The Tragic Love Story Of Society And Individualism

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This article has been submitted by Pushkal Dubey for the CLATGyan Blog Post Writing Competition. If you think this article is a good read, ‘Like’ this article on Facebook (the button is at the bottom of this piece) or post a comment using the ‘comments’ section below.

The human race is an expansive species spanning the entire planet, a fact that is a clear indicator of our success as a species. Success, which we proudly attribute to our ingenious societal planning, our zest for technology…yada yada yada. The societal norms that happen to be part and parcel of said brilliant societal structure are our guarantee against our neighbours. They manifest themselves in the form of laws, code of conduct, etiquettes et cetera. They basically ensure that whatever Jimmy does doesn’t offend Mrs Khanna as long as what offends Mrs. Khanna is absolutely unreasonable. So far so good, until one realises that reasonable is a diabolically arbitrary term. Then next few logical questions that succeed such an epiphany obviously sound something like – where does one draw the line between reasonability and downright fruity loops behaviour? What exactly is the extent beyond which Jimmy would indeed begin to harm Mrs Khanna in a manner that is not justified, or vice versa? This article does not serve the purpose of answering these questions. That is the widely jested responsibility of our beloved policy makers and the intricate fabric of the society itself. What this article seeks is a logical explanation of any and every limitations upon the freedom of an individual to exist without breaching the rights of another individual.

The article most definitely seeks a logical explanation for acts like –

  • In many parts of India, the “moral police’ of the likes of the infamous Bajrang Dal set out on days like valentine’s day to cleanse the society by putting black paint on the faces of couples that are found cuddling in parks, vandalising greeting card shops etc. Their claim being that these actions of the unfortunate couples are a result of western influence and are not acceptable by the society.
  • Adult women in Mangalore were thrown out of pubs because a section of the society did not want that happening.
  • Members of Bhagat Singh Sena and Sri Ram Sene beat up the reputed lawer Mr Prashant Bhushan on account for his comments over plebiscite in Kashmir.
  • Sexual deviance is treated as a disease by the society and sexually ‘deviant’ people are ostracised by the society.

 * * *

The state: ultimate public organisation or death of individuality?

To successfully analyse the issue, one must begin at the beginning. The idea of state is the epitome of human craving for a social life. State is the representation of the sovereignty of its citizenry. It is a settlement under which, by conferring his rights to the state, an individual transforms into a citizen of the state. The state in turn guarantees the citizen the protection of his sovereignty and does not allow the citizen to exercise a right that would in turn undermine the right of any other individual. This concept has been subjected to various debates in the recent times but is quite evidently the accepted system of social organisation, hence making it our starting point.

The idea of state in theory seems extremely functional, convenient even but it is full of logical fallacies. The laws of the state cannot be formulated on a one size fits all policy on the account of diversity in human behaviour and human needs and wants. The constitution of India compensates for it by introducing the principle of “equality among equals” in Article 14 (Indira Sawhney vs. Union of India). Nevertheless, there still remain gaping holes in implementation.

The reason being, there aren’t any equals.

People have a right to their individuality and that right is breached as soon as the state begins to generalise its interference in the lives of people. Although that is a staunch necessity for the sake of practicality, it defies the principle of sovereignty that the state is based upon. The state is a necessary evil. We require the setup to not submerge our lives in anarchical primitivism.

Nevertheless, a few questions arise at this point –

  • Does the state successfully represent the sovereignty of its citizenry?
  • If it doesn’t then would that make the state a failed organisation?
  • If it does then what is the extent to which a state can interfere with an individual’s life?

We don’t have the correct answer but we refuse to accept the answer that we have.

* * *

The society : conformism vs. individualism

The state is in fact the representation of the sovereignty of the society as a whole. Hence the next logical step would be of addressing the society and its role, warranted or otherwise, in a person’s private life.

