What is ‘Good’? What was Arendt pursuing?

Arendt is not the most consistent or coherent philosopher. Her writings display shades of sentimental as well as stoic rationality. Some might scoff at the progression of her thoughts. But the depth of her emotion is what grants her literature the luminescence that we need in times of moral darkness. The world was left waiting for what could have been a monumental work on political judgement when Arendt passed on before getting a chance to complete the final segment of The Life of Mind. The piece entitled ‘Judgement’ was left with an epigraph:

Victrix causa deis placuit, sed victa Catoni.

Taken from Lucan’s Pharsalia, it translates to ‘the victorious cause pleased the gods, but the defeated one pleases Cato.’ It refers to the Roman philosopher and thinker Cato’s life and beliefs. He chose to commit suicide rather than give in to the faction he thought was ‘wrong’. Thus, what is ‘good’ would remain good even if it is defeated a hundred times. His stoicism and moral stubbornness is perhaps what Arendt wanted us to inculcate as a way of moral disciplining of the mind. But also of relevance is the presumption that there is, in fact, something good that is universal and not subject to fluctuations of regions, religion, class or caste. It is like music? Only humans have the capacity to perceive beats, melody, pitch and a number of other variables that combine to make music as we know it. Irrespective of how isolated or engaged our culture might have been with a globalized world, we carry within us the ability to differentiate good music from bad. What differs is our perception of what is happy from sad. A Balinese music for cremation might sound quite happy and serene to the uninitiated. Similarly, perhaps we possess the capacity to ascertain the ‘good’ pursuits from the bad. While culture, upbringing and circumstances of nature might affect the way we perceive the degree to which we are obligated to act upon the thus discovered moral, no (non-sociopathic) human can deny the existence of the goodness of the moral once confronted with it.

I remember asking my professor once about what he thought was that one universal value in constitutions around the world that need protection from majoritarian attempts at amendment. He answered, without blinking, equality. I knew there was something within the wide array of norms that we associate with equality that I know is a good that commands universality. However, there was enough in the substantive affirmations of equality that had room for reasonable disagreement such that as an unbiased spectator I would not be able to dismiss one side over the other. Perhaps the universal principle requires a Humean recognition or a Kantian deliberation. Either way, that it exists and is worth pursuing is an unquestionable precursor to an Arendtian enquiry into the state of things.

There are some hints as to what she might have thought definitely existed within the set (and let us treat it as a set of values/ideals/principles for nothing if not humility about the extent of our understanding and knowledge) of what is ‘good’. Political freedom features quite prominently into her thought. The freedom to participate in public affairs as equals seems to have a place of prominence for Arendt. Not so much the concept of equality extended to realms outside the political. We are not born equal and cannot and should not try to find a natural occurrence of equality for that would require an unjust comparison of the distinctions and characteristics that distinguish individuals. The last blog post talked about Arendt’s insistence on separating the political from social and personal realms. While identity politics is often engaged to make a case for equality, and Arendt had nothing against the ideal of equality, she believed that it is in the political realm that we needed to affirm the ideal of equality most vehemently and zealously. This is because it affects directly our participation in the political which in turn affects everything about our existence in the world.

A better way to read Arendt is to go meta-psychological on her. Perhaps one of the ‘good’  values within the set is a form of communicative rationality, the desire and pursuance of a method of thinking representatively. And perhaps, just as liberation is a necessary precursor to freedom, so is the engagement of Arendtian judgment to finding that which is ‘good’.

The Shelf Life of the Self: Arendt on Identity Politics

Demands for separating one’s public and private identities are neither new nor simple. As the argument goes, many a political philosopher have claimed that to engage in worthwhile and productive politics, we must shed our private identities to better see, so to speak, the concerns that need a more universal outlook. Thus, to better communicate and deliberate upon political questions within a polity, say a nation, the citizens need to view themselves as citizens alone sans any group affiliation based on gender, religion, race and caste. This is not to snub the importance of social identities in general but only in so far as they affect our political judgement. On the other hand, the response to such a proposal has predictably highlighted the benefits, both political and moral, that one’s private identity has on their political participation. After all, the walls between the identities are not quite as impervious to each other as the philosophers are making it to be. Our individual selves are more than just a simple addition of our social, cultural and personal experiences. How we think about political dilemmas is often and quite rightly influenced by what we anticipate from a rival social group. A female advocating the freedom to make reproductive choices is not just assessing the positions of the stakeholders involved, as Arendt’s call for ‘enlarged mentality’ would require of her. The said female also has to keep in mind the gender hierarchies at play around her.

