The Resistance of the Time

Let us visit the future – a suitable point of time located in one of the many tomorrows ahead of us, a tomorrow far enough to have left The Time behind. What do we see? We see, among other things, that many people spoke up. Many people did not. Many people who spoke up did not say what we wanted them to say. They said what others wanted them to say. A few even spoke words of their own.

What happens after a fascist regime ends? Will we want to remember who spoke up and who did not? Will we want to remember and punish those who did not say what we wanted them to say? Some of those who spoke up said all the wrong things, we say, and that was wrong because they were in power. They could have done something by doing the right thing.

Hmm.

One man comes to mind. K was a member of the government. He was a reasonable man and a smart man. He did not speak up at The Time. I imagine he did not want to upset his vengeful masters. I remember K as a good man because even though he did not speak up, he did a lot of good work when he was in the government. He advanced a variety of causes that people of my political persuasion would have appreciated if it weren’t for The Time being what it was.

Looking back from now, his name clearly belongs on the list of people who did not speak up.

But I know that if he had spoken up, he would have been removed from office and wouldn’t have been able to do all the other things that he did – things that continue to reap rewards to this day. These things probably did not make The Time end but then should they be discarded for this reason? To play the devil’s advocate: if K had spoken up against the government (assuming those were his views), the anti-fascist movement – such as it is – would have gained a prominent supporter, but his absence within government would have affected the prospects of those his department laboured for.

In fact, consider whether the policies he and his colleagues drew out to help whom they were paid to help in turn empowered those people to speak out with less risk to their jobs and lives.

We presume to know what caused The Time to end. There is no question that the widespread protests made up the bulk of the reason. It was a necessary condition – but was it sufficient also?

Would it be unreasonable to expect resistance to work like we expect fundamental science to work: like trees, like the movement of continents, slowly but surely leading up to something great, which does not signal its value in flashing green lights as much as invites us take as much as we possibly can from it, in as many forms as we can imagine, in as much time as we need?

Another man comes to mind. H was not a politician but he did have a seat at one of the highest tables in the land. He was not a very outspoken person at all; when he did speak, especially to the press, he stuck to the sport he had always been associated with. One day, as protests raged around the country against the CAA, H tweeted a banal comment about the way he liked to eat a snack, almost as if he was utterly oblivious of the fires burning elsewhere.

To the people caught in those blazes, H‘s tweet – fuelled by his privileged indifference, they said, when in fact he appeared to be responding to a friend’s comment – might have hurt just as much. No one knew what he was doing by way of resistance, if he was resisting at all, but the moment he published his words, the enemies of The Time tossed him in the figurative trash. The wavefunction had been forced to collapse irrespective of its own secret plans.

§

In Hannah Arendt’s telling, Adolf Eichmann personified the banality of evil – a label that in one moment captured the microscopic structure of human cruelty, and in the next, launched itself into the public imagination through the pokerfaced visage of Eichmann at the Jerusalem trial, as portrayed in countless films and documentaries. Her words were both accurate and sensational, so much so that uttering them as if they were one’s own was to plagiarise Arendt as much as to acknowledge her observation anew. There was no other way to put it.

But where the smallest pieces of evil are banal, the smallest bits of good are presumptuous. Goodness is often a self-contained and narcissistic moral force that refuses to make sense of anything but itself, and even itself it does not make sense of very well.

For example, we think we knew the ways in which people were and were not protesting. Of course, fascism was a hydra-like threat and dropping whatever you were doing to shout against the CAA on the street would not have been excessive. But what if you were not? What if, instead of expressing solidarity with my compatriots – whether they supported the CAA or opposed it – I had chosen to direct my vector of defiance against other foes?

Say, instead of marching from Valluvar Kottam or Jantar Mantar or August Kranti Maidan, that I had spent my time admonishing people for feeding stray dogs outside my house, soliloquising on my blog against the notion that science communicators are experts at nothing, and leaving the waiter a large tip when my father isn’t looking. What would you have said to me, or of me?

What is protest? What does it mean to resist? If in the post-fascist society we expect to rediscover the roots of a functional democracy, we must also expect to find here peaceable people – people able to trust one-another, who aren’t just keen to rationalise how X or Y resisted without joining a protest – arguably a basal instinct – but who can recognise demons they themselves may not have faced, and tip their hats to the silent fight to resist their temptations. If fascism is such a chimerical threat, would it not incubate more than one kind of monster as well?

