Friday, May 15, 2015

The emptiness of a secular society ... and education

A couple of years into my teaching, I began to wonder if there was a simple reason why students didn't think of me as an awesome one in the classroom.  Well, assuming they can't ever figure out that I am an intellectual facade covering an idiot!

I wondered if I am not making an emotional connection with them.

I laugh, I kid around, I empathize with the poor and the suffering, I criticize the privileged.  Students know all that.  But, I figured I was not stirring their emotions.

On the other hand, students flocked towards faculty who whip them up into a frenzy with their personal emotions-laded lectures on topics like the messed up environment, the evil corporations, the dirty politicians, the abused women, and more.

Even when I address those issues, I calmly point out to students that the world is a much better place than it ever was on pretty much every one of those issues.  I point to how dirty Los Angeles was, for instance, and how it is cleaner now.  If it were not for corporations, they would not have the smartphones they love.  Politicians have always been dirty--at least they operate in the open now, in contrast to the smoke-filled backrooms.  Women have immensely more opportunities and freedom now compared to even a couple of generations ago.  Yes, there is lots of work to be done on every one of those issues and more, but ...

I fail to stir the emotions within them.  And worse, I point out the bullshit in the claims made by faculty and students.

I have always wondered if my experience in the classroom and the academic environment is no different from the world outside.  Two essays tell me that I am not in the wrong to think that way.

In this essay, in which the author reviews a " short book, adopted from the Henry L. Stimson Lectures that [Michael] Walzer delivered at Yale University in 2013" is this line:
Secular revolutions unwittingly give rise to religious zealotry.  
An interesting hypothesis to work on, right?  The religious fanaticism that we see all around across various countries was borne out of the secular revolutions.
Looking at what began in Israel, India, and (to a lesser extent) Algeria in the middle of the 20th century, Walzer does not ask, "What is to be done?," Lenin’s famous question, but "Why did they do it?" David Ben-Gurion, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Ahmed Ben Bella may have believed that the anticolonial movements they led would help usher in a new society. Instead they prepared the groundwork for clerical authority, unbending dogmatism, and second-class status for women.
 Israel's politics has shifted so much to the religious right that one has to search for remnants of a secular society anymore.  India's religious tensions seem to be reaching newer and newer depths.
Secularists, he argues, lack a thick sense of culture. They are, and for some time will be, unable to provide the sense of belonging and "appeal to history" that Orthodoxy possesses. They have lost whatever hegemony they had.
An op-ed at Project Syndicate is, to a large extent, about these very issues:
The decision to abandon relative peace and prosperity for brutal war and instability may seem irrational. But young people, born and raised in democratic societies, have increasingly been yielding to the appeal of death-dealing groups like the Islamic State, leaving their homes and families to wage jihad in faraway places.Why has democracy lost the allegiance of these restless spirits, and how can it recapture the hearts and minds of others who would follow suit?
I find the answer to be compelling:
democratic ideals and institutions are failing to provide a palpable enough sense of community and purpose – people seek a sense of meaning elsewhere, which in some cases leads them to malevolent causes.
It is easy to get to students' emotions by showing them photos of the polar bear and sweatshops, and it is just as easy to get the youth to get worked up about malevolent causes.  
Defenders of democracy must now determine not only how to create jobs and ensure material prosperity for today’s young people, but also how to feed their souls on the way. If they fail, as we have seen, others will fill the void, potentially with a call for mayhem in the name of messianic futurity.
Interesting, right?  Especially when he writes about feeding their souls?  Deep down, we humans crave for that something that no amount of material comfort can provide us.  A secular, liberal, democracy is failing to address this.  The void that the youth feel is being addressed by those who are devoutly passionate about their causes.  The causes could be as varied as the "secular" fight to save the polar bear, the "religious" fight to save the unborn, or the jihad to defend the honor of a prophet. 

All these do not mean that I am going to change my approach in the classroom, or with my faculty colleagues.  But, I now know all the more that I have set myself up to fail in any popularity contest.

Oh well ... I will comfort my soul by listening to BB King, who died yesterday.


Ramesh said...

I cannot understand the pull of ISIS to any Muslim from the West. However much he or she is disaffected with the ills of society in the home country, how can you take up the cause for a brutal terrorist group which falls over itself in committing atrocities on television. Even granted that you feel a jihad is to be fought, would you do it in this manner. By murder, torture and genocide ? Why is the spirit of Saladdin not appealing to this lot ?

This tiny minority is simply a lunatic fringe and must be given no credence. If you discount the lunatic fringes in all religions, you could hardly accuse Europe, which is the only truly secular continent, of religious zealotry

Sriram Khé said...

It is not at all an issue of whether we--you, me and a gazillion others--think that IS is a loony outfit. The reality is that IS exists, and it draws youth from the countries in which it is established and even from stable liberal democracies.
Which means that we have to understand why the young are drawn to it (IS is merely an example. There are more, perhaps less or perhaps more violent.)

I agree with the op-ed author at Project Syndicate:
"The notion that democracies can fend off such forces, with their well-resourced and media-savvy ideological apparatuses, with guns alone is a sure loser. This is a battle of meanings, and it can be won only with ideas that inspire hope, action, and coherence of self and community."

it is a battle of meanings, in which the "other side" provides crystal clear meanings. A secular liberal democracy, on the other hand, says "whatever meaning you want to create is ok with us, as long as you don't harm others." To you and me, this open-ended create your own meaning is awesome. But, I suspect we are looking at the issue way too intellectually and not by understanding the emotions that drive the others.

BTW, the die-hard environmentalists you can't understand--and you want to puke when I bring up those issues--are driven by a clear sense of a meaning, which might not always be subject to logical analysis. Some of those end up being violent too--remember the guy who went around slashing GMO crops with machetes, and now he is on "our" side? I blogged about him.

Anne in Salem said...

Though I cannot begin to pretend to have a clue why anyone would join IS, I believe the reason given in the Project Syndicate op-ed is likely accurate. The desire to belong has long been the assumed reason behind the existence of gangs in the US. Admittedly, gangs are minor business when compared to IS, but perhaps it is a matter of scale only. Join for the same reason, terrorize your territory, protect your friends, kill your enemies or those who slight you.

By the way, if I respond to multiple posts in one evening, I must prove I am not a robot only once rather than with every comment. Interesting simplification.

gils said...

how difft is IS from a political party that lures its cadre with false promises and hopes and provokes them into mindless mayhem in form of hartals and bus burning..any member of the party invariably relies on power of association and brings out the hidden goon in him. Only diff being IS deals with guns n bombs and are a widespread virus..while these goons are like contagions steep inside the bloodstream of daily life. surprisingly the educated are lured to both the groups

gils said...

and sirji..thalai has left a challenge for u in my blog :D

Sriram Khé said...

Whaaat? Anne is agreeing with me and the op-ed that I had quoted? OMG, the 50-hour week has messed up her brain; good for her ;)

Anne and Gils bring up good points--the gangs or the party of goons are not all that different from the likes of IS. They are along the same continuum, but differ re. the amount of destruction to life and property. There are compelling reasons why the youth join those gangs and political outfits--a sense of meaning to their lives that they apparently don't find elsewhere :(

Ok Gils,will check that blog-post and handle Ramesh's challenge ;)

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