Arendt was famously non-feminist. She believed that the transposition of the private and the social identities into our political identities can destroy the very fabric of political communication and thus, political judgement. To resolve political dilemmas facing our society, Arendt believed we needed the exact opposite of what identity politics has to offer. Our private and social selves come with a shelf life. They end where the political begins. According to Arendt, the politicization of personal and social identities brings to the fore a self-defined and accepted discrimination that takes us away from the equality that politics demands of us. To think representatively, we need to not only be treated as but also feel like political equals.

While identity politics does well to highlight a history of suppression, it also contributes to a further strengthening of political cleavages that prevent us from ever going back to the ideal state that was disturbed by the suppression. Identity politics causes harm to inter-sectionalities because it forces us to choose between conflicting identities. But more importantly, it conflates the many dimensions of our self with the identity that we have thus chosen to speak through, politically. This conflation results in a demonization of everything that does not conform to our sense of identity, resulting in a fear of the unknown (of which Martha Nussbaum has talked about in the Monarchy of Fear). In the creation of this battleground, we forget that the other side is human. Just like us. And it is easy to not think about our moral obligations to each other when the enemy has been dehumanized and reduced to a label.

Arendt on identity politics deserves much greater scrutiny. Especially because of the overwhelming reliance of social cleavages but current political leaders. The era of identity politics has given us a society with walls that mask themselves as political ideologies but are nothing more than a refusal to recognize that the other side is human too. An essential step in Arendtian judgement is to accept the inherent and equal worth of each individual, irrespective of their social identity. We would do well to find common grounds in our humanity, first.

Doctor Who – a commentary on Brexit?

The Doctor has always had a special preference for the Brits. They flit in and out of the wondrous and often alien-infested towns of England, woo them with their British (briefly Scottish) accent and manage to introduce to the kids (it was originally intended to be an educational program for the kids) some moral propositions. The last few seasons have been famously against war and violence of any sort. The regenerated Doctor retains the abhorrence for violence as a means for conflict resolution. And it is conflict resolution that the Doctor sees as their purpose of life. To find out who, in the big, vast universe, needs help and to give help whenever asked for.

The latest season is iconic. The Doctor is a female for the first time. The Doctor has reached the end of their regeneration cycles. This is to be the last and final life of the alien problem solver who seems to love humanity more than they ever will. But in the two episodes that have been released, the Doctor has also thrown sufficient shade at Brexit and the events that have unfolded since. The first episode contains a superbly written but not so subtle speech about evolving while retaining past identities. With their signature kindness, they try to convince the villain that change is possible, and it does not require jettisoning who we were to become a better version of ourselves. The second episode reinforces the importance of sticking together. The moment where the Doctor triumphantly yells ‘Stronger Together!’ is especially noticeable. Many see the message of diversity in the inclusion of a female ethnic companion (although the Doctor has previously had POCs as companions), the dynamic between the two male companions (a white male step-grandfather and a black male step-grandson) mirrors the generation gap that was evident in the Brexit vote.

The symbolism is relevant for two reasons. Firstly, the Doctor has not displayed political undertones previously. The change reflects how the creators and possibly the entertainment industry views their jobs. Perhaps the seepage is unintentional. It must be difficult to disentangle oneself from the events unfolding all around you. Secondly, and most importantly, as a series that has come to be a part of the British culture, the Doctor wields considerable power. The Doctor represents England in science fiction. The Doctor promoting teamwork sends a powerful message about inclusion (albeit with not much debate, but we have a season left for that!).