Here, a third man comes to mind. L was a journalist with an organisation that was uninhibitedly angered by The Time and its attendant perversions. For this reason, L was automatically accorded a measure of respect and admiration in certain circles, especially those populated by people equally angered by The Time. L had heard some even say they would have liked to work with him in his organisation. Very flattering.

However, such flattery only complicated matters for L because he was almost constantly depressed. Where one might have taken a break from the news by diving into their work, L paid his bills by keeping his faced pressed tightly against the grindstone. He found it nearly impossible to disengage even as the sparks of cynicism and pessimism flying forth singed his psyche.

But he resisted. Every morning, he woke up, walked to the mirror and spent ten minutes muttering words of encouragement. Every time the Delhi police thrashed university students without provocation, he fought back tears and found ways to help his colleagues with their reports. Every time the voice in his head screamed at him for being so utterly incapable of moving the needle, L willed himself to step away from the darkness and go for a walk. Every time he wanted to leave, he found ways to stay.

The impetus for the resistance of L was to remain a productive and thinking citizen, to do what one could (the adjectives ‘big’ and ‘little’ rendered completely meaningless), to push the paddle against the current and journey upstream at whatever pace one could muster, until one day, he reached the shore to walk among his compatriots, to join them in pleasant conversation.

§

This does mean giving someone the benefit of your doubts, and yes, doing so is a precarious thing in a fascist regime, when even the slightest inclination towards granting an offender a second chance could spell doom. But fascism is a great corrupter as well, rivalling Morgoth Bauglir himself, and if the simple tokens and rituals with which we once forged trustful relationships between ourselves no longer work, whose fault is it: those about whom we know little or those whom we know for sure to be fascists, their faces the faces of The Time itself?

In the words of Joseph Brodsky, 1984 (source):

No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what’s known as Evil. I mean here not a property of the gothic novel but, to say the least, a palpable social reality that you in no way can control. No amount of good nature or cunning calculations will prevent this encounter. In fact, the more calculating, the more cautious you are, the greater is the likelihood of this rendezvous, the harder its impact. Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” That, of course, indicates its secondary nature, but the comfort one may derive from this observation gets dulled by its frequency.

A prudent thing to do, therefore, would be to subject your notions of good to the closest possible scrutiny, to go, so to speak, through your entire wardrobe checking which of your clothes may fit a stranger. That, of course, may turn into a full-time occupation, and well it should. You’ll be surprised how many things you considered your own and good can easily fit, without much adjustment, your enemy. You may even start to wonder whether he is not your mirror image, for the most interesting thing about Evil is that it is wholly human. To put it mildly, nothing can be turned and worn inside out with greater ease than one’s notion of social justice, public conscience, a better future, etc. One of the surest signs of danger here is the number of those who share your views, not so much because unanimity has a knack of degenerating into uniformity as because of the probability—implicit in great numbers—that noble sentiment is being faked.

By the same token, the surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin—not even by a minority. Evil is a sucker for solidity. It always goes for big numbers, for confident granite, for ideological purity, for drilled armies and balanced sheets. Its proclivity for such things has to do presumably with its innate insecurity, but this realization, again, is of small comfort when Evil triumphs.

My country is burning. Why should I work?

A few days ago, I found asking myself the following question: My country is burning, why should I work? I ended up with some (admittedly inchoate) thoughts, delineated below.

I’m trying to fight off this abject helplessness I’m feeling and edit some science articles, and failing. I’m not able to justify to myself why I shouldn’t drop everything and rush to Delhi (at this time, the violence at Jamia Milia Islamia is about to peak). At the same time, deep in my heart and mind, I know there must be some reason to persevere with what one likes to do and is interested in doing instead of rushing to the frontlines at every sign of trouble.

Somewhere in this maze of thoughts, there is sure to be an illustrative story about duty and country – about the insidious diminishment of one endeavour in favour of another. Yes, we must resist the forces of tyranny and fascism, but there is less and less freedom to choose any forms of resistance other than pouring out on the streets, raising your hands and shouting slogans.

I have nothing against peaceful protest but I have everything against how other forms of protest have been rendered less useful, or entirely meaningless, largely by the same entity whose institutional violence instigated these protests in the first place. This isn’t a question of convenience but of effectiveness: If many of us are out protesting on the street, how many among us are there because other forms of resistance no longer work?

