2016 Fear vs Hope: Conservative intention and liberal principles

Deccan Chronicle.  | Aakar Patel

Sunday Chronicle, cover story

This is important to know when we assess what has been a disturbing year for some and a triumphant one for others.

The fact is, all modern streams of political thought, whether conservative or progressive, are agreed on one thing: the rights of the individual.

For much of 2016, fear won over hope. But in the end it turned, once again, and inevitably, towards hope. Let us see why, but first let us understand what is meant by the word ‘fear’ and by the word ‘hope’.

The fact is, all modern streams of political thought, whether conservative or progressive, are agreed on one thing: the rights of the individual. To appreciate that, and to properly put the events of 2016 in perspective, let us assess that statement. On which issues has the progressive, or the liberal, battled the conservative? I suppose the first step is to define the two. ‘Progressive’ is self-explanatory: someone who seeks continuous improvement. This attitude comes from a recognition that the world is imperfect, and that it must change. A ‘liberal’ is defined as someone willing to accept behaviour and opinions different from one’s own.

This acceptance comes with two qualifications. The first, that the other’s opinion does not encourage violence. Second, and this is more important, that the other’s opinion does not infringe on the rights of another individual. Simply put, the liberal is fine with what may be seen as ‘misbehaviour’ in his fellow human being. The liberal is fine with same-sex relationships, she is not roused to violence by a refusal to stand for the national anthem, she is not upset by slogan-shouting, and she is warmed by the thought that the state makes an effort to recognise and encourage diversity among its citizens.

The conservative seeks to conserve. But what? The status quo, whether social or economic. This may not be because the conservative is always bigoted, but because the conservative is wary of change, particularly social change. Conservatism, by definition, seeks to preserve. But the fact is that on every major battle in the last 150 years, the conservative has given up ground to the liberal.

Should there be slavery among humans? Progressives said no, and conservatives said yes. The conservatives lost. Should women have the right to vote? Liberals said yes and conservatives said no. The conservatives lost. On colonialism, on gender, on same sex relationships, on the responsibility of the state to provide education, to provide housing, to provide food, and to defend equality, on all of these subjects, progressives and liberals have inevitably pushed conservatism back.

There is not a single important issue where conservatism, also called ‘right wing opinion’, has prevailed. This is important to know when we assess what has been a disturbing year for some and a triumphant one for others.

In India, the year opened with a totally useless (for liberals) debate on sedition. It was useless, of course, only in the sense that nothing came of it, as was expected (again, by liberals). The government and the media expended much energy on an act of slogan-shouting by students. The liberal position was, and is, that this is linked to freedom of expression. That such freedom must be tested, particularly when the opinion offered is divergent from our own, and that freedom of expression was a right and a healthy and necessary aspect of democracy. The conservative position was the opposite. No, it said, slogans were harmful, and nationalism was offended by words. The law should be brought to bear against those who offend through words. This view prevailed.

And so we had angry debates and we had arrests. And... that’s it. No charges have yet been pressed in the issue of the JNU sedition case. An issue where the education minister threatened to behead herself, an issue where the Prime Minister himself intervened, was an issue ultimately so unimportant that the police have done no follow-up action. If you were one of those who felt strongly about the sedition issue, sorry, but you were used for a few days and then discarded.

Conservatism is often quick to anger, and sometimes quick to violence, but it is usually on the wrong side and must surrender. Not because it is lacking in principle or in passion, but because its initial position, its perspective, is wrong.

Any major event that you can think of that defined 2016 will ultimately follow that pattern. This includes the victory of a demagogue in the United States. Democracies are self-correcting and the nation that legislated slavery, that launched war on Vietnam or Iraq in anger, will reverse its position democratically and succumb to wisdom. That is so predictable as to be inevitable.

Those who are upset by the rhetoric of the man who will soon become America's president must know that history is not on his side. Keeping people physically apart, using race or faith or geography as a defining marker for immigration has never succeeded.

The conservative intention, whether it is about safety or the protection of jobs, is confused often with the principle. And the principle is always liberal. It says that all humans seek safety, that economic equality is necessary and that immigration is not just for the benefit of the immigrant.

In India, towards the end of 2016, conservatism made a radical move. It aroused itself over ancient enemies — terrorism (the ‘other’), black money and crime - and produced a solution that was anything but conservative. Demonetisation, or currency swap or whatever name one uses for it, will remain with us well into 2017. It was a reckless move that showed us in more detail than the sedition issue what damage conservatism does to society.

Conservatism’s obsession with dogma and with peripheral things, whether it is students shouting slogans or the issue of terrorism (which the data shows is not one of our population’s primary problems) or of immigration, leads it to make mistakes.

The intensity of the right may result in these mistakes being often adopted by the wider population, as the election of Trump shows. But the history of our times, and common sense, tells us that these are blips. The future of our era is not in the long run defined by these events.

An openness that is best described by the liberal and progressive philosophy, is the only real path available to us. And no matter how far we think we may have strayed from it in any given year, it is inevitable that we will return to it. And hope in that will always triumph over fear.

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