If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.~ Desmond Tutu
I have been wanting to write about the prevalence of muddled thinking among both left and right from the political spectrum for quite some time. The theme of ‘neutrality’ as employed by people, is a classic example of muddled thinking. Neutrality works like a rubber band— immensely stretchable, and extremely convenient. The right, including those who are not so rabid, have a completely mistaken idea regarding this. The radical left on the other hand, uses the negation of the concept (i.e. there is no neutrality) to justify their preferences.
As I write this, an incident involving mob violence led by an individual with a very shady history, against another student whom I know personally — R. Sooraj — is the talk of the town at IIT Madras where I do research. Now let me make clear that, this was not a ‘fist fight’ between two as is being said in some media or by individuals who know nothing better. I have personally verified so much with trustworthy sources with no particular affiliations. It was a case of attack from one side that can have no justification what so ever. Without surprises, I have come to hear the word ‘neutrality’ used in various uninspiring and absolutely nonsensical ways. So what does it mean to be neutral in such an incident?
Let us look at this case. Imagine that there is a bunch of people who go hyper with a few fantastic jargons. They often use the jargons indiscriminately and in a declarative manner. These jargons are related to isms like fascism , Brahmanism and any number of such varieties. Well, they also raise relevant issues pertaining to language (Sanskrit and Hindi imposition?), regional biases, caste and class based discrimination etc. but in, what I would like to call as, counter productive style. They are few, and exist as a feeble voice, though often portrayed outside as louder than what they really are. They also have as friends (better word is not-opponents) individuals who agree with them on particular issues, but have serious differences with their style of functioning. As you can see, we are not talking about a single monolithic group but people with a spectrum of opinions that can be differentiated from right-wing ideals. You will find romantic idiots who want love and world peace to opinionated ideologues for whom the theory of revolution is no less than the ten commandments for an ardent Christian, among them. They are often shrill and I have found many vocal people from this group as boring and unimaginative. Let us call this amorphous collection as ‘high pitches‘ in our context. Apparently, a few individuals with various degrees of affiliation to this bunch, came together to conduct a discussion on the new regulations imposed by the central Government on a taboo. The taboo in question is beef, which by the way is not illegal in the land where this happens. I am calling it the taboo event.
Now, imagine another group. These people are more closed knit, with less to zero diversity in terms of religion, region, caste and gender. Their lack of diversity could be explained by Shahrukh Khan’s dialogue from the Bollywood flick ‘Chak De’ : “Ek team mein, do gundey nahi ho sakta. Aur is team ka gunda mein hoon”. (There cannot be two goons in the same team, and I am the goon of this team.) The closest they have come to a coherent political sentence without expletives and threats is ‘Bharat mata ki jai‘, which is fine. But there are also not-so-fine hot tempered gentlemen within, who are anything but gentle. Expect no bright ideas from this bunch. Their concerns are all related to maintenance of the status quo. Some particularly obnoxious characters from the gang expect a Maharaja service for themselves from hapless mess workers. Then there are circles of supporters who generally agree with these people, but would not like to associate with them because of temperamental issues. Still outside are individuals whose disagreements with the core are visible, although they continue to justify them citing the shrillness of the other group. Let me call this progressively worse by every yardstick as we go to the core gang as dhamakas. Their response to every argument is predictable, but then rule of the thumb is to expect the worse.
Note that I have not included the moderates from both ends of political spectrum, libertarians, generally uninterested people and many other categories into my classification scheme.
There is a nasty person from the dhamakas with a well documented history of disrupting events and engaging in unprovoked physical assault. He is supported, possibly instigated, by a gang whose only difference from him is the ability to keep themselves safe. This gang assaults a person who was seen at the taboo event, because he ate that which is unacceptable for them and probably because they assumed him from the high pitches. And no, it was not a mutual fight, but a pre-planned attack. The main character has openly made death threats against high pitchers in full public view, in real world as well as in facebook. Witnesses who have no stake in these issues confirm that this was a deadly attack, primarily by the nasty guy, with full support from the group. These people then change stories on every passing day after the attack. Or at least somebody is doing on their behalf. To cut a long story short, nothing that the nasty guy and his gang says (dhamakas), should have any credibility in the eyes of people who were not born yesterday. Even if we give them the benefit of doubt, no evidence, either physical or human witnesses, attests their claims. You could read the detailed account of the incidents from the document here. So, how do we maintain neutrality about this case?
The ex-speaker of the Students Legislative Council of IIT Madras writes to an international media where in he mentions that there was a fight between left and right in student legislative council (SLC) meeting, which at its best is only semantically correct. Is “fight” the appropriate word to describe an incident when a person attacks a member of SLC without any provocation, and a friend of his responds in weak and spontaneous self-defense? There are things that I agree with him, at least in a minimal sense, about destruction of engagement spaces. Both parties have responsibility, if not at an equal level. But there is no way to bring in the question of differences of opinion and styles of functioning, to justify violent acts. I do not buy the left-liberal versions with ifs and buts while they talk about Paris or London attacks. Now that holds equally well when US and its allies goes for its holy ‘save democracy’ war in Iraq or Syria. Much less should one admit that argument in the context of violence within a university, where intellectual growth is one’s own responsibility and purpose.
Neutrality cannot be defined as taking both opinions on an equal footage, as some from center-right or self proclaimed apolitical pretends. The fact that you do not like an ideology, should not blind you from seeing that injustice done to a person with sympathies to that ideology is unacceptable. It’s negation does not imply lending support to the ‘powerless’ for the only reason that they are so, as left would have when it is favorable to their stands. Neutrality, if there is ever such a thing, is remaining in suspended animation without passing a comment. Nobody is neutral by stating that both versions are possible. No cookies for that. Most importantly it is about stating known facts as they are.
Supporting an individual or group because they are apparently the underdog is not a principled way to overcome neutrality. We have to philosophize here. It is possible that some people might rank certain kinds of emotional violence over and above physical violence. This does not prove that a subjective emotional violence, would in anyway justify a physically violent (so-called) retaliation. Violence on physical existence is qualitatively grave than what anybody could do with words, generally speaking. May be one could imagine a few extra ordinary circumstances. But even those have to pass the litmus test of targeted, personal, verbal assaults with an intention to provoke irrational response. So long as one cannot ascertain those, stating that both sides are at fault is not neutral, but a lazy self justification for one’s own biases.