The brutal killing of French teacher Samuel Patty, followed by the murders in Nice by immigrant Islamic extremists, has shocked the world. Drawn into sharp focus is the seemingly intractable problem of reconciling the ideals of the western democracy model with the enhanced sense of “identity” among people — in this case, Islamic identity. In condemning the slayings, rational opinionmakers everywhere have reiterated that human life is sacrosanct, and no supposed “insult” justifies the killing. Global support has poured in for France and French President Emmanuel Macron, barring pretenders to Caliph-hood like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistan’s Imran Khan.
India’s liberal establishment has been somewhat noticeable by its relative silence. Its initial muted response has morphed into ‘whataboutery’, outrage against the hidden agendas of some who have come out openly against the terrorist acts in France. It is almost as if the “right” had been disenfranchised from voicing opinions in support of the free speech. Lawsuits against books, and protests against Pakistani artists performing in India (while Pakistani forces killed our soldiers) were cited to prove the supposed hypocrisy of criticising the killings in France. The comparisons are misleading. Lawsuits can be misguided but they never killed anyone — they were an appeal to the Constitution. Fighting for the right of Pakistani artists to perform in India while our citizens sacrifice their lives is the ill-advised “bravery of being out of range”.
Censuring someone else standing in solidarity with France rather than uniting against the brutal acts is a symptom of the malaise facing the conventional “liberal” establishment. The “open architecture” or “big tent” approach — which was dynamic, welcomed multiple, fresh and even contradictory views, and which responded to and changed with the needs of the time —is in danger of fossilising into a rigid, reactionary ideology.
An ideology that sets its own “standards”, acts as its own judge vis a vis people meeting the standards and “punishes” differing viewpoints through insulting adjectives and labels — ironically similar to the way US President Donald Trump labels his opponents. An ideology that too often takes positions based on a Pavlovian response to the “messenger”, the “who said it” rather than the issue at hand.
Even absolute rights and wrongs get nuanced depending on the “who”. There is an element of compulsive anti-majoritarianism. There are “hands-off” subjects — not to be discussed openly out of political correctness. Even the arts are affected — poverty and struggle are acceptable fountainheads of inspiration. An entrepreneur building something from scratch is not. A churning, “living” philosophical point of view is at risk of becoming like the extreme philosophies they oppose — defined and fixed, uncompromising black and white. The problem gets accentuated manifold with the impact of social media — where frenzy can be created on demand.
The challenges are not India specific, but global and are reflected in surprising recent events. Glenn Greenwald resigned from The Intercept (which he co-founded) because the criticism of Joe Biden was not acceptable there. Journalist Bari Weiss resigned from the New York Times because she felt bullied in an “illiberal environment”. Jeremy “holier-than-thou pontificator on Kashmir” Corbyn was suspended from Labour Party for fostering anti-Semitism. Most importantly, conventional liberals have been left behind by new movements, by the youth impatient for change. Black Lives Matter, the fight for equal economic opportunity in the US led by Senators Sanders and Warren, and even the struggle for a new “inclusive” Europe reflective of immigrants, have rushed past the gradual, paternalistic liberal establishment.
Liberalism needs to rediscover and energise its roots. It has to open doors and windows to new ideas, allow old principles to evolve with time and discover new causes that resonate with the youth of today. It needs to define themselves by their approach, by their fostering of change rather than mere contrast to other philosophies. Inclusive acceptance of internal differences may help them discover whole new groups that identify with liberal thought. Instead of an over-reliance on increasing complex legislation and overbearing government, discover and cherish the individual citizen – return to the roots of original democracy. Leverage technology and social media responsibly as instruments of change. Be disciplined in encouraging the indiscipline of new thoughts. Finally move beyond being having a “vested interest in vested interests”. Poverty and its societal impact can be the focus rather than political vote-banks.
Coming back to the event at hand — it means stepping up and saying out loud and clear that no human can be killed for having a different view or for a perceived insult. Short op-eds force one to perhaps oversimplify but “liberals” need to move from a black versus white mindset and embrace the comfort of grey.