The society has a few annoying traits that one must come to terms with if one must exist in society. The first one of them being that a society might be immensely diverse but it sustains itself on the pillars of conformity. A large number of the norms of society are based on what is commonplace for the majority of its constituents as a result of which what is the view of the majority slowly transforms into what is “normal” with no logical connectives to them. In this process the society begins to expect all its constituents to conform to those norms which, the ones who are of the minority opinion find hard to do.

Consequently, on the basis of the previous illogical assumption of the majority being normal, the minority squarely falls into the category of being abnormal; illogically so. Soon normal becomes right and abnormal becomes wrong. The norms are set according to what is “normal” and therefore those bold enough to assert their “abnormality” are ostracised. At this point the society leaves the individual with two choices, either to let the norms of society conduct his/her private life or be subjected to desertion or even hostility. Thus the society begins to conduct the private life of an individual who is always at the fear of public prosecution.

Resultantly the society turns into a vicious cycle of public opinion driving private life for the sole reason that it is, as a result of which the ones with a deviant opinion are forced to conform and thus harbour the same opinion and then again impose their opinion over the next generation of society.

* * *

The Indian setting

Four desis struggle with forks and knives in a fancy restaurant. People aren’t allowed to express their love on the street because a group of other people wouldn’t want to do that. A real man cannot have sexual relations with another real man because some man’s God said that he wouldn’t like that to happen. A respected scientist is jailed for drawing a cartoon. One constantly has to live in the fear of getting on the wrong side of society for an action that he committed in his private capacity. Adds a whole new meaning to ‘animal’ in the phrase “social animal”.

This is typically applicable in the Indian context since the Indian society is an extremely social one. All our lives are vastly influenced by public opinion and influencing public opinion is a major driving factor in our private lives. Be it Mrs Sharma’s daughter’s second wedding or Mr Bagga’s new car, all facets of private life are scrutinised by the public eye. The elders can’t get enough say in the youngsters’ life and the youngsters can’t get enough space from the interference of elders. Thus, the Indian society has a pretty little conflict shaped up for itself, and like all good conflicts this one has a flipside to the obvious too.

A major defence to the extensive social interference is presented by citing examples of other so-called liberal societies; where social obligations are reduced to a minimum and people begin to lead an animalistic existence. The debate becomes whether social barometers that act out at deviance are actually helping our society to not waver irrevocably far from the constricted treads of humanistic idealism. The debate extends to whether an alcohol gulping, humping and grumping existence can be avoided by letting those social barometers hold their forts.

At this point the Indian Society finds itself at crossroads of sorts where one road will lead down a more liberalistic path and the other will tread along the tried and tested tracks of social interrelations.

And therefore at this point the article asks a few more questions

  • What is a social person’s definition of normal and to what extent is it valid?
  • What is the point of conforming to any social norm that one cannot naturally conform to, assuming that non-conformation doesn’t lead to any harm?
  • Is a liberal existence actually beneficial for the development of an individual, especially in the Indian context?
* * *

What you had to say

For the next segment of our article we threw the questions that we came up with at the public. Based on their answers, we chose four different people from various walks of life to represent the thinking of the various age groups and ordinal positions that they occupy in the society.

Nimoy

Nimoy Kher is an 18 year old undergraduate who is preparing for his law school examinations. On being questioned about his views over the subject he had a lot to present. He agrees that the Indian society is indeed restrictive in certain ways but he believes it to be a necessary restriction. According to Nimoy, “The Indian Society is still in the process of coming out of its shell. The Government too, tends to interfere a bit more than necessary but I believe that for the growth of a democracy, these restrictions are necessary. Such restrictions make sure that the nation, which is still at a developmental stage can fast-track towards its developmental goals and prioritise individualistic goals at a lower rung. I cannot get myself to miss the connection between developed economies and better scope for individuality. That, to me, is a clear indicator that a government begins to govern less as the developmental goals are satisfied.”

“People in the society are getting bolder and the government is loosening its grasp over individuals but I believe that to be a gradual change” he opines, taking a stand against any snap and jerk changes in the society. He also maintains that intrusive opinion of society is not warranted at all.

