Friday, September 13, 2013

On militant liberals, walking talking oxymorons

This was written in 2012 and first published in The Asian Age

There are intellectual fashions that grip a majority of educated people around the world at certain times. Staunch ‘Left liberalism’ is the prevailing intellectual fashion among India’s new generation of cultural elites. I admire both Leftist politics and liberalism, but the militancy of some ‘liberals’ astonishes me. 
A few days ago, I was at a friend’s place for a birthday party. We were having a philosophical discussion when one of the participants became agitated. He challenged another, a philosophy teacher who had dared to politely disagree with him, to a fistfight. It was ironical considering the intolerant man was espousing the more liberal view. 
The intolerance of liberals is a paradox I’ve been unable to fathom. If liberalism becomes a religion and is practised with similarly fundamentalist attitudes then it becomes a parody of itself. It ceases to be Left liberalism and turns into an intolerant faith.To practitioners of this faith, anyone who questions anything they say or do is an enemy who must either be silenced or converted. This was the attitude of the man who wanted the fistfight with the philosopher.
I’ve experienced milder versions of this on some occasions. There was one time when I made a comment, in response to a post on Facebook, about the Bus Rapid Transport system in South Delhi. This was on the day in March this year when the papers reported that the Delhi High Court had ordered the government to get a study done on the Delhi BRT in response to a public interest litigation suit. 
I thought this was a perfectly reasonable thing for the court to have done. There were two contending points of view on how well the BRT was working, and a fresh study by an impartial body seemed a fair way to arrive at a decision. I found myself beset by very vocal critics, some of whom are friends for whom I have great affection. The court had no business entertaining such PILs, said some people who otherwise root for judicial activism. This was the rich car users’ lobby shutting out the poor bus users, others raged. Newspapers had published unfavourable reports about the BRT because the journalists lived in South Delhi, fellow journalists said. Studies were never reliable. And so on, in the same vein, until I started to wonder whether my friends were prepared to bid goodbye to science, democracy, the judiciary and the press in order to save the BRT. Nonetheless, I clarified that I was only a BRT agnostic, not an opponent. I was curious to know if it was working as advertised, and if anything could be done to make transportation on that stretch better for all. This did not calm tempers. As the debate raged, it became clear to me that I was dealing with an article of faith. My agnosticism, and the court’s, was not acceptable.
A new report says the Delhi BRT is in fact a Rs 129 crore failure. “Lack of a proper bus route rationalization has meant that buses cluster on the BRT stretch, with only four-five passengers boarding or alighting per bus, but the government data shows a huge number of passengers plying on the stretch”, a report in Global Post quoting the fresh study by the Central Road Research Institute said on July 19. The report also mentioned that fatal accidents on the stretch had increased by 40 per cent, and wastage of fuel due to long idling times had shot up. 
It has been greeted with denouncements by the faithfuls. It is an unfair report, it discriminates against the poor, the methodology was wrong, etc, are being said.To me, this is worrying - not because of this particular issue, on which I retain my agnosticism - but because of the attitude on display. 
There is no doubt that these are intelligent people with their hearts in the right place. They were all educated in fine colleges, come from relatively wealthy backgrounds, and are eager to help those less fortunate than themselves. All this is admirable, but somehow some of them end up mirroring the attitudes of the fundamentalists they so detest. 
Like fundamentalists, these individuals cannot bear to have their certainties questioned. Their world is very simple, black and white. Corporations and their employees are evil, the police is always lying, the government is mostly bad, and politicians are abominable. The NGOs and rebels including Maoists and other terrorists are mostly good guys, but Baba Ramdev is not. The Right is always wrong. Rich people (excluding their family members) are rapacious capitalists. Development is awful except for electricity, the internet, the Mac and the iPhone or Blackberry, but sorry we need our ACs too. Air travel is evil but we can’t walk to London or New York, so it’s okay. Everything organic is good, too bad it’s so expensive. And so on. Such a worldview captures elements of the truth, but it is highly reductive, like this characterisation of the militant liberal. However, I may question my own characterisation, but militant liberals (an oxymoron if ever there was one) seem to harbour no doubts about theirs. They are creatures of certainties.
The progressive attitude is one that allows for abundant doubt. Science is based upon doubt just as religion rests on faith. In the scientific method, every theory is provisional, and subject to constant measuring and testing. You change the theory if the theory doesn’t agree with reality. The theory could be about universal gravitation or a stretch of road.This is the opposite of the religious attitude. In that, you believe something because it is the word of god. There is no altering views once you’ve accepted a faith; that would be apostasy. You might consider those who don’t believe in the same gods and books as you to be infidels. You would be vehement, even violent, in your denouncement of critics of your faith. This is the attitude I see in militant ‘Left liberals’. 

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