Even as a ten or eleven year old from a wholly apolitical family, living on the outskirts of Cochin without television (or much radio) and with access only to one English newspaper, I remember being as perturbed by Richard Nixon’s defeat of Hubert Humphery in ’68 as by Mrs. Gandhi’s splitting of the Congress party in ’69. For some strange reason, these events rendered me completely apoplectic. Ever since then, I have been personally and deeply affected by all politics and political processes- local, regional and international.
Looking back over these years, I am struck by the way my childhood excitement around elections and electioneering morphed into an interest about the relative merits of political systems and ideologies in my late teens and twenties. Out of that, grew a deep fascination with democracy itself. Today, I am both, in awe of and wholly frustrated by what I see as the beleaguered but extraordinary experiment of democracy. Like our species itself, it is mightily flawed, with all its complexity, irrational optimism, potential for corruption and even absurdities; and yet, it is infused with the promise of extraordinary humaneness and the potential for genius.
Much of my professional work in the past three decades has been centered around Higher Order Thinking, which essentially refers to critical and creative thinking; and Higher Order Relationship Building, which includes all types of human engagement from intimate relationships to group and civic engagement.
While I have not been active in electoral politics or campaigning, my work has mostly centered around civic engagement and participative democracy. I have been teaching the skills and tools that help citizens develop critical thinking capabilities; manage differences and disputes; engage in candid and constructive dialogue; and advocate effectively and constructively for their interests and rights. In other words, in creating a culture of democracy!
After surviving the dark ages, the middle ages, inquisitions, genocides, plundering by barbarians, colonizers and two destructive world wars, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; we humans did something that was an act of optimism as much as it may have been prompted by political and economic considerations. We established the United Nations and inspired a burst of global idealism that had never been seen before in human history. This gave birth to the radical notion that all human beings, regardless of race, class, gender, caste or culture, had the right to freedom, autonomy and a life of dignity. These ideas, in turn, spawned independence-movements across many parts of the world, and the rise of a powerful and influential civil society that could hold governments and regimes accountable for their actions. For a brief moment in history, it did look like we humans were genuinely capable of evolution.
However, just when it looked like we had finally learned how to be truly human, we now seem to have regressed again. Today, we have gone back to silencing those who are different and those we do not agree with. We kill cartoonists, bloggers and rationalists; terrorize those who aren’t sufficiently nationalistic, religious or culturally pure; and humiliate and ban, even from the most liberal campuses those whose opinions offend us.
If these only happened in the most repressive regimes on the planet, it would be one thing. Let us leave aside for now the barbarism of those beyond the pale, like the Taliban or ISIS, and not expect maturity or humane behavior from autocracies, monarchies, sultanates, dictatorships or theocracies. Most of these are contemptuous of human rights, popular rule or are democracies in name only. That still leaves us with the dilemma of what to do about our own once staunchly liberal, secular and democratic societies.
First here are some of my own assumptions and biases:
- I recognize that human beings are emotional and most often irrational creatures.
- I privilege critical thinking over manipulative or sloppy thinking that are riddled with fallacies.
- I am skeptical of easy solutions or answers to complex problems.
- I am suspicious of identity politics, claims of cultural and ethnic purity, and the treating of traditional ideas or practices as sacrosanct and beyond questioning or criticism.
- I see much value in individual autonomy and freedom, and particularly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not that these are complete or the last word on the subject.
Rights, Slights and Free Lunches is a blog where I will:
- draw upon my stories and experiences around developing the values, skills and dispositions that are essential to functioning in a democratic society.
- share my analysis and ideas about the state of democracy, and democratic societies and cultures the world over
- try to start constructive dialogue around complex and contentious issues.
In do not presume to have answers. Even where I might privilege some explanations over others or proffer a few solutions, I am happy to be proved wrong through constructive dialogue (and clear reason). In any case, I have little confidence that I will be able to persuade those who are determined to feel differently. At best, this blog can play a very modest role in asking some key questions and highlighting ideas that might bear thinking about. I do hope that some of what I write about can serve to remind those of us who care about the planet; the human condition; the extraordinary potential of the human mind; and the health of pluralistic societies; that we are at a critical juncture in human and possibly, even planetary history. Unless we are able to summon the courage and wisdom to step up and create the kind of world we believe in, we might well end up living in a world that is foisted upon us by those whose agendas will be as cruel as their vision is limited.
Caveat Emptor: My first blog, Meta-Conversations that started in 2011, was rather short lived because I struggled to make time to write. Much of my energy was spent on my professional practice at Meta-Culture where we tried to build constructive relationships between polarized groups, both, in India and elsewhere, all the while scrambling to sustain my wholly unsustainable center.