Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

The Pressures of being an Intellectual

Posted by Jerry on November 11, 2011

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Tehelka Magazine

The pressures of being an editorial columnist, journalist, or some kind of published intellectual can put real strain on your abilities to reach rational, honest conclusions. Because, in this information age, we interact within a massive marketplace of ideas–a market that is constantly and rapidly updating itself with newer, better, more provocative, more sensational ideas.

Thus, to really stand out–to win, to be noticed in this marketplace of ideas–especially, if you are in the business of peddling some and your survival depends on being noticed for your ideas, one has to either be a savant genius and genuinely innovative or be at least an imitative provocateur.

Ashis Nandy of the Tehelka is an example of the latter. It appears that he has succumbed to the pressures of grabbing eyeballs in this fiercely competitive marketplace of ideas by resorting to gymnastics–of the mental and provocative kind. His latest piece is particularly demonstrative and revealing.

In an article titled “The Pursuit of Happiness and other Absurd Ideas“, Nandy picks three ideas that he regards as particularly egregious and poisonous to human civilization: (a) pursuit of happiness; (b) progress; (c) secularism.

Now, if your hoping to encounter some definitions of these terms, you will be disappointed. Nandy proceeds blithely through these ideas without ever pinning down their exact meanings or how he uses them.

To begin with, Nandy makes this highly debatable–even untrue–statement: “Our value systems, even in India, are increasingly based on reason. Which is why, perhaps, we constantly feel like we are a country sitting on a tinderbox — riots, terrorism, insurgency, discontent.”

First, it is unclear what he means by “reason” in the claim that India’s value systems are increasingly based on reason. Next, given a common sense understanding of “reason”–as the faculty of human consciousness to identify, evaluate, and integrate the facts of reality–his statement is squarely false. If anything, the world–and India included–is marching towards irrationality, mysticism, new age spiritualism, whim-worship and hedonism, and overall irrationality than anything resembling reason. The global economic crises and the European bankruptcies are arguably great demonstrations of what short-term, hedonistic irrationality gets you.

What’s more interesting is that three of the four consequences Nandy cites here of the use of reason, namely, riots, terrorism, and insurgency, are all actually variants of the use of force. Now, any sensible analysis of force will reveal to you that force is the destroyer of reason. Nandy would perhaps retort here that it is precisely our reason that has convinced us of some superior “right” to use force against other people. For instance, some religious groups have somehow reached a “conviction” that their use of force is justified.

But that line of argument is fallacious. Force and reason are opposites. The ability to reason (to think, to evaluate, and to choose) ends immediately when a gun is pointed at you. A gun is a command to action, not a syllogism to persuade. It appeals to your fears not to your reason. Indeed, as it is empirically evident and proven for any honest person to see, it is only when reason, dialog, discussion, persuasion, and argumentation is abandoned that force becomes the means of settling disagreements.

Having disparaged reason, Nandy proceeds to attack the three “poisonous” values of pursuit of happiness, progress, and secularism. This is where the article derails from any semblance of intellectual rigor and enters into the territory of the absurd. Indeed, the absurdities leap out of the screen at you. For example, in explaining the origins of the idea of happiness, the author states that “all societies deny the idea of death”. Really? Which one? He does not say.

What he does say, immediately thereafter, is this: “In successful capitalist societies–bereft of religion, afterlife, rebirth, or any of the philosophies that transcend death–the panic [about death] is profound.”

That should qualify as the most uneducated statement of the year. If any country can be considered as a successful “capitalist” country, it has to be the United States of America more than any other–and this is also perhaps of all advanced economies the only country most rooted in the faith of Christianity, in the Protestant ethic, in the belief in life after death, salvation and damnation, and the transcendence of this material world!

Nandy goes on to make another risible claim: that “Both the disease called unhappiness and the determined search for happiness afflict the more developed societies.” Meanwhile, in the world of his own mind, the under-developed societies of repressive Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Nigeria, Somalia, Burma, etc. are veritable paradises of–what?

“Happiness, like school uniforms, has now become compulsory,” he says. Is he implying that the ideal human condition need not be one of “happiness”? Is Nandy suggesting that a human life lived in unhappiness or banality is just as optionally preferable as a life of happiness? If you answered NO to be charitable to the author, you are wrong. He explicitly states his intention, saying: “We need to be practical and reconcile to live in this imperfect world with our normal unhappiness.”

Yes, my dear readers. He just said that we should learn to live happily with our unhappy lives. Whatever that means.

