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Empathy, morality: Traits of a civilised nation

Deccan Chronicle
By Professor  

In the month of August, Donald Trump, the leader of the Free World, delivered a rousing speech in Warsaw, the capital of Poland. Reminding the Polish people of their history of resisting oppression, by invoking Soviet and Nazi attempts to capture their nation, Mr Trump assured them, and the rest of the world, that America and the West will fight and win against Islamic terrorism. Islamic terrorism was deftly positioned by the American President in his speech as the new “enemy” the barbarians knocking at the gates of the civilised West, after the defeat of Communism and Fascism on a world scale.

In many ways, Mr Trump is central to the argument presented by Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian philosopher currently based in New Delhi, in his new book The Decline of Civilisation. For this reason, Mr Trump’s speech in Warsaw can be really understood in its true context by considering Jahanbegloo’s concerns about what Mr Trump stands for, and what it means for civilisation as we know it today.

Jahanbegloo contends that the very concept of “civilisation”, as we know it today, has a Western origin, resulting from European Enlightenment and subsequent developments such as the industrial revolution and the refinement of the parliamentary form of democracy. However, due to colonialism, it has had a fractured relationship with the rest of the world. The reason for this has been the tendency of the so called civilised world to always project those who do not follow its cultural values as the “Other”. In fact, he speculates that without the presence of this mythical Other, Western civilisation in its current form would go to the extent of inventing it.

Our decivilising society is like a vast wasteland that tries to escape its meaninglessness and thoughtlessness by entertaining itself with the notion that glory against non-civilised barbarians is still possible. Our decivilising society goes on gazing into its meaningless existence until it seems its busy imagination at last wills the barbarian into existence.

He reasons that in its true essence, civilisation would necessitate an interaction with the Other with an open mind, and empathy, a value upon which he emphasises in great length and detail. In sum, he observes that demonising the Other can never be the hallmark of a truly civilised society or country. 

Mr Trump, who announced with the flair of a typical tyrant in Warsaw that the doors of America will forever be closed for those it distrusts, then is himself the greatest danger that Western civilisation faces. This is because by closing our doors to the Other Muslims from certain countries in this case whom Mr Trump wants to ban from entering America, among his many such plans for various Others we close our hearts too, opines Jahanbegloo. And that is the greatest mistake any civilised nation can make, he warns us.

Jahanbegloo, who was arrested by Iranian authorities for allegedly “spying” for Western nations a few years ago, in a truly Kafkaesque misadventure, provides the solution to this conundrum of civilisation as well.

In his view, only a truly moral conception of civilisation, which listens to the Other and eschews violence in any form, which learns from the past to enrich its future, can reverse the decivilising process which we are currently going through. He identifies this process by its insistence on homogeneity and erasure of differences, and its will to impose a uniform order the world over, the Industrial-Capital complex in its global form. The apathy that this order generates in citizens world over is the real threat and cause for decay, according to the author. The barbarians are not the ISIS then, despite the external barbarity they demonstrate. They are the symptoms of a “morbid” age, he reasons citing Gramsci, an age in which the new is yet to be born while the old is already worn out and diminished.

He picks Gandhi and Tagore as the two humanist thinkers whose ideas could stem the rot. Devoting a substantial part of the book to these two, he analyses their ideas and reaches the conclusion that both spoke in favour of empathy and morality being the guiding force in relations between individuals and nations, respectively. In particular, he cites from Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj to buttress his case, a book that the Mahatma wrote in order to analyse the ideals of the Western civilisation and where they failed. While Gandhi’s emphasis on non-violence is indeed a political move of genius, his insistence upon using Hinduism to formulate an ideology of the welfare state remains doubtful, in many ways, economic as well as social. For example, Gandhi saw urbanisation as a Western influence, and detested it, pitching for the villages. But his ideological opponent B.R. Ambedkar thought the villages to be places that encouraged the oppression of India’s dalits by upholding the caste system which got weakened with urbanisation.

Any reading of Gandhi today is not complete without utilising Ambedkar’s ideas as they provide the framework in which to correctly judge them from the subaltern point of view. 

The same may be said about Tagore as well who belonged to a high-caste aristocratic family and whose conception of humanity was not strong enough for him to interrogate Hinduism itself, which Ambedkar found to be an entirely illiberal religion. If there is a fault in the book, it is this, and it is a gaping hole in its heart.  Otherwise, the erudition and clarity of thought possessed by Jahanbegloo shines through the book and makes it an essential reading for our times.