Reading your fascinating article, Confessions of a Modern Indian, I was intrigued by a distinction you made, which people outside India may not be aware of. You wrote, “The difference between Westernism and Liberalism used to be a fine line for me until I realized that there was indeed a large gap.”
I myself wrote an article on the word “liberalism” as it has been used by The Economist throughout its history dating back to 1843. I described the term as “one of the most confusing labels used to describe today’s civilization.” I pointed out how flexible the meaning seems to be, depending on context. Obviously, within the Indian context and concerning your generation, you are not thinking along the same lines as The Economist. Neither are you using it in the same ways it is used in the US, where contrast “liberal” with “conservative” are using it in their own culturally specific way, which has turned out to be another source of confusion.
As for the term Westernism, I’m familiar with the deep cultural divide that once separated Russians who identified with European culture from the Slavophiles who rejected European models and insisted on cleaving to the Slavic soul of their motherland. This rivalry dominated the question of Russian identity for the better part of two centuries. It has sadly re-emerged today in a new iteration focused on Ukraine’s Slavic but not Russian identity. Ukraine has long struggled, culturally and psychologically, with the problems likely to befall a culture sandwiched between the East and the West. Obviously, when you use the term Westernization, it is specific to India, which has had its own complex relationship with Western culture.
I would therefore be grateful if we could take this occasion to give Fair Observer’s readers some insight to the nuanced meaning of the terms. What can you, as a young Indian, tell us about how you and your generation understand these terms?
The word ‘liberal’ is an English word of which I always knew the meaning, and I’m sure others know it too. But past a certain age and maturity, I think people need to begin treating the word as the embodiment of certain ideals, especially if they are going to use the term to claim the betterment of peoples’ lives.
If ‘liberalism’ means being open to ideas, opinions and cultures, then all ideas should either be evaluated on the same logical basis, or we should not even bother to compare and judge them and simply assume the attitude that ignorance is bliss.
That definition stressing openness sounds somewhat similar to the traditional American idea, which implies welcoming social experimentation, refusing to be bound by traditions and inherited rules, while avoiding being disrespectful at the same time. With the culture wars around “wokeness” that seems to have changed radically and is the object of heated debate these days in the US. But coming back to India, who are the Indians that have adopted the liberal outlook you describe?
The Indians who care about the term are primarily middle-class and above. This demographic thus consists of wealthy people, people who have time to bother about the value of ideals and who question the morals guiding their life’s choices. But this generalization is an ideal, and from what I’ve seen, most people don’t do this. What they seem to care about more is convincing themselves that their lives are ‘correct’ and well thought out. And the most convenient way one can delude oneself and society into believing this is by labeling themselves as liberal.
Once ‘liberalism’ is thrown in as a factor of one’s identity, it becomes fundamentally and morally unethical to question the nature of any action or opinion. Everything is judged as equally valid. That may mean that society may evolve in ignorance of the underlying logical – or illogical – basis behind many of its decisions. And since, in India, those who have adopted a modern way of life are the ones who call themselves liberal, they thus assume their values are justified.
When I lived in Pune, one of India’s developed cities, I was at an age at which I would be able to remember people and events to ponder about in the future. That experience led to my long-standing unease and even a feeling of inferiority that developed while having lived in such a society.
Many of my friends and acquaintances represented a part of the population that adhered to liberal values. Their ways of attaining happiness were already defined. These were the people who commented on the Indian government behaving like a dictatorship, complained of outdated cultures holding people back and advocated following one’s heart and passion. These were also the people whose happiness lay in Instagram, shopping malls, fancy restaurants and alcohol. While they talked about diversity, there was nothing diverse in their social community. The word freedom, when they uttered it, now seems to me like a hollow concept.
For these Indians, liberalism is a fad. It’s about casting away the chains that our indigenous, ‘retrograde’ culture has forced upon us and ascending to the glorious world of consumerism and capitalism. Leaving aside what the term ‘absolute right’ actually means, if they tried to be logically consistent, these liberals would view Indian culture as equally acceptable. Since that is not the case, the term ‘liberal’ is tainted by the values imported from the West that this community actually embodies. Thus the term I like to use is pseudo-liberal, or just Western, though this term seems to offend the individuals being addressed.
Confessions of a Modern Indian
Where do you see these values expressed?
Today I feel that much of how people’s inner minds work can be gleaned from their social media feeds. Certain trends are predominant among the majority of the users, limiting the diversity of ideas or discussions. Now this seems paradoxical, if you accept the idea that the platforms are presumably designed for sharing one’s uniqueness. But I guess this is logical, as social media tends to attract people who, in the first place, simply want to fit in.