National Socialist Workers' Party of Denmark

Nazism

If you think Nandy is just innocently unwise, again you would be wrong. Nandy belies a high degree shrewdness and sophistry. As evidence, note that immediately after citing history’s two most murderous, collectivist, tyrannical regimes–Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany–as examples of societies that enforced “utopian” happiness and thereby inflected untold atrocities upon its people, he goes on to allude that the modern conception of (poisonous) happiness is an outgrowth of the philosophy of individualism. The mental gymnastics that is required to at once connect the epitome of collectivistic horror with the philosophy of individual freedom, self-autonomy, and liberty is not possible without some intentional sophistry at play.

To be charitable, the author does introduce a brilliantly benevolent, correct, and pleasant thought into his otherwise vapid article; unfortunately, the thought is not his. “According to philosopher KJ Shah, the strength of a human relationship should be measured not by the absence of quarrels, but by how much quarrelling the relationship can take.”

The implication of this view–correctly–is that happy people are not unmoored by momentary disappointments. That happiness is not an experience of the moment, but an orientation towards life. Sadly, however, the author is unable to see that such an orientation towards life as that of happy people is not possible without reason–without a philosophy that promotes the exercise of the rational faculty. As the philosopher Ayn Rand noted correctly, happiness cannot be achieved by the pursuit of irrational whims and hedonistic pleasures of the moment. A rational man projects the task of happiness across the entire span of his lifetime. Thus, he seeks his happiness not in the mindless fraudulent pleasures of the moment (although he may choose to indulge in legitimate relaxation), but in the experience of a joy that comes without penalty, guilt, shame, or contradiction. Happiness is the state of consciousness that comes with achieving the non-contradictory values of one’s life.

Indeed, from a psychological perspective, happiness is an important signal about the successful state of our lives. It is the emotional barometer of human consciousness, which informs us about our success at living life. Happiness and suffering are parallel indicators about the physical issue of life or death, pain or pleasure.

Moving on to his criticism of “Progress,” Nandy states that progress is the major source of violence globally. He says we should “hang our heads in shame when using” the word Progress. Again, his distortions are unbelievably confounding. In his attack on the concept of progress, he raises yet again the repressive regimes of Soviet Russia, China, as Cambodia as examples to fight his case. However, the connection that he wishes to forge between these regimes and progress is one that is founded on non-essentials, and is therefore simply untenable. The common ideology that underlies these regimes is not simply “progress” as a vague, general goal–but a *specific* approach to achieving their own conception of progress, namely, a collectivized, classless, communist society achieved by force and revolution. This is diametrically opposed to the classical liberal and democratic approach, which also had as its goal “progress” for the human condition. The results are evident and history has offered its verdict.

The author conflates the failures of socialist ideologies with the legitimate and praise-worthy goals of human progress–without, notably, ever defining what he means by progress. Then, he identifies a phantom relationship between secularism and the genocides of socialist regimes, such as that of the Soviet Union, North Korea, and Khmer Rouge. Perhaps, he is blind to the fact that National Socialism (Nazism)–the originator of one of the most hateful periods of human history–was virulently anti-secular, anti-atheistic. It

Nazi German propaganda poster: "Danzig is...

was at the same time socialistic and religious. The Reich, or the German State, cloaked in Christianity, was elevated to divine status with the blessings of Hegel, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. If the modern Catholic Church is seen as a benevolent and benign dictatorship, the Nazi regime was an evil and violent one.

One should also wonder if the perpetrators of the Crusades, Inquisitions, Islamic wars, and other religious wars had access to the kinds of modern weaponry, would the scale of their murders be just as vast?

Ultimately, what drives maniacal men to genocide is not and cannot be a “belief in non-belief” — or atheism. It has always been a belief in some assertion–either that of the Divine God or the Divine State or the Superiority of the Collective.

But Nandy is apparently convinced about something that’s paradoxical (and perhaps because it is so, given his antipathy towards reason): he believes that any desirable society must bypass the idea of progress because progress is essentially “anti-life.”

Now, to take that seriously, one would first have to know what he defines as “progress,” because in the general understanding of the term, progress means the general enhancement of the living condition. To illustrate it simply, if the average human life span in the 18th century was 30 years, today it is 70. And that is progress. Period.

Turning to the “third killer in [the author's] violent lexicon,” we are confronted with an insidious analysis of “secularism.”

SecularismIn a very disconcerting claim, the author argues that one must not keep religion and politics separate. However, quickly, the reader realizes that the author does not really understand the full implications of what he advocates. At one point, you are even confused about the author’s take on secularism–does he hate it or like it? Because after disparaging it for a while, the author appears to defend secularism when he refers to the “hindutva” movement–claiming that Hindutva is actually secular. Wikipedia describes Hindutva as a Hindu Nationalist movement. So, is he implying that Hindutva is as good as secular or as poisonous as secular?

Indeed, much of this article is a (deliberate or not?) mix of conflated terms, inaccurate and ill-defined usages of words, and flat-out contradictions of ideas.

It appears to me that Nandy gunned for a shock-treatment approach to writing this piece, by employing “toxic” vocabulary to describe values that are–in the right spirit–actually some of the pillars of a civilized society. Perhaps he did this so that he could gain some eyeballs, shock a few people, and win a few uncritical nods at the seeming profundity of it all. To this end, the author achieves the goals. But he does so at the cost of exposing the goals themselves and at the risk of our evaluating such pursuits and such methods of trying to appear “intellectual.”

2 Responses to “The Pressures of being an Intellectual”

  1. Jordan said

    This is quite an extensive critique, so I won’t be able to address each of your points. But as one of Nandy’s “uncritical nod[-ders],” I thought I’d write I couple comments in defense.

    The first thing that I think you’re neglecting here are the domains of thought and theorizing from which Nandy is operating, primarily psychoanalysis and literary criticism. You’re presuming that scientific empiricism and a particular methodology of reason/rationality (which has its origins in the Enlightenment) are the sole arbiters of truth and meaning in the world. Are not literature and poetry also valid entry points into thinking about what is good and poisonous in this world? This is where I take issue with your focus on Nandy’s definitional impreciseness; he doesn’t define progress, happiness and secularism in a few words because these are complicated, culturally constructed terms that — for his essay — are better explicated through real-world examples and historical references, in the same way that literature deals with ambiguous and complicated concepts through metaphor and narration. Wittgenstein’s work on language comes to mind.

    When Nandy states “all societies deny the idea of death,” he’s making a psychoanalytic statement regarding the human tendency to disavow our own mortality; the more one’s society and culture is rooted in religion, the more one is forced to confront thinking about death. (As a side note, since you’re a fan of hers, I think it’s worth mentioning that Martha Nussbaum frequently draws on psychoanalytic thought in her work.) When he’s saying that capitalist societies are bereft of religion, he’s not talking about whether there are members of these societies that claim allegiance to particular faiths. Rather, he’s talking about how the Western world has pushed religion into the private domain, declaring “secularism” the only valid form of engagement in the public and in politics. He mentions Ashoka and Akbar as particularly relevant examples of how public, political religiosity is compatible with tolerance and social justice.

    The Third Reich, the BJP, the inquisitions, and all the other examples of “religious” based violence that you cite, are, according to Nandy, actually examples of violent ideologies that uses religion merely as pretext for much more worldly goals (power, money, etc). Today, “progress” has by-and-large replaced “God” as the justification for state-sanctioned violence.

    As for your comments on Hindutva, Nandy is not endorsing it in the slightest. He shows how if you look beyond the simplistic Wikipedia definition of Hindutva — at its actual historical origins — you’ll see that it is actually rooted in secularism. He’s already argued that secularism is bad, Ergo (excuse the pun), he doesn’t like Hindutva.

    You had particular trouble with Nandy’s line, “We need to be practical and reconcile to live in this imperfect world with our normal unhappiness,” which you translated quite accurately as “He just said that we should learn to live happily with our unhappy lives.” I don’t see what’s confusing about this. In our contemporary world, we are told that if we do not feel “happy,” something is wrong. A better “orientation” towards living, Nandy argues, is to accept that unhappiness is a prerequisite of everyday life, and something we should be learn to bear rather than obsessively try to correct.

  2. Jerry said

    “Are not literature and poetry also valid entry points into thinking about what is good and poisonous in this world?”

    It would be valid as a method of evaluating “good” and “poisonous” ideas in the world only if it were revealed clearly what is the standard of such evaluation–and whether or not this standard (tool, method, or criteria) is indeed fair and objective, i.e., self-consistent, coherent, and universally applicable. Else, literature and poetry function on the subjective, non-binding plane of personal speculation, enjoyment, and indulgence. However, to conclude as Nandy does on the “toxicity” of certain core values of a civilized society, and have a tone of such self-assured presumption, boldness, and certainty like he does, is disingenuous when you can’t substantiate your claims from a standard that is not outside your own head, i.e., not personal and subjective.

