One look at society as it stands today and the idea of equality based society too appears equally ignis fatuus. The idea of society as is prevalent today springs from the notion of Orientalism more than Occidentalism. The sense of collectivism in the east and the perseverance of individualism in the west both have it in them to create societies amenable to minimum and basic laws of humanity but the spirit of oneness sometimes at the cost of individualism that thrives in the east led to creation of society that had its root in the institution of family that was always larger than the immediate family of west. Samuel Huntington had insisted that west was west long before it was modern and the sense of individualism and a tradition of individual rights and liberties to be found in the west are unique among civilized societies. Though the question of individual rights and liberties demands attention and respect its might if understood wrongly may whip the idea of society.
Much as Orientalism had been criticized by likes of John Milton who referred to ‘Orient’ as a culturally infernal place and John Stuart and James Mill who described India as depraved, immoral world populated by lost souls it has succeeded in more ways than one keeping societies from falling apart. While the individualism of west made way for better chiseling of individual being and respect for views from other side and hence the anchoring of feet that contributed to the power of nation in oriental society as it cares amply for consent than righteousness the bonding had always been greater. The large chunk of survival of idea of India which according to western observers had always been doomed to dismemberment can be ascribed to this thought. Amartya Sen in his book The Argumentative Indian asserts this characteristic of Indians wherein they have learnt to have consent on not consenting and then moving on.
In A Theory of Justice(1971), John Rawls writes that in a well-ordered society, “everyone is presumed to act justly.” John Rawls claimed that one has no right to one’s talent and gifts. It is the community that comes first and individuality, the characteristic on which occdentalism is based comes later. He goes to the extent of asking us to shed our very personhood to be part of community. The spirit of Orientalism shines through Rawls’s argument. This Orientalism has two sides: one which binds us to our community and helps us buttress the bond and second, the idea of communityhood is so strong that it leaves no space for the characteristics which can help the community only if they get the area exclusively reserved for them to be blossomed. The word community itself alludes to an ideal combo of com (together) and unus (one) i.e. both one and many.
Gifts and talents of one’s personality are useless unless they serve the society at large but in the absence of personhood they will be left with a blank to lean on and flower. The idea of communityhood makes us go gamboling around every time an individual or a group from our community or nation achieves a distinction and has us bow our head in shame at someone from amongst us bringing ignominy and sullying the image that we want to project as a group, society or community. The kind of shame that Indian Diaspora felt after Gujrat 2002 pogrom exemplifies this sense of communityhood even after being detached from the parent community geographically. Thereby the idea of belonging to a group larger than one’s immediate group in quotidian existence always enhances one’s view of his or her personality in terms of the space or sense of contribution the larger group is capable of eliciting but on flip side too much of sinking and osmosis and much emphasized latching onto one’s community acts against the very interests of community.
My excessive bondage to my community not only makes me blind to the virtues of other communities but also seeps into me an obsessiveness that sometimes manifests in fundamentalism the vices of which are far too many to counter the virtues of communityhood. So it is incumbent on our part to know the other but not at the cost of losing the identity. Only then will we be able to look at what is not ours or what is not made to our liking with dispassionate but curious eyes. Any ineluctable entanglement to certain set of beliefs that one has learnt from his community to the extent of loosing the personhood risks only sprawling and widening the venomous chasm between insider and outsider. I fear this notion may prove dichotomous for the larger cause the needs of which may have equally to do with individualism and sense of communityhood.
It is but natural that we follow we just discussed by casting our attention on one of the principal characteristics of a society. This facet of society draws its significance from the idea of just society and we call it Liberalism. Amartya Sen writes in his recent book The idea of Justice that it (liberalism) is trying to imagine how our ideas of justice might appear to people who don’t share our background, traditions or language. Another angle that creeps in the moment I talk about a community altogether alien to my customs, culture, cuisine, attire and religion is that of cosmopolitanism.
If I happen to be at a place that doesn’t share my beliefs what should I do? Which aspects of my personality between my personhood and communityhood shall I retain and which I shed to be able to alleviate the skin of outsider? Or is it proper for me to be an outsider as long as I am there? Commonsense suggests the idea of being an insider is always better than outsider if the stay lasts longer than usual. But how do I become insider? Sen argues in his book that we should adopt what Adam Smith called the perspective of the “impartial spectator”. He cites that what seems commonplace to an American might look quite barbaric to a European e.g. the absence of universal health care. What seems natural in some parts of Africa like female circumcision would be a violation of human rights elsewhere.
Once I come to terms with these disparities it becomes easy for me to see the truth as it is and seek my place in the new cauldron with my dignity intact. Any society that espouses the principles of heterodoxy and pluralism will always be an easy one for an outsider to find place in. The spirit of cosmopolitanism seeks an extension to liberalism in regards with one‘s view towards his or her society and society that is perceived as other. Only then the cosmopolitanism has in it to replace this otherism with commonism.
The dualism of culture that propagates thoughts like ‘culture that is ours and culture that is theirs’ will never transform into a uniformized idea and more so when distance plays the role in offering an objective view of what had always been a part until cosmopolitanism drew on the basics of heterodoxy and pluralism. The part that is indigenous will have to start looking at what is alien from their indigenous point of view to consolidate the spirit of indigenousness and hence cosmopolitanism too. No cosmopolitanism or libertinism is complete without the spirit of humanism.
In a lecture delivered after 25 years of the publication of his Orientism Edward Said had said, “by humanism I mean first of all attempting to dissolve Blake`s mind-forged manacles so as to be able to use one`s mind historically and rationally for the purposes of reflective understanding. Our role is to widen the field of discussion.” Said emphasized that there is nothing like an isolated humanist. Same can be said of a just society.(Pramod Khilery)