Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Another Country Heard From

by Sara Robinson

Sometimes our random wanders around the Web can turn up some pretty exotic gems. This one ranks among the sparklier baubles I've found stuck in the strands this year.

It's a 2005 article by Dr. Salman Akhtar, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Delhi who's also (quite clearly) a capable and insightful philosopher. In the article, he lays out his understandings of why people turn to fundamentalism -- though his conclusions are probably extensible to most other forms of authoritarianism as well.

"Sanity," says Akhtar, "has its own burdens, and fundamentalism is the treatment for those burdens." His argument spins on six specific burdens of sanity:

-- Factual uncertainty: the need to carry on even when we don't know all the facts
-- Conceptual complexity: Our ability to interpret the world, and choose our path among many
-- Moral ambiguity: There are almost no one-size-fits-all laws and rules. How do we make the punishment suit the crime?
-- Cultural impurity: Human culture is a mix of many influences, which can make establishing one's own identity difficult
-- Personal responsibility: Sometimes, shit happens. Sometimes, it's our fault. How do we accurately assign responsibility?
-- The confrontation of our own mortality: Death comes to us all, though we almost compulsively deny it.

We all struggle with these issues all our lives. They always demand a great deal of us; in fact, they're the questions that call us on to psychological and spiritual maturity, and the degree of wisdom we can bring to bear in answering them may be a valid measure of our overall success as human beings. But, for many who find they simply can't cope, fundamentalism offers the security of reassurance and pat answers:

Fundamentalism, in a literal, narrow, ethnocentric and megalomanic manner takes a religious tract and interprets this in an extremely narrow, megalomanic and grandiose way, seeking to offer a world of simplicity, lack of personal responsibility, immortality, purity and simplicity. These are notions of children. This is how two-year-old and three-year-old children think. This is not how a grown-up, adult person thinks. Fundamentalism turns us from adults into children, turns us from individual units of flesh, psyche and spirit, thinking, pulsating, changing, constantly struggling with choices, decisions, tragedies, losses, mishaps, triumphs and victories – constantly in conflict, constantly in the inner Kurukshetra. Fundamentalism removes us from such war, from such complexity, from personal responsibility, from impurity, from handling looking death right up front in the eyes and then adopting to live in a more responsible manner.

Fundamentalism lulls us into a sleep of childhood, a sleep of simplicity but it is worse than childhood because a child is always questioning and attempting to come out of its innocence bit by bit. Fundamentalism is worse than childhood because it takes us backward, not forward. And with fundamentalism comes its twin sister, prejudice, and its evil brother called violence.

Among my recovering fundie friends, we're continually confronted (and anguished) by the realization of how deeply infantilizing authoritarian culture is. Ahktar notes this, too: but he goes on to point out that the world rewards adulthood by offering much better antidotes to our existential malaise. It's only when these other, better means of coping are closed off to us that the retrogressive offerings of fundamentalism begin to look attractive.

Efficacy, safety, identity – everybody wants to know who they are and are proud of who they are. Suppose your name is Pradeep Saxena and I ask you who’s Pradeep, you say me; I ask you who’s Saxena, that’s your father. Identity has to do with our selves and our sense of belonging to some place. We have to make sure that people are able to maintain their identities and their identities are not threatened. If they have safety, if they have efficacy, if they have identity, if they have opportunities for sexual pleasure and if they have opportunities for generativity or passing on, cultivating, elaborating their myths, language, symbols and rituals and imparting them to the next Orphic generation in a safe, tender, protective and loving way.

If we can restore this package – safety, efficacy, identity, sexuality and generativity – when it is really threatened, or when there is a manufactured threat to it, if we can prove in dialogue, by political discourse, that there is no such threat, then this package can come alive. And when compensating factors are in place then human beings are able to bear the burdens of sanity. And although burdened with sanity they then live life in more peaceful ways – peace outside and peace inside. And when they have peace inside, this is a mixture, a product of post-burdened sense, post-mourning sense, post-realisation that life is complex, difficult, limited and hybrid. When they have an inner peace, and when they know that even this peace that we have is fragile, it comes and goes, then that peace anchors them more solidly in reality and takes them away from dreams, poisonous dreams and dangerous dreams especially.

They grow up, they can tolerate other people and they can tolerate differences. They can even learn from differences and enjoy differences. They know life is limited, they know life is complex; they know that there is no moral certainty. And it is when they live with this attitude that they do not require hate because they don’t hate themselves and they do not need to hate others. And when they don’t need to hate others, they do not need to idealise themselves. And when they do not need to idealise themselves and take this intravenous morphine that fundamentalism offers them then they walk out wide awake, open-armed and with a good and clean heart.

We are at this authoritarian impasse, perhaps, because too many of the components of the package Akhtar describes are no longer available to most Americans.

Our safety -- from outsiders, from our own government, and from each other has been fraying for years, a decay that has accelerated since 9/11. This has also affected our sense of efficacy -- the ability to choose and direct our own lives and futures, and participate meaningfully in our own culture -- which has been eroding for the past three decades along with our economic, educational, political, and other infrastructures. We don't feel safe; and worse, we don't feel like we can effectively do much about it.

Being American has always been an exercise in ambiguous identity -- it’s part and parcel of our God-given right to self-recreation -- but those who defined their "Americanism" as a form of racial or religious purity have been on the wrong side of history for the past 50 years, and are feeling deeply threatened as a result.

Sexuality has always been a fraught and complicated issue for this Puritan nation, and has become only more so since the advent of birth control and women's emergence into the workplace. Our assumptions around generativity have been in flux as well: questions about who breeds, and why, and when, and how form the common thread that runs through all our culture-war conversations about abortion, gay rights, and even immigration. Parents of all political and religious persuasions will tell you America is a hard and hostile place to be raising children these days; and also of their general unease and impotence when it comes to their ability to transmit the culture and values they'd like to see carried on.

We will not, Akhtar suggests, roll back the raging fundamentalist horde anywhere until we restore a cultural climate in which most individuals can feel safe, effective and capable, strong in their personal identities, free to express their sexuality in healthy ways, and supported in their efforts to build and sustain families. When most people have access to these assets, they do not feel nearly as drawn to authoritarian religion and politics. His point seems to match up well with what we know of healthy societies -- including our own, in better decades. And it offers some essential, concrete criteria we can use to build both foreign and domestic policies that will discourage people from embracing authoritarian religion and politics, and remain strong in their desire and capacity for democratic self-rule.

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