    Wittgenstein’s work on language–depending on which Wittgenstein you are referring to (the earlier or the later)–will variously tell you that that which is not empirically available cannot be spoken about in any coherent manner or that to whose rules you don’t subscribe to, you cannot critique. Again, both forms of Wittgenstein (logical positivism and the later relativism of language frameworks) are deeply flawed and require major substantiation. At the least, it doesn’t lend a theoretical foundation for the kind of certainty, presumption, and toxic vocabulary that Nandy uses. So where does his self-assurance about these ideas come from?

    Now, I realize that post-modernism has a new found appreciation for Freudian psychoanalysis; most thinkers inspired by the Continental tradition have begun theorizing from psychoanalytic perspectives. Regardless of origin or framework, I am open to grappling with any ideas on its own merits, and when Nandy states that all societies deny the idea of death, I see it as an empirically invalid one. The proof is in reality: the persistence of religion throughout human civilization reveals our *obsession* with death–and our fear of it. Thus, are we in a psychoanalytic state of denial about the finality of death? If this is what he means to say, I would agree. Yet, this would put him in the atheistic, secular camp where we agree that death is the finality and are comfortable with this. However, Nandy would not be comfortable in this secular camp, would he?

    If you take his quote in the full context, he is simply not intending to mean the denial of death as a psychoanalytic defense and coping mechanism of people. What he says is: “All societies deny the idea of death, but in successful capitalist societies — bereft of religion, afterlife, rebirth or any of the philosophies that transcend death — the panic is profound.”

    The fact of the matter is he is making an empirical claim about capitalist societies, where apparently the panic to cheat or avoid death is profound! Apparently, this is the case because such societies are bereft of religion. This is simply not true, as I have pointed out in my post. Indeed, the United States has *not* pushed religion into the private domain enough, which is the reason the specter of theocracy haunts America during every presidential election cycle (with the latest one being Rick Perry!)

    To cite two obscure and chance examples of “Ashoka and Akbar” is the height of cherry-picking from the plethora of examples demonstrating the horrors of non-secular, state religions, from Ancient Egypt to Medieval Europe to modern Islamic nations.

    All collectivist movements for power are fundamentally just that–collectivist, regardless of whether it is motivated by collectivist religious ideologies or collectivist racial ideologies or collectivist statist ideologies. And Nandy’s attacks on the philosophy of individualism given these historical facts he is fully aware of is shocking. A philosophy of individualism that ultimately denies the individual of his/her rights is blatantly contradictory.

    About Hindutva, I would like to agree with you here, but I don’t think Nandy would agree with you. Because, notice, Nandy actually comments approvingly about Hindutva and writes glowingly about Veer Savarkar, who he implies was some kind of “true” secular, and whose stories “Unfortunately most people don’t have access to… It is the same way Jinnah’s love for ham sandwiches and whiskey has been erased in Pakistan.” Here, his approval for Jinnah and Savarkar’s kind of secularism is quite evident. Unfortunately, we never get to fully realize what this kind of secularism this is because neither does Nandy ever define the terms he attacks nor does he remain consistent with the attack for too long.

    Finally, regarding the point about accepting that unhappiness is a “prerequisite of everyday life” and something we should learn to “bear,” this is one kind of worldview–and prerequisite is a strong word! But this pessimistic prescription also smuggles in some incorrect premises: That unhappiness or suffering is a natural or metaphysical state of affairs in human life.

    I would argue that it is not. Suffering is not the natural and metaphysical state of human life. Suffering is an aberration–a temporary setback–and open to human agency. It is like disease–open to treatment, prevention, cure, or management. The natural human condition is one of good physical and mental health, and happiness. Temporary setbacks–however frequent and pervasive they may be–shouldn’t be elevated to such metaphysical significance that they come to define the nature of human life. One does not regard disease and illness as the natural human physical condition; then why should one regard suffering as one’s natural human emotional condition?

    Success and happiness are the metaphysically to-be-expected, because if one thinks and acts rationally, then one can (and barring accidents) achieve ones values. As a character in one of my favorite novels said:

    “We do not think that tragedy is our natural state. We do not live in chronic dread of disaster. We do not expect disaster until we have specific reason to expect it, and when we encounter it, we are free to fight it. It is not happiness, but suffering, that we consider unnatural. It is not success but calamity that we regard as the abnormal exception in human life.”

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