He entirely dismisses the pretext of cultural debauchery in more liberal countries as an excuse to drive away from liberalistic reforms as a whole by saying, “We only see the surface of the cultural deterioration but we miss that any such party in Miami or Amsterdam is set up only because of the hard work that brought together a condition that could support such a party. We completely rule out the fact that it is the individualistic development and the scope for that in liberalist societies that makes them so hard working and innovative.”

Flynn

Flynn Francisco, another one of the writer’s interviewee, is a 22 year old student of Media Studies at St. Xavier’s College in South Mumbai. He believes “you have to take into account that until a certain age (depending on the level of maturity of the individual) our lives are governed wholly by public opinion, whether we choose to or not. This is due to the nature of growing up and learning the ways of the world. After that certain age, we cannot NOT conduct our lives by other’s opinions because that’s what we’ve be taught to do our whole lives. Even those who rebel against public opinion are in fact accepting it as a focal point in their lives.” Clearly outlining the dilemma of the norm becoming the rule discussed earlier in this article.

Flynn believes that public opinion in fact has a major role to play in our lives. According to him “The truth is that public opinion really is needed for every aspect of our lives because it’s by watching others and learning from their mistakes that we can learn and become better people ourselves.”

He therefore declares his infallible support for the idea of social inclusion by saying “Even for those who accept themselves as ‘free thinkers’ were still brought up under society’s constraints and are therefore subject to its whims and fancies.”

One can either conduct their lives by public opinion, or be legally insane. They are the only ones truly free of public opinion (regardless of their mental capacity) and we ostracise them for it” believes Flynn.

Shashwat

Shashwat Dubey, a 25 year old engineering professional, believes the entire debate of social inclusion and individualism to be dual in nature. According to him “There cannot be a certain set of guidelines for the extent of influence that public opinion yields in the private life of an individual. Moreover, private life is often made public to open it to public opinion. If I didn’t wish to inspire any comment or opinion on matters that are private then I wouldn’t expose them to my social setting at all.”

He believes “If a person doesn’t like what another person is doing in their private life, it can be because of two reasons – one of them can be when a person feels jealous because of what another person is doing, or experiences malice just because he doesn’t like what that person is doing, then such opinions should in no way affect the life of an individual. But if a person honestly believes that his integrity or his social space is being infringed in any manner, then he must have a right for his say in the matter to be heard.”

Moral rioting police largely comprise educated unemployed youth. If they want to propagate the importance of the Indian culture they can hold seminars, give out pamphlets, lead an exemplary Indian lifestyle or even hold rallies for that matter. However, forcefully imposing one’s ideology over others is not a civilized way of addressing such issues” says Shashwat.

Mr. Rajiv Mehta

Mr Rajiv Mehta, a 50 year old engineering professional established in Delhi, speaks somewhat in rhyme with his younger counterparts. He breaks down the entire debate in simple logical terms.

He opines “Well, for me a private act of an individual matters if it is affecting me – I mean if the private life of any individual is not effecting me or my family in general, I don’t care about it & hardly have any view in public for the same. Definitely, if any individual’s action or omission affects me, I should comment & have some say for that in public.”

Simple and straightforward.

As it has emerged from the opinions of all those who contributed to the article, it is not just the society that owes the individual, the promise of securing his individuality but also the individual who owes a duty of care to his society to not default his obligations to society, however absurd they may seem to him at that point. That is, obviously, if the individual wishes to be a part of the society

* * *

The newsprint ends, not the debate

Beginning to sum up this article, the writer feels compelled to request a favour of the reader. The writer requests the reader to ask any questions that have arisen as a result of reading the article to himself every day, so that the reader can ensure that he is not unnecessarily trampling all over the right of a co-citizen to be. The policy and the society in order at this moment are neither synchronous, nor perfect. Therefore, there are only these questions that can resolve the existent conditions. All throughout history humans have kept asking themselves such questions, even when the system gave them foggy promises of its perfection. So why stop now?

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