Coexistence As virtue

Coexistence is the greatest value that we have developed as human beings. Much of the contexts of human evolution in the face of a dominating cultural and natural environment is to believe that either God or powerful humans are in charge, and they make the decisions.

We leave ourselves to fate, or divine providence, or to the mercy of various oligarchies. However, being human has its own grammar, its own rhetoric. For aeons, the idea of ‘justice’ was limited to men who were powerful, and some more equal than others. In the early 20th century, the idea of ‘freedom’ became expressed through the work of those who were combating slavery, male chauvinism, or cruelty to animals. Syncretic religious expressions, such as the rise of Theosophy, or even earlier, the Baha’i faith, became powerful responses to the continuous cataclysms that faced humanity. Science fiction too, was extremely innovative in its imageries and its representations. Who can forget HG Wells’ short story of the way in which the magma spurts, when Gaiaa is disturbed, when the scientists go too deep into her core.

Today, as we are faced with a magnitude of crises, all rather like apocalyptic events, the idea of the Zen garden, where each one of us is responsible for the small circumference that we call our home, or familiar territory, makes us look inward, both psychologically and spatially. The body, in time, becomes the only circumference that we understand intimately. As disease encroaches in multiple forms, even among the young, we are taught that lifestyle illnesses can be cured with the right diet and the correct attitude to our natural world. Both Cancer and Aids were seen to be 20th century illnesses, unlike Tuberculosis, which was thought to be a 19th century illness. Susan Sontag said, in fact, that Cancer was the symbol of the 20th century, because everything encroached, and mutated. Palliative medicine and Nature cures became immensely attractive, as did religious cults. People hoped to live day by day, and not worry too much about the future.

The extreme difference between rich and poor in the 21st century is a symptom of the larger malaise, where nobody is held responsible for the discomfort of the other. Political systems are seen to recruit members in terms of an older culture, where robber barons looted and culled according to their vested needs. Somalian pirates, for instance, were explained as existing because the world had forgotten endless poverty. In India, caste atrocities continued against Dalits, and inspite of all the positive litigation, that culminated in laws and possible privileges, the majority of them remained malnutrioned and overworked, with low wages. Even if they did find work as skilled labour, or semiskilled or unskilled labour, with proportionate wages seen as ‘adequate’ by the labour ministry, for the purpose of mere subsistence, they had to pay part of that official wage to the contractor for the costs of ferrying them to the city.

It is not that the upper class is ignorant of this matter, they just cut themselves off from the human problem of workers, migrants, refugees and the landless. It is convenient not to be reminded of their existence. Each individual is interested in only that which propels them into the guarded circle that protects their personal interest. God and Goddesses are summoned to protect both rich and poor from harm and bad luck. Inexorably, however, time moves on and the facilities the earth provides are diminished. Every religion has its symbols to explain this movement. For some, it is the end of the earth, and it’s inhabitants, and for other, it is about a new beginning. However we may view this, information technology provides us with the symbols, metaphors and language that we need to reassure us that we are indeed still human. The grossest of crimes such as rape and murder become banalised, and another’s ‘victimhood’ becomes an abstract way of reviewing everyday events, without meditation on the fear, contempt and loathing that accompanies this viewing. It becomes an act of distancing by the speed with which viewers absorb the tragic circumstances of living in cities where death by force and mutilation is now routine. Another murder, rape, case of paedophilia and slicing up body parts…the sense of despair is replaced by one of ennui. Inhabitants of these terrible cities, which have no order or regulation, become emotionally dulled, and constantly expect the worst. On the other hand, they may feel liberated, knowing that if they are to live, the constant presence of fear cannot help, so they shrug it away.

The continuous loss, the emotional dread, also allows for a new type of citizen to emerge, who is always found in groups, active on the net, warning others of the everyday danger they find themselves in. Their audience remains discreet and silent.

Columnist: 
Susan Visvanathan