The timelessness of the series is both a gift and a curse. Just like the chauvinist Doctors of the past have been judged harshly (by the new-age Doctor them self), the latest Doctor too runs the risk of judgment from future generation. Or maybe they will be revered and celebrated for being so sure of their position. Just like Brexit, we won’t know. For now, let us travel across time and relative dimension in space and hope for the best, just like the Doctor.

INDIA: A case study in the demise of representative democracy

India of 1947 had battled decades of colonialism to embrace self-rule. Whatever divisions seeped through party ranks, coalesced – and how beautifully – to fight for the right the people to a democracy. Having a common enemy helped. Compounded by the ability of the political leaders of that time to weave magic through words, connecting the plights of the millions to the queen-ship of one propelled movements across the breadth of the Indian subcontinent. While much has been said of the academic prowess as well as the oratory skills of the Founders, it was their ability to connect across barriers of identity that ultimately pushed the wheel. How dearly they protected their freedom of speech, expression and press is perhaps telling of the importance they assigned to being connected with those they had chosen to represent. How is it then that a deeply flawed election system and disjointed lines of public communication yielded one of the biggest civil disobedience movements the world had ever seen?

In terms of representation and reach, India 2018 is better abled than India 1947. And yet, it fell upon the unelected shoulders of four men and one woman to correct a deeply violent, colonial and bigoted law. The right to sexual identity was granted by five cis heterosexual individuals; the ones in need of representation reduced to being mere petitioners. India celebrated breaking off one more shackle, the Judiciary reveled in being the harbinger of liberal values to the Indian legal system yet one more time and the Parliament, as always, stayed mum. It is not that either of the institutions have embraced staunch anti/pro liberal positions. The Indian judiciary has its share of misogynists much like the Parliament. Misogyny is not illegal. But what is illegal is the Parliament’s distance from her electorate. Even if one were to contend that a majority of India does not support homosexuality, the increasing momentum of the movement should have propelled an informed debate within and without the Parliament. Instead, the government chose to not object to the petitions filed in favor of decriminalizing homosexuality as if that is the extent of the responsibility they owe to the LGBTQ community of the country. The distance between a judicial decriminalization of homosexuality and one done through a legislative device is the distance between a populist democracy and a representative one. The counter-majoritarian difficulty seems almost trivial when democratic institutions lose their representative character.

The biggest reason behind the rising legitimacy of an essentially non-democratic institution as the Judiciary is not a power grab by the Supreme Court judges. Howsoever activist they might get, the requirement of giving a reasoned decision tempers their emotions. The Indian Parliament, on the other hand, has come to rely on this increasing politicization of the judiciary to avoid political battles that might require concessions from their mostly unreasoned manifestos. The result is a lack of deliberation that is disturbingly dismal for a democracy as huge as India. The requirements of representation have come to be restricted to a periodical holding of elections. Members of Parliament are neither Burkean agents nor Pateman’s representatives. They are a political class unto themselves working towards a steady demise of the largest democracy in the world.

Courts as Modern Civic Churches?

India is in the middle of an anachronistic power tussle. Watching The Tudors right when the Indian Supreme Court is hearing submissions in the Sabrimala case placed before me an interesting hypothesis – the King v Church tug of war is replicating itself, albeit democratically, in the controversy surrounding the Essential Practices Test.

First introduced in the Shirur Mutt case (1954 AIR 282), the doctrine provides for a test that would make state interference justified under a Constitution that gives to her citizens (Article 25), the freedom to practice and profess their religion, and to religious denominations (Article 26), the right to manage affairs and administer properties, both being subject to restrictions on public order, morality, and health. Essentially, the test gives the Court the power to determine what constitutes “essential to the practice of the religion” and holds that everything non-essential is subject to legislative action by the State.

A number of scholars (Gautam Bhatia, Shreya Atrey) have commented on the un/desirability of the consequences of such a test. The clearest of them all comes from Jacobsohn who characterizes the test as an attempt to internally reform the religion by allowing the judges to “re-characterize the religion in a more progressive light”.

What has given these objections much weight is the support Justice Chandrachud has lent to the skepticism of judicial discretion bestowed by the doctrine. He questions the ecclesiastical function of the court and proposes to use constitutional morality as the one stop test for determining the constitutionality of a religious practice, instead of going the long way of finding the non-essential elements that may be subjected to progressive restraints. This adherence to the constitutional word is consistent with the treatment of the constitution as the new-age charter of a civic religion, a notion oft repeated and celebrated in India.

