I realized recently that having my peers scoff at my ideals on a daily basis has made it easier for me to introspect and change myself. Since I don’t fit in anyway, there isn’t any dominant social standard I need to adhere to. If I realize that something about my ideology is wrong, I can change it. The new virtue will be regarded as equally useless either way.
The difference between Westernism and Liberalism used to be a fine line for me until I realized that there was indeed a large gap. What had been bridging the two supposed opposites were some personal, stereotypical, modern-society-influenced grudges. Most of my life has been spent surrounded by upper-middle-class society. I was consciously and willingly influenced in my childhood, unconsciously influenced (while being in denial) in my teens, and began realizing what all this led to as an adult. Sometimes I think that this realization is what makes me worthy of the title of ‘adult’.
When I was younger, the main ideology I would scoff at was religion. The paternal side of my family are Jains and they adhere to quite a lot of Jainism’s religious standards. Naturally, I was expected to as well. Even more naturally, I didn’t want to. Atheism was prevalent at that time, the pointlessness of idol worship was a hot topic, and most of the people around me were wealthy.
I didn’t like going to the temple, I didn’t like repeating prayers, and the fact that no one could give me a logical answer as to why we followed some seemingly random rules did nothing to bring out more devotion from me. What changed this narrow-minded perspective of mine were three things: I moved to college, I read 1984, and I found that I couldn’t empathize with my friends.
The novel 1984 changed my entire perspective of what I found interesting in the world. Suddenly I was dragged into a world of politics and mass mind control and subsequently began looking for these concepts in my world. Getting distance from my parents gave me the chance for uninfluenced, independent thinking. And because I felt that my social circle looked down upon me, I was hungry to do the same for them. I began looking for the faults in their ideologies, and thereafter rid myself of those faults.
Liberalism was a term I didn’t understand until I read Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto. That was when I realized that being a true liberal was ideal, and that most people were completely different. My understanding of the concept took root during a discussion with my friends. I challenged them with a scenario I invented: Person A aspires to buy a car and upon doing so achieves happiness; person B, for religious purposes, would not cut his hair on Tuesday and upon following this principle, he would feel happy. I claimed that both these concepts were fundamentally the same.
My friends didn’t agree. They believed that by being unable to cut his hair on Tuesday, person B was being inconvenienced.
The disparity in our views on the two situations was striking. They believed that buying a car invariably leads to happiness. Person A would spend a few years working hard at his job, and then finally see the fruits of his labor by purchasing a car. They couldn’t see anything being gained from person B using his willpower to adhere to his no-hair-cutting principle.
I believe that happiness is inherently an illusory concept, if we temporarily put aside the question of hormonal (serotonin, endorphin etc.) interplay. Achieving happiness has two components: valuing a certain goal or result, and obtaining the result. The goal is highly variable for different individuals, or at least it used to be before globalization set in. The relationship between earning money or buying cars and being happy isn’t an axiom. They are goals that we have been conditioned to accept by our modern society. I use the term modern because I don’t think these concepts were prime goals in ancient India.
The real difference between the mentalities is that of materialism. Obtaining a car is a result that can be felt with the external senses. Adhering to a principle, however, is a phenomenon rooted solely in the mind. It’s easy to see why material goals like money and big houses are more enticing. They are achievements, tangible objects. They can be immediately appreciated and understood by the achiever as well as the people around him.
Spirituality and philosophy are concepts fundamentally quite the opposite of materialism, consumerism and capitalism, which represent the values at the core of the Western economy. Developing countries, including India, had a largely spiritual dimension to their culture, at least for most of the population. Materialistic goals were primarily the attributes of aristocratic merchants and kings. For better or for worse, a clear hierarchy existed in these ancient kingdoms which meant that the expectations people had in their lives differed.
With the advent of globalization and socialism, goals began aligning. And since the West was what brought the revolution, the new goals being idealized also came from that culture. As the people of India began viewing themselves as part of a bigger world, they were forced to fit in and compete.
It can be argued that before the British looted India, India was at an economic advantage. After the British left, however, not only was our wealth gone, but we lacked the materialistic and expansionist mindset of the West, the factor that drove their crusades 900 years ago. But now we had to compete with them, which left us feeling inferior from every angle.
That deeply embedded inferiority is now not just limited to a conflicting ideology about whether materialistic goals are better for happiness or not. It has spawned a belief that Western goals are better in every way, even when the fundamentals are comparable. For example, if one was asked to choose between an Indian or foreign brand of clothes, shoes or food, the ‘liberals’ would lean towards the Western options.
What these liberals really want isn’t for people to be able to choose whatever they feel is right, it’s for more people to be able to choose Western options and portray Indian options as close-minded and orthodox.
The Hindu religion has been one of devotion. People assumed that praying to a god and following a set of rules would lead to happiness. They believed this. Now people believe that buying cars makes one happy. Both concepts are equally arbitrary. There is perhaps no scientific way to prove which one leads to true happiness. Yet there will always be a bias towards cars in those who consider themselves developed, modern, and liberal.
To realize the falsity of this concept one only needs to think back to a time when cars didn’t exist, or rather, when India was free of Western contact. Without these foreign concepts, were Indians perpetually unhappy? I don’t think so. What changed between then and now is only what people are conditioned to believe is their goal.
I am not exempt from this bias. Given a choice, while I might not choose to buy a fancy car, I will definitely prefer having money over following a set of religious principles. But I am ready to accept that this belief of mine is not a concept of my own making, as well as the fact that it has no logical basis.
A true liberal would be able to look at the lives of persons A and B and equate them as equal. However, most people who call themselves liberals cannot do that. In India at least, from what I’ve seen, no matter how patriotic people claim to be, their dreams of happiness lie largely in Western concepts of money, stocks and global businesses.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy