Right Intent, Opposite Effect

The German philosopher Hegel had proposed a dialectic approach to history of human ideas. He suggested that every idea (thesis) becomes a trigger for the opposite idea (anti-thesis) to emerge. The resultant tension generates a synthesis which can incorporate both sides and becomes the new thesis, which in turn generates its own anti-thesis, and so on. Now imagine a scenario, where no synthesis emerges, then all that one is left with is a continuous oscillation between thesis and anti-thesis. I believe, this process can only be sustained by creating false binaries.

Virtually all spheres of present day life are full of false binaries. While this seems to be so all over the world, it is certainly true in India. Either Tipu Sultan was a great benevolent brave secular ruler ,or he was a religious bigot and a mass murderer. Either there are no difference between men and women except biological or that men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. Every issue is pushed to the extreme-  whether it be the issue  of insipid secularism vs. religious fundamentalism, or self-hate vs. jingoism, or cultural pride vs. intolerance for differences, or state regulation vs. privacy, or discipline vs. individual freedom, it is virtually impossible to find any common ground for dialogue. All you can have in this scenario are Win-lose type of debates in a battle ground.

I believe that one of the main contributors to this state of all pervasive false binaries is non-recognition of difference between Intent and Impact.

Most of us, most of the times operate from the belief that our choices and actions are governed  not just by our own selfish interests but also collective good. We almost take it for granted  that we are working towards enhancing the well-being for ourselves, our kith and kin, our families and organisations and society at large.

For most of us, this belief is crucial for our self-esteem, and hence difficult to challenge. Therefore, when the consequences of our choices run counter to our expectations, we are unlikely to go beyond making some tactical improvements and refrain from asking any serious questions which may shake up the basic foundations of our belief structure. On the contrary, we are more likely to stick to our position with even greater determination. The situation is akin to that of a gambler who after losing, increases the stake, with the firm belief that in the ultimate analysis, things will work out well.

This is where the Hegelian principle comes into play. The more stubbornly a thesis is adhered to, the more space it provides for the anti-thesis to flourish. A stark example of this process was witnessed during the Emergency days. In the early 70’s, it is quite likely that Mrs. Indira Gandhi genuinely believed  that she was acting in the best interests of the country, and a handful of unruly elements were creating unnecessary obstacles and hence needed to be put in their place.  A false binary got created between “discipline” and “protest”. Ironically, the more she tried to enforce discipline, the more “suspect” her “intent” became and eventually she was forced to take an extreme step.

Interestingly, “order and discipline” which were presumably her original intent became the biggest casualty. For several subsequent years, all that we saw was utter chaos. More importantly, in our collective psyche, the false binary between “discipline” and “freedom” continues to call the shots.

Something similar may be happening with the Hindutva brigade. Presumably, they have the honourable  intent of cultural resurgence and national pride. However, the shriller they become, the more they alienate, which in turn causes them to take even more extreme positions. This can only be supported through false  binaries like between “patriotism” and “dissent”. Ironically, in this process ,all that happens is that perfectly honourable notions like patriotism and cultural heritage, become tainted with narrow -mindedness and jingoism . Similarly,  another set of people, who have their own honourable intent,  have ended up ensuring that  terms like secular or liberal, become equated with cultural insensitivity and disdain for tradition.

The net result is that both groups have done more “harm” than “good” to their own respective agendas, and in fact,  should thank each other for keeping them alive. I have often heard people say that the only reason that they support BJP is because they can’t stand Congress, just as I have heard people say that in order to get rid of BJP, they will be willing to support even the Congress.

This is an interesting situation where no thesis can stand on it’s own feet and must derive the legitimacy for its existence from its anti-thesis i.e. becoming anti-thesis to its anti-thesis. Such a situation can only be sustained through false binaries. Imagine a situation ,where dissent is not equated with being anti-national OR where “Bharat Mata ki Jai” is not held with disdain or seen as oppressive. In such a space survival for both Hidutva-wadis and their opponents will become rather difficult.

While these false binaries reinforce each other, they do so by ensuring that no dialogue  can take place and hence no synthesis can emerge. The entire focus shifts to questioning each others’ intent rather than engaging with the gap between intent and impact.

A meaningful dialogue presumes-

a) prima facie acceptance that the intent of the other is honourable, and

b) willingness to accept that there may be a gap between one’s own intent and the impact of one’s choices and action.

The main difficulty in this endeavour is posed by the mother of all false binaries- the  binary between good and evil. In this binary, the intent of the “other” is always suspect, and hence will be  seen as a threat to be eliminated rather than  as a resource which compliments.

Fortunately, the Indian tradition does not place too much emphasis on good/evil binary. Instead our focus has been on Avidya i.e. error/inadequacy of perception and/or interpretation. Thus it is possible to accept that the intent of the other may be as honourable as one’s own and the gaps between intent and impact can be dialogued upon.

There is very little scope for dialogue between good and evil- they can only fight and try to eliminate each other. Acknowledgement of Avidya (both in self and other) opens the door to dialogue and emergence of a synthesis.

I wish we would treasure and embrace this great part of our heritage rather than focus on all the historical hurts and humiliations.

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3 thoughts on “Right Intent, Opposite Effect

  1. Much as I may agree with the ‘false binaries’ when the state is complicit in pulling at one binary, it’s important to resist the state with all that one can bring. I disagree with the theses that Hindutva brigade is seeking to bring cultural resurgence. The entire ideology is based on the European notion of country equal to one religion equal to one language(??). The notion of Avidya is Brahmannical. Vidya and Avidya is not productive (as in that which can produce social goods) but conceptual knowledge. I find this appropriation of Brahmannical knowledge as being Indian objectionable. Also what about culture:knowledge that has been created by interaction of Indian subcontin by with the Mughals and Europeans ??? Is that not Indian ???

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    1. Thank you, Atul. I have not used the terms Vidya/ Avidya in relation to a knowledge system. As I have written it Avidya is “error/inadequacy of perception/interpretation. In that sense Avidya is ever present. Also, Brahmins do not have any monopoly over the notion, for example, it is quite central in the Budhist thinking. I agree with what you have written about the Hindutva brigade. The difference between us is that I dont question their intent, I question their interpretation of cultural resurgence and nationhood . I believe that questioning the interpretation opens up at least the possibility of a dialogue, whereas questioning the intent can only lead to accusation/counter accusation.

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      1. Neither am I questioning the intent of the Hindutva brigade. I am only pointing to the source of their belief systems. The civilisational heritage vs narrow national heritage. I am also pointing to the appropriation of what is Indian limiting to ancient Hindu and or Buddhist but neglecting interaction of India with Islam and British including Christianity

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