King Henry VIII’s ostensible zeal for reform came out of his hatred for papal supremacy. Divine rights of the Kings placed the King directly under God, and God alone. He would then become the supreme mortal in terms of matters relating to governance and spirituality. The Indian courts do not wish to claim any such supremacy over spiritual matters (yet). What they seek to do is social reform – a venerable objective behind the framing of the Indian constitution. In that, they seek to be not just interpreters and guardians of the constitution, but active participants of change in realizing the aims of the constitution.

But one must question this insistence that in religion, like with the legislation, there is an umbra and a penumbra and that the latter is so hierarchy placed that it may be interfered upon, whereas the umbra is so essential that it may not be touched. What is religion but not faith? And what is faith but not a collection of beliefs organically coalesced to create charters that may look different for each generation? Is it not possible that a religion undergo change so as to value a tenet A over B within a span of decades? Is it also not possible that A and B exist simultaneously without harming the essentiality of each other, howsoever inconsistent they might seem to an educated rational mind? Since when has religion been the epitome of moral consistency?

Much can be said on the justifiability of this aspiration. Much more can be said of the legitimacy of the court’s position on such matters. Democratically speaking, ridding a society of its ills is more likely to give positive results if it comes from a joined political action rather than from a bench of judges who, in all their wisdom, are not privy to a large section of the society. Of course, the Indian supreme court has “grounded itself” (a phrased used by Dr. Rajeev Dhavan) and has acquired the kind of legitimacy that demands respectful obedience from its supporters. And this has been primarily because of the non-traditional use of judicial description for activism against a falling parliament often mired in political games to care much about the legal and policy lacunae deserving attention.

Sabrimala is an especially thorny issue, not just because the judges must conclusively decide the path the judiciary wishes to take with respect to social reform but also because they can either be the ecclesiastical court and inform the citizens of the immorality (grounded in the constitution, no doubt but then looking at the vastness of the Indian constitution, it can probably accommodate all moral philosophers barring Peter Singer) of their actions or they can let arguably unethical practices live, giving individual liberty the space that separation of church and state demands.

Meat-y Twitter Spat: Choice, Vegetarianism and Caste in India

A couple of weeks ago I was in the middle of submission week (when am I not?). Obviously, an otherwise mundane tweet piqued my supremely scattered mind’s ever-shifting interest. The series of tweets argued that unless one had actually tasted meat, she was not a vegetarian by choice but a vegetarian by caste. It seemed a silly proposition to me. It seemed as silly as claiming that unless one has lived off meat for a year, she is a meat eater by caste, not by choice. Urban Indian Vegetarians (towards whom the tweets were directed) do not live in an either-or world; their individual judgments, howsoever influenced by the household they were born in, do not flicker between ‘my caste dictates I must not eat meat’ and ‘my taste buds like/dislike meat’. Between the orthodox social and the over simplified gustatory lies an ocean of personal judgments.

In response to my tweets, I was told I was missing the context, that upper caste Hindus were vegetarians because of a puranical belief in the impurity of meat. Sure, I said. If I look down upon a meat eater from some ill-founded moral high ground, I am nothing but a bigot who deserves to be called out. If, however, I chose to stick to my greens without ever experiencing the delight that is a chicken butter masala but have no qualms with you eating pork, what seems to be the problem?

Like a number of judgments we make (moral or otherwise), food preferences are also influenced by the environment we grow up in. But does mean that a child’s food preferences are motivated by the same reasons as her ancestors? People from coastal areas prefer seafood. While their ancestors might have preferred a healthy diet of fish over okra for any number of reasons (Religion? Caste? Sheer affordability?), could the children, as individuals capable of making free-standing judgments exposed to very different environments, take a liking for fish for completely different reasons, unaware and independent of their ancestors’?

