sees non-conformists immediately highlights the fact, and helps the process. I agree this may be slower, but we always underestimate the extent of our influence on other people, and the size of the snowball that can build up.