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Becoming human again

  • Published at 12:01 am October 12th, 2019
Hand helping

We are losing the qualities that ensure justice in society

If we ask, “What it means to be human?” the answer could be philosophical, psychological, anthropological, and religious in nature, but in one way or another idea of being human has always been associated with compassionate longing for dignity, integrity, love, justice, truth, solidarity, and freedom. But our lives at the present socio-economic juncture show the severe need of re-humanization. 

The need of re-humanizing our lives is yet again proved by the tragic death of Abrar Fahad at a residential hall of Buet. What could be more heart-breaking than a student of the best engineering university of the country being killed by other fellow students? Nonetheless, the fact that we are losing our humanity will become translucent if we recall our everyday life experiences -- we always come across news about restaurants selling unhealthy, unhygienic, and expired foods. 

A few days ago, we learned about the existence of harmful levels of antibiotics in packaged milk products. The production of counterfeit food products and life-saving medicines is widespread. Price fixing of essential food items has become a regular feature. 

We were traumatized to know how Nusrat Jahan Rafi was blazed to death, and how innocent people were beaten to death by mobs during the rampant rumours about kidnapping of children for the construction of Padma Bridge. People from all walks of life are involved in activities that pose negative bearings on others’ lives. This list is endless, and raises the question of whether we have forgotten that we are human. 

Why do we, as humans, forget compassion and empathy towards others? Why do we endanger others’ lives? Why do we not react to the violation of basic human needs? Is it because we have ceased to be human? These questions resonate with George Orwell’s famous dystopian fiction 1984, where he predicted the future of humanity as bereft of any human qualities -- as “soulless automatons.” We are not even aware of our inhumane transformations.

Once we ponder upon our everyday experiences, it becomes clear that we have succumbed to corporate interests, and become individual profit-seekers, suppressing human compassion. For instance, very recently, Sanofi Pharmaceuticals decided to discontinue its operation in Bangladesh, blaming the existing unethical marketing system. 

Sanofi claimed local pharmaceutical companies provide commission and gifts to doctors who in return prescribe their medicines to patients. Sanofi could not survive, as their global policy does not allow this gift-giving marketing strategy. There may be many other causes for their exit, but it has surfaced a fundamental flaw in contemporary human society. 

A feature of our contemporary life that facilitates “doublethink” to take over is the concept of truth that we adhere to -- which Alan Harrington termed as “mobile truth” in the book Life in the Crystal Palace. This means, “truth” in our life is determined by our affiliations, and we avoid examining validity of the “truth” objectively if we are benefitted. 

When our affiliation changes, the version of truth also changes. 

In the same vein, business corporations always try to produce truth for our lives. It can be elucidated by one of my personal experiences -- a few months ago, I had opened a bank account and the officer who processed my application had described how by depositing more money to the bank I could claim different benefits. A few days had gone by, and I received a phone call from the same officer, who by then had changed his job and was working for another bank. He said: “If you open an account with our bank, you might get more benefit, that ‘X’ bank [his previous employer] does not provide.” 

These disparate but regular incidences reveal a very striking feature of our contemporary life -- we try to produce a truth and reality based on our socio-economic interests, as Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw in the 19th century. We do not adhere to the positions and actions that might benefit the society at large; rather, our truth and reality are deformed by our affiliations. We even ignore the possible negative consequences others might face. 

In this post-truth era -- as Steve Tesich has termed, we have lost human empathy and cannot think beyond our immediate gains. If we roam across the city, in major intersections we find signposts that declare the zone as “beggar-free area,” or restrictions on the entry of rickshaws as indicators of our progress as a planned city, but what consequences do these have on people with limited resources? Do we even care? 

Of course, the loss of humane inclinations is not unique to Bangladesh. Turmoil in today’s world reflect the crises we are going through -- attacks on the Rohingya in Myanmar, pursuance of the National Registry of Citizenship and cow vigilantism in India, the US’s tightened relations with Mexico, China’s increased economic growth and violation of human rights, and the amplified far right populism in Europe and elsewhere manifest how we are losing human qualities and have become blinded by our narrow interests. 

The dehumanizing tendencies implicit in our everyday affairs indicate flaws in our perception of progress and development. In the open market economy, we all are concerned with statistical indicators. We do not take notice of the fact that we have lost human characteristics that could have ensured faith and justice in our society. 

We must, thus, overcome doublethink and strive to re-humanize our lives, otherwise, inhumanity will reign. 

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.