Writer, freethinking-activist, and US-based IT professional Avijit Roy was chopped to death in front of Ekushey Boimela in 2015. In the immediate aftermath of his killing, I wrote an op-ed in DT, chronicling my thoughts and emotions.
One year later, in February 2016, I pondered about writing another short article about the state of issues in Bangladesh that Avijit was passionate about, but things were too depressing. Several more writers and publishers were killed in the same manner; most of the writers-bloggers who wrote against fundamentalism, had been driven away to exile or silenced by threats of death, and the country’s politics had markedly become more despotic and fundamentalists’ hold over the society had only become more powerful.
It’s 2017 now and the pall of gloom has become global; fundamentalism, nativism, clash of civilisations have become dominant motifs throughout the world. I am more depressed than ever as another anniversary has passed away. Then, yet another social media dust-up riled up some energy in me for penning down in this commemorative piece some of my scattered thoughts about the state of the world. Again, this write-up is not about Avijit but about the issues he cared about.
It wouldn’t be melodramatic to say that free-thinking and liberalism are facing challenges right now that are historically among the most formidable. Ostentatiously, religious fundamentalism and ethnic nationalism are the gravest challenges, but there are other forces which are also working feverishly to undermine liberal world views. These other forces assaulting the fortress of liberalism include many leftists, social justice warriors, anarchists, etc. The most pernicious aspect of this combined assault on liberalism is that all these forces are not just rejecting the authority of liberalism but they are rejecting the very authority of facts and logic.
Most liberals are very OK with the evolution of morality because they understand that as human understanding of nature and society advances, our conception of what is good may change with it
Michael Gove, UK prime minister contender and Brexit advocate, expressed the feelings of many Brexiters when he said Britain has had enough of experts. Trump’s supporters are trying to undermine the very fabric of reality with alternative facts. Social justice warriors are trying to banish and silence all kinds of ideas and expressions that can hurt the feelings of a person or a group, with the sole exception of the feelings of white oppressors.
Defenders of obscurantist religion say that critics who do not sympathise with the religious cannot criticise religion, even with facts and logic.
Religion and other forms of tribalism are integral to systems of meanings that sustained humankind until modernity. It is said that until science came along, religion was the science for people; it was through religion people made sense of the world.
Religion and other cultural tribalisms were not just science but also philosophies that gave people moral directions. The scientific revolution and enlightenment dethroned religion and tribalism from their perch.
Educated global citizens now do not resort to religion to understand the natural world or to devise political-economic systems. Even the religious today do not dispute the superiority of the scientific explanation for the universe -- notice how they try to prop up religion with scientific evidence but never vice versa.
What the religious of the world vehemently deny is that science and rationality can be the basis of moral guidance for society; they demand that religion and tribes remain at least the inspirational bedrock of social dynamics. They have a point.
In the famous words of Nietzsche, science and enlightenment have bumped off religious deities but failed to dislodge religion from remaining the basis of morality. Moral norms in the most advanced secular countries remain grounded in a mishmash of religion, enlightenment, rationalism, tradition, etc -- and this mélange of moral bases is evolving.
Even a casual survey of the moral landscape of today’s societies show how people’s understanding of what is moral have changed much in many aspects in the last few decades. Most liberals are very OK with the evolution of morality because they understand that, as human understanding of nature and society advances, our conception of what is good may change with it also.
Minimisation of physical suffering is at the core of moral concerns but finding balance in individual fulfillment and the collective good is an evolving endeavour. Advanced secular societies are not sinking in a morass of moral depravity because of this evolving view of morality.
Studies show that, in the West, highly educated liberals living in urban communities are leading healthier lives, with stable marriages, more civic engagements, more activism towards the collective good, etc. Rather than depression and drugs taking over their lives, most people are pursuing individual fulfillment through education, career, and retirement. There are just so many things to do in today’s world even for a person with moderate means.
Undoubtedly, economic security underpins a significant part of this liberal bliss and we just cannot say how liberalism will hold up under sustained economic stress. We already know that economic stress, at least perceived stress relative to other groups, is opening unbridgeable cleavages in western societies.
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PHOTO: SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN
Working class people belonging to the ethnic white majority feel that they are under double assault from neo-liberal economics and “liberal” progressive morality. Not only their traditional livelihood is under great threat but their traditional moral world view, based on religion, culture, and nationhood, is undergoing downright debasement and dismissal from the liberals.
Resentment of the dominance of the liberal world-view is behind the populist backlashes in the forms of Brexit, Trump, to no lesser extent than towards economics. Even as the neophyte Trump administration breaks all record of dysfunction and bungling, its most reliable support base remains the religious conservatives.
Trump’s religious-right defenders see him as a Godsend general in the apocalyptic battle for Christian America against Satanic liberalism. Incidentally, the same type of adulation was given to George W Bush during the early years after 9/11. For the deeply religious Muslims, Christians, Jews, and even Hindus, end-times are always near; every decade is the final decade before the apocalypse.
Outwardly, it may seem that the great clashes of today are between and among fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Hindus, nationalists in the West and the East, but actually their main enemy is secular liberalism. They reserve their sharpest vitriol not against each other but towards their liberal enemies.
