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In Praise of Doubt

Venkatesh Onkar ( teaches at the Centre for Learning, a school outside Bengaluru.

Society may be better able to deal with differences if individuals hold their values lightly and think of morality not as a set of ideas, but attitudes and processes.

Nationally and globally, we are experiencing a climate of ideological polarisation and the building up of identity around polarised views: religious, economic and political. The inevitable consequence of this process is conflict and violence in social groups at multiple levels. These are fundamental human tendencies and, in daily social life, we tend to either amplify them or mask them, pretending that life is proceeding normally.

How can we instead pause, and try and look impartially at the psychological and social processes that are potentially so explosive and that can cause human suffering on such a vast scale? What role must education take on in order to investigate and understand ideology and its emotional and social consequences?

It seems so very trite to state that we humans approach our world with moral stances. Obviously, these stances, or rather nuggets of attitudes, moral tastes, make up the very core of our being. Philosophers have argued over the ages that these constitute the essence of what it means to be human. Yet, our moral anchors are also deeply problematic. When my sense of what is “right” clashes with yours, in any realm, conflict ensues. Moral anchors can be interpreted as what may bind us together within communities, but also, and to a greater extent, what divides us as nations, religions, castes, and ultimately as individuals.

Our moral anchors range from the very subtle to the most grossly obvious, and they also dominate our consciousness from a very young age. Young children argue fiercely about which superheroes they prefer and the qualities they represent. Is there any more potent symbol of moral strength than the masked men of steel of the 21st century?

Children will also take sides in classroom conflicts, arguing the finer points of precedence, justice and fairness, as well as the negotiations leading to compromise and peace. They will also reach out and demand that the injured receive empathy and the space to recover from hurt. As children grow older, more and more of the world around them is consciously brought within the ambit of the inner moral life. The school environment is a complex moral space, and the assumptions behind belief and action are what make the latter so rich in potential and, at the same time, so problematic.

However, I would like to talk about adults and our inner moral certainties, as these ultimately are the climate in which children build their own identities. Moral certainties play themselves out on almost a moment-to-moment basis, in all arenas of daily life. Food, for example, is perhaps among the most contentious and emotional issues in daily living. We instinctively split food into two categories: “our” food (probably the best in the world!), and “their” food.

“Ours” seems easy to understand, although even this category collapses under investigation, but “theirs” rapidly spirals into incoherence. Are “they” the West? American, British, English, French, Italian? Or is “theirs” referring to North/South India? Food from religious communities other than ours? Vegetarian or non-vegetarian? Organic or pesticide-ridden? Wholesome and “natural” or genetically modified? Onion-free?

An intuitive anchoring in taste and identity then spills out into moral certainties: what is healthy and what is junk food, what kinds of food erode our cultural values and, by implication, what kinds of food endorse them, and what constitutes authenticity. A syncretic mix-and-match attitude tries to solve the problem, but only plays with its surface. Bringing various closely held moral positions together does not necessarily ease the tensions between them.

If such moral certainties lie beneath the surface of everyday activities, we can see the problems escalate in more abstract and overtly moral spheres, such as religion, sexuality, education, the project of nation building, political ideologies and the use of language. Few of us could claim that we do not hold strong moral certainties in these realms. These certainties are probably the outcome of our conditioning and upbringing rather than, as we might like to believe, choice and rational thought.

Rethinking Moral Codes

One problem is that most of our moral codes are abstractions: an unwillingness to consider the specifics of a situation, to see real people in real contexts. In the field of education, this abstraction is evident. Two teachers may wish with all their hearts for the well-being of a child who has some particular difficulty, but both may have quite different diagnoses of and “solutions” to the problem.”

Let’s say a child is unhappy in school due to her interactions with her peers. One teacher might locate the problem in “bullying,” while another might be equally convinced that the child is “soft” and needs to be tougher. These root orientations might lead them into quite different strategies and judgments. Even though at an intellectual level the two might try to accommodate the other’s idea, there is a strong emotional attachment to the original perception and evaluation, which springs from personality, conditioning, ideology. In this anchoring, the ability to see the “real” child, to listen deeply to her perceptions without either indulging or dismissing them, to bring the class together in a sensitive manner without taking sides is generally compromised. Abstraction looms larger than reality, and the potential for healing is thus lost.

We will always face the following dichotomy: Are moral stances worth it, for all the cohesiveness they seem to bring in society, or are they intrinsically divisive at all levels? How shall we resolve this dichotomy in daily living, in the face of moral choices we have to make? One way is to assert our values and try to organise our social, political, economic and emotional lives around their expression, to the extent that this is even possible.

This assertion will perforce take place in the face of the deeply held values of others. At this point, the argument is generally for tolerance, which means giving all groups an equal chance to create their own moral spaces in society. However, as our moral choices are at the very core of our being, we are apt to be deeply threatened by the values of others. The social atmosphere, while superficially tolerant, is thick with mistrust and violence. We see this every morning when we open our newspapers.

I make a plea for an alternative path, here: doubt, and holding values lightly. Then, there is the possibility of creative and cohesive lines of action emerging from tentative positions and a deep listening to others, particularly in troubled times.

This is certainly not easy to do. It requires tremendous patience and a sense of non-judgmental affection for the individuals one encounters, either intimately or casually. It requires taking ourselves, our emotional reactions, lightly. More seriously, it requires a recognition that one’s self is meshed with others to the extent that boundaries are arbitrary.

As the educational philosopher J Krishnamurti has often stated, it requires a deep and visceral understanding that “you are the world.” Psychological and social forces conspire to pull us away from this insight. We may grasp it in flashes, when we see society embedded in our consciousness and, equally, our thoughts projected upon the world. What will deepen the quality of our collective understanding? This is an open and meditative question. We need to hold this question shining in our consciousness, not grasping for easy answers, and we need to see it unfold in daily living, both at the personal and structural levels.

The move towards doubt is not an argument for complete moral relativism. Some attitudes, core stances, are more logical, creative and inclusive than others. The problem does not lie so much in the intellectual content of the moral stance as with the ways in which it defines the self and its boundaries in the emotional realm. It is here that doubt plays its crucial role in loosening the grip of the value system.

Can there be a universal morality that is not based on specific ideas, but on attitudes and processes? A moral code based not upon its content, but upon its orientation towards the world? Certainly, a stance that emphasises compassion over specific outcomes in challenging circumstances allows us to take others into account as well as opens up the field of action to many possibilities.

Questioning the impermanent dissolving self pulls the rug from under our feet and enables us to interrogate the world and live in it with a sense of freedom. These questions—empathy, insight, the emptiness of selfhood—can act, if not as moral anchors, then at least as moral pointers in the complex field of daily living.

Educational spaces should foster this critical inward looking, a sense of dialogue with others and oneself, most urgently, for, without this spirit, our youth are likely to participate in the gathering momentum of ideological violence.


Updated On : 27th Sep, 2017


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