With notable exceptions, the press these days comprises organisations ranging from supine to malicious. Democratic institutions, like many lower courts, various government bodies and even the executive, have been press-ganged into the national government’s majoritarian agenda. The polarisation has become so sharp and the political opposition so negligible that it seems nearly impossible to counter India’s extreme-right politics with anything but politics of other extremes.

In such a time, what does it mean to focus on science communication? To be abundantly clear: I don’t mean focusing on science communication – or any endeavour not apparently connected to the maintenance of a democracy – instead of protesting. I mean joining a protest in the morning, and editing science articles in the evening. That is, where in your work lies the justification to do what you’re doing, simply because you’ve always liked doing it, and which empowers you the same way a resistance movement empowers its participants (at least if you believe you shouldn’t have to protest in order to express your participation and involvement in the country’s wellbeing)?

There is a terribly clichéd example from a previous era: that of starving children in Africa. But in that case, resolution was very easy to access. More recently and closer home, every time ISRO launches satellites to the Moon and Mars, some people in India complain that the country should focus on fixing smaller problems first. Here, too, the road to clarity is evident, if somewhat meandering, taking recourse through economic principles, technological opportunities and (thankfully) a bit of common sense.

However, going from science communication to resisting fascism seems more difficult than usual, although I refuse to admit it’s impossible. There must be a way.

A friend recently told me, “The onslaught on science and reason is part of the fascist agenda, too, and that must be resisted.” Indeed! This is an important perspective… but somehow it also seems insufficient because – again – the tunnel from ‘critical thinking’ to ‘healthy democracy’ has caved in. The one from ‘curious about the world’ to ‘healthy democracy’ is not even on the map, as if we are forgetting that the right to information is one of the foundational principles of a functional democracy, and that science since the early 20th century at least has been one of the dominant ways to obtain such information.

At a colloquium in August last year, Raghavendra Gadagkar, the noted ecologist at IISc, Bengaluru, described two periods that background the practice of science communication: wartime, when it is deployed with uncommon urgency and specificity of purpose, often to beat back a troublesome claim or belief, and peacetime, when it narrates various kinds of stories united only broadly in theme and often in pedagogic form.

The issue is with peacetime science communication and its perceived relevance. In India at least, the simplistic notions that the fascist narrative often reduces more nuanced arguments to present themselves to the typical reader in too many ways for scientists and its communicators to grapple by themselves. When they do, it’s most likely during wartime, and their – our – heightened effectiveness during these episodes of engagement, such as it is, could mislead us into believing science communication is effective and necessary, at least as gauged by quantitative metrics.

Our effectiveness depends on two things: the circumstances and the culture. The circumstances of communication are in our hands, such as the language, topic, presentation, etc. Subversive, small-minded politics erodes the culture, reducing the extent to which good science communication is in demand and pushing its place in the public conversation to the margins. Scicomm in this scenario becomes an esoteric specialisation treated with special gloves in the newsroom and as an optional extra by the readership.

This in turn is why if science communication, or communication of any sort, is to be effective during wartime, it must be kept up during peacetime as well. More specifically, science writers, reporters, editors and communicators of all hues should help in the fight against rhetoric that would reduce a multifaceted issue into a unidimensional one, that would flatten the necessary features of scientific progress into technological questions. We need to preserve the value of good science communication in peacetime as well. But thanks to the unfortunate sensationalist tendencies of journalism, often (but not always) motivated by commerce, such resistance will require more strength and imagination than is apparent.

One battle at a time.

Irrespective of whether you have joined the protests, you must at all other times – through your work, actions and words – keep authoritarian narratives at bay. And it’s because these modes of resistance have been annulled that a physical protest, one of whose strengths lies in numbers, which in turn renders it immutably visible, has become the most viable and thus the dominant display of opposition.

Standing in this moment and looking back at the last few years, some of us (depending on where our ideological, political and moral axes intersect) see a landscape mutilated by the slow violence of right-wing nationalism, and the Citizenship Amendment Act as the absolute last straw. I, a science communicator, am protesting every day – beyond the protests themselves – by reviving the formerly straightforward connections from curiosity and critical thinking to a plural, equitable, just and secular democracy.