We Live In An Extremist World, and We Too Are Extremists


In the face of great strife and calamity, I have the tendency to look deep within me and find something basic, something elementary, something deep in my fibre that is wrong. And that wrong within me is what I blame for what is wrong with the world – because that simple assumption, logically universally applied, must be leading to the strife and calamity.

So even though I feel impossibly outnumbered, cornered and small – I cling to this as my only hope: perhaps, if I can change, so can the world.

The Problem

The dictionary’s definition of extremism –  “the holding of extreme political or religious views; fanaticism” – leaves me quite dissatisfied. By limiting the idea of ‘fanaticism’ to just political or religious fervour is at best limiting the scope of impact the term could have had, and at worst, is creating a safe space for all sorts of other dangerous forms of extremism.

The trouble is, we’re extremist in many more ways today than can be categorized as just political or religious. In our personal, professional, familial, and economic lives too, we have managed to constrain ourselves to the extreme ends of the spectrum. There seem to be no moderates in our lives. How many of these sound familiar?

– You are either a ruthless capitalist, or a Stalinist communist.

– You are either a helicopter mom, or a complete hippy.

– You are either pro-BJP, or pro-Congress.

– (getting personal) You are either a filmmaker, or an industrial engineer.

… because how can you be both?

The Spirit

[This section is from Wikipedia]

The term “Middle Way” was used in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the first teaching that the Buddha delivered after his awakening. In this sutta the Buddha describes the middle way as a path of moderation, between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. This, according to him, was the path of wisdom.

Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. (What are the two?) There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.

Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata (the Perfect One) has realized the Middle Path; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nibbana. And what is that Middle Path realized by the Tathagata…? It is the Noble Eightfold path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

According to the scriptural account, when the Buddha delivered the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, he was addressing five ascetics with whom he had previously practiced severe austerities. Thus, it is this personal context as well as the broader context of Indian shramanic practices that gives particular relevancy to the caveat against the extreme (Pali: antā) of self-mortification (Pali:atta-kilamatha).

The Opportunity

Recently, cross-border innovations have begun to take centre stage. We are now trying to perforate traditional disciplinary boundaries to focus instead on the Right Action, or Right Effort. Significantly, this Right Action may or may not be from the most obvious discipline of study.

-> The Great Ormond Street Hospital team learnt from how the F1 pitstop team was running it’s operations, and applied the same logic and precision to it’s operation theatre, halving the error rate and saving lives.

-> Janine Benyus’s bio is a great example:
                 A self-proclaimed nature nerd, Janine Benyus’ concept of
biomimicry has galvanized scientists, architects, designers and
engineers into exploring new ways in which nature’s successes can
inspire humanity.

-> New higher education models have begun to explore cross-faculty courses as ‘enrichment’ for students, as they deem it necessary for say, an engineering student to also understand the historical or economic implications of her work. The next trend in this direction is multidisciplinary courses that join faculties together.

-> Satyamev Jayate’s new season kicked off with a showcase of how sport can be the vehicle for social and economic upliftment. When Aamir Khan says exuberantly – “Wasn’t this an incredible solution?” – he wasn’t referring to merely it’s effectiveness. He was referring to it’s improbability; for how many administrators today would look to football as an answer to anything at all?

We’ve spent the past 200 years or more, as a society, specializing and superspecializing in specific areas of work. Doctors have become surgeons have become cardiac surgeons. Writers have become journalists have become economic journalists. Inventors have become engineers have become optimization specialists. And with the extreme narrowing of scope,  more and more people are developing human knowledge to be more and more niche and specific, leading to a great expansion in our knowledge circle.

But they all hang out only with each other. The life science PhDs; the liberal journalists; the theatre people; the politicians; the economists. They all meet up, work on things, and their knowledge and sphere of influence is ever narrower, made possible partly by the new, personalized social networking experiences. These fields have become exclusive, jargon and all, and cross over is harder and harder.