These communitarian ideologies fear ideological aggression of liberalism, feeling themselves increasingly threatened. But, above all, they resent the simultaneously individualising-universalising ethos of liberalism that undermines group identity and group solidarity. Groups like religion, country, nation sit in between the individual and the cosmopolitan, and they feel under liberal assault from both directions. They have reasons to be afraid.
In pursuit of individual life fulfillment and material progress, is the liberal order furthering humanity’s prospects or undermining it? The answer is not clear and there are persuasive arguments for the negative. Just a few days ago, comedienne Sarah Silverman caused an uproar when she tweeted: “As a comic always working and on the road I have had to decide between motherhood & living my fullest life & I chose the latter. Men don’t have to do that. I’d so love to be a fun dad, coming home from the road & being my best fun dad self.”
Liberals cannot say for sure but they can argue that without free-thinking and freedom of expression, we wouldn’t even know whether the world is getting any safer or more dangerous. Neither liberals nor conservatives can truthfully claim to know the best course for humanity
Surely Silverman is reflecting the mind-set of many, many liberal men and women who think that raising kids is an individual choice with no stigma attached for declining.
Fertility rate has dropped far below the replacement level for the metropolitan citizens of the world and dropping still. Individual fulfillment and community growth often seem to be not complementary.
On the global front, pursuit of economic growth and application of science for efficiency are replacing humans from jobs in sector after sector. There seems to be a remorseless process of first commoditisation of human labour and then replacement of labour with machines.
Lastly, there is the ominous development of Artificial Intelligence. It’s not far-fetched to fear that conscious, evolving AI will make its appearance on civilisation within the lifetime of human beings who are currently alive. After the dawn of intelligence superior to human beings in every way, what will remain of humanity’s mission in the universe? Are liberals wholeheartedly committed to the physical survival of humanity or will they be content with the survival of human ideas in a better vehicle? These are serious questions. Already there are liberal strains of thoughts which say human beings do not have special claim over other species or nature and survival of the human species is not the ultimate good.
With that question of ultimate good, we circle back to morality, truth, and rationality. Faithful adherents of the groups would say that survival of the group is ultimate morality and facts, logic, rationality, humanity, etc that undermine the survival of the group, are not truth at all but falsehood on a deeper level. They would argue that individuals can find true purpose in the service of the survival of a group. Communitarians would argue that preference of one’s own religion, ethnicity, or nation over others is not racism but eminently sensible moral duty.
Steve Bannon, the supposed Svengali of Trump, famously decried Asian dominance of Silicon Valley by saying that America is not just an economy, it is a society. Bannon’s political philosophy may raise hackles among liberals and globalists but it’s easy to see why it can resonate with millions of Americans who think America has a native culture that is worth defending. Can liberals truthfully support the self-preserving instinct of some cultures while denouncing any such inclinations in other cultures?
It is the sense of collective survival that gives groups their certainty of purpose and no large group in today’s world is more certain than Muslims. While it is clear that Muslims have made themselves sources of unease and suspicion for almost all other large religious and ethnic groups, we can also detect significant amounts of admiration among religious Christians, the far-right in the West and nationalist Hindus in the East, about the tenacity of Muslim conviction though not the tenets. They are trying to replicate that certainty and intensity of conviction among their adherents with varying success. Implicitly, they are arguing that, if certain Muslims can be uncompromising about their beliefs in the face of countervailing facts, rationality, and sheer common sense, so can they.
Muslims are at the centre of ongoing great political upheavals in Europe and America. Whatever direction the political wind will blow in the near future, one can safely predict that the predicament of Muslims in the West will only get worse.
While we must sympathise with the plight of minority Muslims in the West and do everything to protect them, we must, at the same time, realise that Muslims, as the dominant culture, are the source of persecution and oppression in many Muslim-majority countries of the world. We need to internalise this duality of Muslims as victims and oppressors.
In one Muslim country after another, society has become markedly more conservative and restrictive. Without internal push-back acting as a brake, it’s hard to see that this right-ward lurch of Muslim societies will end anytime soon. A hundred years ago, the advanced countries of the world plunged into world war largely because of unflinching group loyalty of millions and widespread misconception among the elites.
It’s a great paradox of the current era that, in spite of the mind-boggling ease of communication and explosive growth of information, partisan loyalty and misconception about each other do not seem to be any less prevalent than it was a hundred years ago.
Ominously, it’s not just Steve Bannon who dreams of apocalyptic battles to revitalise his community of imagination but many millions like him around the world who are repudiating openness and embracing siege-mentality.
In this world, self-selecting information bubbles and automatic dismissal of “fake news,” what can free-thinking and freedom of expression accomplish?
Liberals cannot say for sure but they can argue that without free-thinking and freedom of expression, we wouldn’t even know whether the world is getting any safer or more dangerous. Neither liberals nor conservatives can truthfully claim to know the best course for humanity but free-thinking and freedom of expression make it possible that we have done due diligence before taking momentous decisions.
Avijit Roy and his fellow free-thinkers were by no means perfect exemplars of those liberties and he would have been the first to admit that. He would also probably argue that the faulty pursuit of an open ideal is immensely better for mankind than the perfect following of closed ideologies.
Shafiqur Rahman is a political scientist.