(‘My dear students’, a fortnightly column that is a conversation with young minds on current events, books, popular culture — just about anything that’s worth talking over a cup of coffee.)
My dear students,
Independence Day is a couple of days away. So it’s a good time to ask what does Independence Day mean to you? In the political sense, we are independent but ask yourselves if you are independent in a personal sense.
Let’s see if I can put this another way. I think you will agree that there is something odd about how people engage with each other today. On most important social matters, we appear to be arguing past each other rather than with each other. Worse, in doing so, we appear to have lost the capacity for deep thought. We bicker, we fight, we squabble, but we hardly debate with each other in a way that shows we are actually invested in the issues up for debate. A century ago, William Butler Yeats put it best in his poem ‘The Second Coming’, when he said that ‘the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ You are no longer independent if you are driven by your worst fears and want to lash out. If you truly want to be independent, try to speak and act with the courage of your convictions.
In the moral and ethical domain, a domain that all of us are in, it’s important to have convictions, not just deeply felt but rigorously thought out. On this Independence Day, we must remember that the founding fathers of our country were fiercely independent in the personal sense too. Mahatma Gandhi stuck to his ideas about non violence and village economies, even if his ideas were considered fanciful even by his most faithful followers. On the eve of Indian independence, while the Indian political class was celebrating the event in New Delhi, Gandhi was in Calcutta, trying to settle communal tensions. One would have thought that the architect of India’s freedom movement would want to mark the occasion at the nation’s capital. But he had other ideas. He was not just stubborn but also resolutely independent in his outlook.
When Ambedkar was arguing with Gandhi, Ambedkar stuck to his views despite an entire political establishment that disagreed with him. He was emotionally invested in his views but at the same time constructed his arguments with careful reasoning and scholarship. Please read the Annihilation of Caste, a book that at the time it was written went against mainstream Indian political thought. Rabindranath Tagore held unfashionable views on nationalism that would not have endeared him to many politicians, but he stuck to his views despite the provocations of his ideas.
You want to be inspired by these leaders not only by their actions but how they conducted themselves. There are two forces in today’s culture that is preventing young people from relying on strong convictions. They have been told there’s nothing ‘objective’ about the standards that regulate their conduct. Since there’s no truth to the matter, there’s no need to have serious convictions in this area. Anything goes.
The other trend in today’s culture is that one can’t really have strong views on a subject because someone always knows better or that someone will tell you what is the right thing to do. This is a problem of quiescence. Our school system is primarily responsible for these attitudes. We have an obligation to work hard at our convictions, to seek out alternatives to our arguments and to weed out misleading or mistaken facts that have a bearing on our decision making. This responsibility is even more the case in the current tech and social media driven world where fake news can be generated quickly and to great effect.
Of course we must not have strong views on a subject we don’t know anything about. This is the flip side of not having strong convictions, which is that people act with passionate intensity on subjects about which they can’t be bothered to think more deeply. Our social media and television have already descended into this hell but the rest of us have been infected too. I notice that some (mercifully, not all) of my students speak with intensity and passion but without any conviction in their own arguments. Many of these are talented and bright students, with facts and figures at their command but not the inclination to marshal their considerable intellectual resources to come to independent firm convictions, one that they can take pride in and live by.
On this Independence Day, let’s invoke our founding fathers, not only to celebrate their achievements but to honour their streak of stubborn independence in thought and deed, their refusal to follow the orthodoxy, and their insistence on living their lives by their lights.