But because they are all human endeavours, and they all relate to human needs and wants, they must be joined together in some essential, fundamental way. There cannot be a system of learning and advancing in society that ascribes to one or the other extreme, because at every stage, there is much to be learnt from somewhere else. It is in this space that the next wave of opportunity lies. We’ve specialized quite a bit, and there is significant value to be had from even further specialization; but I believe the great leaps will come from interfaith dialogue.

The Tabula Rasa

When John Locke famously made his tabula rasa case for the nurture side of the debate, he was making the case that the new born baby’s mind is a ‘blank slate’ that will then, as it grows, acquire values, religions, opinions and knowledge as it grows. The baby does not bring anything with it at the time of birth – it is a clean white space, which the world will fill with colour.

But what if the mind was truly that – white?  White, as physics will tell us, isn’t nothingness… That is the misfortune of the colour black. White, on the other hand, is by definition a beautiful coming together of every other colour.

So the baby then comes to world not with nothing, but with everything. In a beautifully balanced form, in a mesmerizing combination, such that every value exists seamlessly with its antithesis; every idea lives comfortably with it’s contradiction.

Throughout life, we donot endow the baby with values. Instead, we take away from the white, forever further restricting the child’s mind to a smaller and smaller range of colour. And we reward the child for being as pure a colour as she can: think of the celebrated bright red of Marx, or the verdant Green of Chico Mendes. It makes sense then that the flags of those who reject all values – the anarchists – are black.

Success in our world must be rethought: we must as a civilization, find ways towards not ever-brighter colours, but towards the balanced, serene whiteness that blissfully contains within itself the brightest of each colour.

The Doomsday Theory

But if there aren’t any trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean, where’s the difference then? And if there’s no difference both sides will be the same; it’ll be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day . . .

[Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh, p155]

Even if you don’t agree with the great potential of osmosis or facilitated diffusion, it should be obvious that the current trend of ever worsening myopia is having catastrophic results.

By definition, specialization requires the language of separation, segmentation and focus. Therefore, the potent forces of discrimination and essentializing of identities come as inevitable baggage.

In Singapore, commentators have identified the almost fanatical pursuit of economic prowess as being detrimental to a ‘cosmopilitan’ ethos: one that includes rather than excludes, and one that allows difference to exist in political and cultural harmony. The obvious confounding example are Singapore’s “CMIO” racial categorizations, which were paradoxically deemed important to facilitate peaceful interracial living. “Singapore’s approach to the management of ethnic relations assumes and requires individuals to have a declared, un-ambiguous and unchanging ethnic identity.” . Thus, rather than find and construct more fluid, complex taxonomies for an ever-diversifying individual identity, Singapore decided to go with the obvious, extreme cases. “The fluidity of the cosmopolitan ethnoscape provides compelling reasons for recognizing and allowing for complex forms of identifications and ascriptions beyond the straightjacket of disciplinary ethnic categorizations.” (from here)

For it is indeed a straightjacket. Extreme forms of identification and allegiance, whether ethnic, political, religious, personal or academic, are necessarily restrictive and oppressive, and people ascribing to these crazed forms of dogma find themselves in ever more difficult moral positions to justify themselves.

This is most obvious in the case of market triumphalists. In India, economic logic of “fast, new, cheap” took aggressive, almost pathological dimensions, and as the middle class in the big cities have flourished (I’m implicated in this, and my family too has benefitted from this), the vast majority of people in central and rural India have been literally starved, overworked, murdered and looted. These people do not understand, nor speak the language of capital. They understand only that for profit maximization, their lives were destroyed. So they take up arms – and we label them Maoists. The Maoists call the oppressors capitalists, and the capitalists wear it like a badge of moral superiority.

