In defence of the Enlightenment

Bodhi is re-publishing a note by Ayyappadas A.M. that appeared in IITians for Democracy, Pluralism, and Human Rights

Enlightenment, as a political word, has come to become the equivalent of an f-word in the dictionary of post-structural schools and identity politics groups. This is not so much owing to the fact that horrendous crimes were committed during that historical period in and by the Europe, or that at least some people went overboard and attempted to impose certain value systems, rightly or wrongly associated with the movement, around the colonies. Although most of the critics bank on such horrors, real or more often fictitious, committed by the mythological creature called “enlightenment”, this is invariably a proxy to defend the indefensible during this age. The fact of the matter is that this is a political convenience and a double game in that, where their own “anti-enlightenment” (for lack of better word) ideologies cannot be defended in its own terms and turfs. I have no intention to defend the white man’s burden or the wrong turns taken by the multitudes of philosophies from Marxism through liberalism to Libertarianism, that sprung up from the spirit of the age. But most political critics of the idea who are not complete dimwits, know that those were not all that enlightenment represents by any stretch of imagination, and it is precisely what it represents vis-a-vis what they believe or want to defend, that scares them.

I would argue that in a sense it takes the spirit from the enlightenment movement to even accept the criticisms levelled against it, where it is due. And hence, I want to leave no stone unturned in defending the spirit of enlightenment, or the core values that sprung out of that age which were hitherto absent during any previous time in history as the basis of ideologies with such an intensity and coherence. This is to say that I’m emphatic in defending liberty – in thought and action so long as it does not infringe other’s rights, equality – in law and treatment by the state irrespective of gender, religion, caste, creed, race, ethnicity, language or sexual orientation, and secularism – complete separation of religion and affairs of the state which is a fundamental requirement, if not the end all, to preserve the other ideas, and scientific rationalism- as the best tool to understand the material world and the ideas that emanate from it, until something better is proven to be.

The trapeze act performed by the more sophisticated religious bigots and some identity politics groups of various nature, with the usage of terminologies like epistemic violence (believe me, even banning Sati is argued as one!), and accusations running like ‘enlightenment values construct a savage other’, is the most wholesome entertainment from the world of political arguments. Enlightenment for them is the proverbial monkey, the thought about which has to be avoided, yet unable to accomplish given the idea has already been planted. But the curious thing about these new prophets is their magnificent skill in shifting goal posts when the alternative or the ideology that they want to defend, is questioned. That is violence- liberal, secular, epistemic and you name it! How is it that when no one bans, or prevents anybody under the enlightenment value system from questioning all of its values, demanding the same standard of engagement from the alternatives which have historically never been half as benevolent, are to be tagged with such obnoxious words?

Let us take the case of gender segregation. The popular belief about male superiority is a fact even in the most arguably modern societies. There is no dearth of challenge to the idea of gender equality from the popular culture in most places. But when it comes to a specific religious or ethnic groups, all criticisms have to be shelved in the name of respecting culture or its sophisticated, though equally devious, equivalent – the attempt to create an imaginary savage vs civilised binary. This ingenious touch-me-not is often annoyingly loud, yet the core of this argument- that particular religious or cultural philosophy- is literally not to be touched. Now speak about double standards!

To say that many, if not all, “anti-enlightenment” philosophies are inherently patriarchal, misogynistic, far from being tolerant or accommodating diversities, highly discriminatory when it comes to outsider’s rights and extremely hostile to criticisms (violence with a real V), is only to be honest. The people who appreciate and believe in enlightenment values have every right to say this loud and clear, without being cowed down by hypocritical agency arguments (or else you should respect our agency to form opinions and state them!). And that is not our burden and I find no pleasure in civilising anybody. This is just a call for fair play. If you have scriptural or cultural inhibitions against being a human being who would live and let live, then it is time we, the other humans however small in numbers we are, demand to change your attitudes, perhaps your books too, or at least read them differently.

Whether you are a sophisticated bigot who employs the post-modern vocabulary to cover up your biases, ideological burdens and/or skeletons inside your closets, a bleeding heart leftist who has a misplaced worry to protect vulnerable groups from what you perceive as misdirected criticism, or the every day angry right winger, I just do not care. For merciless criticism of ideas is the only thing that will sustain humanity.

No, it is not acceptable to treat women as substandard citizens, all the while gloating the great culture or nice words your books showered for her, whatever the context be. It is not okay to socially or legally discriminate otherwise qualified people, on the basis of gender, religion, caste, sexual preferences or ethnicity. If you believe so, you have to argue with us and we will not spare mentioning some obvious not-so-nice truths about the source of such attitudes- your book or culture, from the viewpoint of philosophy or plain-speak, depending up on how you engage with us. Being against LGBTQ rights is not okay. It is not okay to demand respect for your book, figure heads or traditions, when you cannot respect basic human dignity. Blasphemy is not a crime, but the very requirement for religious or cultural reform; deal with it. Most of the prophets and philosophers who changed humanity themselves were blasphemers during their age. The idea that you are free to criticise is the only thing that cannot be criticised. And no, the tone argument- i.e. the duplicitous saying that you can criticise but not in this language, and the lame escapism by questioning intend (another remarkable post-modern achievement)are not a valid defences.

I expect quite a lot of brickbats from Hindutva, Islamists, bigots from other religious or cultural backgrounds, the precarious leftists, or identity politics warriors. That is the whole point too. Whether you are a sophisticated bigot who employs the post-modern vocabulary to cover up your biases, ideological burdens and/or skeletons inside your closets, a bleeding heart leftist who has a misplaced worry to protect vulnerable groups from what you perceive as misdirected criticism, or the every day angry right winger, I just do not care. For merciless criticism of ideas is the only thing that will sustain humanity. And enlightenment by any standard was a landmark in history that created a windfall of ideas that engaged with the past and future. I defend its values, unapologetically and emphatically.