One could argue that their social media activity represents what they want to show others in their quest to conform, and not what they actually believe deep down inside. But on a larger scale, I don’t think people’s inner thoughts are very significant. The sad reality is that the state of any situation and the expected responses are based on what people say and how they act, not what they believe deep down inside. Regardless of internal beliefs, most people, who have a conformist instinct, will respond according to dominant social trends.
Can you give some examples of how that conflict plays out?
During my limited time on Instagram, the posts about self-love and acceptance, about being unique and having a passion as well as thinking that not being perfect was alright always fascinated me. But trying to imbibe these thoughts would leave me with a sense of inferiority. I began to understand why when I was struggling to conform to conventional education during the preparatory phase for my medical entrance exams.
At that time, I complained about Indian mainstream education being too orthodox, limiting and not about testing individuals’ unique qualities. But with this entire line of thinking, I was merely fooling myself. It was all an elaborate excuse I was using to cover up my inability to work hard. And considering the common trend in India, that most teenagers of upper-class societies are unable to get good rankings on national entrance exams, I believe that the situation is the same for them too.
When faced with a challenge too difficult to tackle, like a competitive exam, they invoke the power of liberalism. The claim that others need to accept their differences, their uniqueness, that they are passionate about something else, that their inability to stress themselves is okay. Of course, justifying themselves in this manner isn’t an isolated decision that each individual makes. It’s part of their culture and just a component of a plethora of other perspectives that lead to their decision to move away from mainstream education.
Is this culture common to your generation in India or do you see it as associated with a class in Indian society?
My medical college consists of top-ranking students from all around India. And it’s clear from their behavior that during their phase of preparation, they didn’t care about being different. They chose to believe that they were the same as everyone else, that they were the same as those who got better marks, that they too could rise to that level, and all they needed to do was work harder. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the people in my college are middle or lower class, and only very few are much more noticeably wealthy.
So, the liberal mindset has an impact on attitudes to education. Are there other institutions that it effects?
There is one area where liberalism in India generally witnesses a tremendous surge of popularity – when it comes to finding the faults of religion. Some of the older generations in our modern societies are atheists, but almost all teenagers indefinitely are. They view religion as a bubble inside which people are trapped. According to them, the religious are ignorant of the freedom and the “true” happiness that lies outside their bubble and can be found in the joys of modernism. To me this seems like nothing more than another religion and another bubble. Fundamentally, consumerism is nothing more than a religion. It is a moral system that people believe, if followed, will lead to happiness. But acknowledging that this may be the equivalent of a religion is something no one bothers to consider.
During one of my lectures in medical college, a psychiatrist taught my class the definition of a delusion. It has three components. The first is belief in something that is not a fact. The second is the persistence of the belief even after the falsity of the fact has been proved. The third is belief in an idea that is not widely held by people of the same socioeconomic status. After the class, my friends were awed by the thought that religion was just a potential delusion, which would be the case if no account was taken of the third condition mentioned by the psychiatrist.
The way religion is selectively targeted for this discussion is interesting and definitely not liberal. A better statement would have been that any widespread belief, be it philosophy, spirituality or materialism could be considered a potential delusion, but is not because a majority of the population believes in its existence. After all, the very power that gives money value is just the baseless belief that it has intrinsic value.
But this won’t stop pseudo-liberals from scoffing at people who pray outside the temples after the gates have been closed and people who listen to religious prayers and devotional songs. However, it’s okay for them to gawk at cars and clothes when window shopping or listening devotedly to pop music.
Many people who are strongly religious tend to be close-minded. They aren’t open to new ideas in general, and they believe that what their culture represents is the “absolute truth”. But right now, it seems as if the liberals are behaving in the same way. They are supporting Westernism without any definitive logical claims as to why it is better. This is where the problem arises. The liberals portray themselves as more intellectual than the others. They believe that their opinions, if implemented, are what will lead to a better future. But this hides a certain hypocrisy and escapism. If they want to tag themselves as torchbearers, they should be willing to think more honestly and in a genuinely liberal manner.
I am not defending all aspects of Indian culture (for example – sati, where the wife ascends the funeral pyre of her husband, a practice that pseudo-liberals commonly bring up). I am merely highlighting the fact that the pros and cons of all cultures must be considered. The Western concepts that pseudo-liberals view as freedom are more often than not the effects of indirect manipulations by large organizations, including corporations. For example, the value of brands that are subliminally embedded in people’s minds, as opposed to the method in India whereby one is made to imbibe certain values through the direct commands of family members.
In many ways, since Westernism promotes the idea of continuous economic and technological growth, a true liberal must be willing to accept that these are not necessarily the definitive goals of humanity. Maybe a culture without monetary goals as its priority is ideologically acceptable as well. Perhaps each community and every individual should be allowed to choose their own delusion without being looked down upon.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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