Yet neither is truly Maoist or capitalist. The Maoist is not violent and insurgent by default – he has been forced into that life be an extreme application of capitalism. And the ruthless businessman isn’t a murderer. He is just seduced by an all-consuming philosophy that he cannot shake or look beyond. So the two sides are sitting on their extreme ends, and will continue to fight till the death. “The system we are part of feeds on desperation. And any system that demands such levels of desperation will produce more and more disorder, and the only way to keep everything in check will be the increasing militarisation of the world.” (Capital, by Rana Dasgupta, p 268)

The labels are not only damning, they are much, much easier to live by. Complex understandings of the world require more sophisticated minds, and more open hearts – and the devil is always in the temptation. Economics in that regard is a master of deception. It is always startlingly incredible to me how much the GDP growth number can hide behind itself. It’s like the best magic trick the world has ever seen – Powerpoint presentations around the world will have just one percentage number on them – 8%! they will proclaim, what else do you need to know! – and NRIs will be stirred, moved, shaken to tears; they will stand up and give standing ovations with a renewed sense of pride in their much-ridiculed homeland.

I fear for our future, for if we continue to hold dear only one or the other thought, if we continue to eschew those who disagree with us violently, vehemently, we will never create new meaning, never create a better world.  Instead, we will fight, as we already are, to the death.

The Poets

More than anyone else, I think the poets, and the Sufis got it. They understood the transcience of life, the fluidity of nature, the interconnectedness of everything in the realm – and they sought beauty in the patterns. They saw the moon and reflected on spirituality; they saw religion and reflected on romantic love. They saw state policy as a vehicle to salvation; they found identity in others’ strife.

Had gayi, anahad gaya, raha kabeera hoy.
Behaddi maidan me, raha kabeera soy.

Crossing the regions of limited and unlimited, Kabir has become. In the land of infinite lies Kabir asleep. (from here).

You’ve heard this song, I’m sure. From Bulleh Shah, who knew more than most of us ever will.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 4.36.40 PM

The Epilogue

So what do I change? What has this larger, human issue created within me that I can identify and change?

The answer is difficult. I’ve spent my life chasing more concrete labels: I’m a DiPSite, I’m from NUS, I’m an Engineering grad, I’m a Director, I’m a Writer, I’m Indian, I’m a Foreign Worker in Singapore, I’m an Entrepreneur, I’m a Hindu, I’m an Atheist… And not one of these have served me well, because no combination of those terms truly captures who I am… Infact, I’ve used these labels to great disaffect: I’ve used these labels to set up conversations and directions that have only led me to dead ends, personal confusion, and often, despair.

I note that this is a realization of inward extremism – a form of self-censorship, a morbid ‘coming of age’ story in which finding myself has become an exercise in pigeonholing myself.

Outwardly, similarly, I’m sure I’ve been judging people based on the labels they proffer to me; when I meet new people, it becomes very tempting to essentialize. When I ask “What do you do?”, what I’m hoping is I will be given a neat set of identifiable labels. Because it’s easier. I only have ten minutes with this person. I can’t – I won’t be able to get to know them at all in that time, so – it’s convenient. It’s efficient. It’s the only option.

I guess, eventually, I need to find a better language, a better vocabulary to bring ideas together. A vocabulary that enables me to live confortably in the middle, ray areas rather than constantly looking for a pathway out of the maze to one extreme or the other.

I suppose – I will stop judging people based on their occupations/religions/colour of their skin/nationalities… Reject stereotypes, have an open mind in conversation.

But that’s the easy part. I will also need to read widely – out of my comfort zone. Read engineering manual after a book of history; an ethical treatise followed by an economics text; a poem from India and then a novel from Burundi. Learn perhaps new languages, and read from them as well.

[Although, as Kabir says, it could be that simple empathy is the solution:

Pothi padhi-padhi jag mua, pandit bhaya na koy.
Dhaai aakhar prem ka, padhe so pandit hoy.
The whole world is tired to death by reading books and scriptures, but none could become wise and knowledgeable by reading them. By reading two and half sacred letters of Love(prem word consists of two and half letter in Devanagari script), one becomes real knower.]
And at last, I need a new question. What do I ask the stranger, who I meet for a few minutes at a party? What do I ask him, if now “What do you do?” What is a better question, what is a better conversation starter that will eliminate the need for extremism?

4 thoughts on “We Live In An Extremist World, and We Too Are Extremists

    1. Rabindranath Tagore: “Success is the object and justification of a machine, while goodness only is the end and purpose of man.”

      So one shouldn’t ask “are you successful?” to another human being. One should ask – “are you good?”

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