Can contextualizing discount generalisations? We have consensus on contextualizing not working out well for Trump and his feelings for Mexicans how much ever the Mexican drug lords might have contributed to the law and order situation in America. Mexicans do not become rapists because of their identity. Muslims do not turn into terrorists because of their identity. The logic of it seems pretty clear. Can we then derive a principle from this consensus? Context does not justify identity based generalisations. Casteism is a very real problem in India. But no matter what the context, you are wrong if you think you have the qualification to approve of someone’s personal choices. Calls for contextualization seem like an attempt to sweep social-identity-based generalisations under the rug – the very thing that brought about casteism in the first place.

Identity based stratification is a very real problem across the world. The trick is not to demonize the identity but call out the dehumanizing ideology that is functioning in that group. My Jewish friends can choose to go Kosher for any number of reasons, as long as they don’t demonize the rest of us. My white friends are not racists if they are attracted towards other white people. And my gay friend need not sleep with a person of the opposite gender to prove that his choice of life partner is not influenced by his lesbian moms. Choice, by definition, means having an alternative option. Not exercising all the alternatives is a prerogative and it does not take away from the legitimacy of your choice.

But this forms only a minuscule percentage of the replies I got to my tweets. Most just called me an Upper Caste {insert abuse}. I soon realized this was not a debate on what prompts vegetarianism in India. This was a statement. And I, by virtue of my social identity, was not eligible to comment on it. Makes me wonder – the politics of identity is like an hourglass. One side will always lose as long as you continue to use something as tricky as sand as a parameter. I will turn more academic in my series on Arendt where I evaluate her take on identity (because I was also told that Arendt would want us to contextualize and I humbly disagree). I will discuss Arendt on collective identity, her idea of what it meant to separate ‘the political’ from ‘the social’, and finally, identity politics.

P.S: Stepping out of your echo chamber is really bad for your twitter notification bar. Excellent for the follower count though.

Role of a Citizen in Hegemonic Authoritarianism

I want to begin a n-part series on Hannah Arendt. Why Arendt? Because I wrote a paper on her last semester and have been obsessed ever since. I will pick up one theme (or a sentence and sometimes just a phrase) from her work and try to either describe it in contemporary political terms or evaluate it against legal theories, political and moral. All this, I will do under the presumption that there are some political ideals like democracy, constitutionalism, liberalism that exist within the domain of possibility for polities irrespective of their legal culture. What I will also presume is that all political ideals function on a spectrum and it is difficult to accurately pin point exactly when something has turned from being tolerable to just plain rotten.


At various points in history, societies become obsessed over a political concept. Every once in a while, societies experience an onslaught of violations. Violations of their personal, maybe innate, sense of justice. I am not going to argue on the nature of this sense of justice. Instead, I will point towards our basest moral instincts. If you agree that there is such a thing as conscience that can not only exist but also develop outside of the legal system, you will see that it relates to how we think about what is wrong and what it right. Ergo, justice.

The violation of justice shakes things up enough for us to evaluate and figure out which political ideal, if protected, could have saved us. Against the Nazi regime it was the Rule of Law, for feminists it is Equality, against the Nanny State, it is liberty, and so on. In a bid to make amends, we compensate by institutionalizing it, giving it a place of honor in public discourse, and protesting all violations, big or small.  Every once in a while, the political concept finds a life of its own – growing differently in different parts of the world, becoming an essentially contested concept. After a point of time, the omnipresence of the principle starts to define the terms of the debate in matters unconnected with it.

Today, it is Authoritarianism. Not one where the ruler does not even wish to keep up the pretense of legality and justice but the kind which creeps up when no one is looking. Hannah Arendt was worried about the latter. She worried not just about the big bureaucratic state with its mechanical application of law and antipathy towards political moral ideals, but also about the citizen under such a regime who observed and obeyed and said not a word because the violations were too minor and too remote to care about.

The citizen who refuses to think is the power source of authoritarian regimes. One can ask if Arendt expects her model citizens to practice constant vigilance, continuously evaluating the judgements of their sovereign for potential violations of some sense of justice. After all, her theory of power is based on a conception of power working through communication and co-operation as opposed to the traditional understanding of power emanating from coercion and commands. ‘Power corresponds to the human not just to act, but to act in concert’, said Arendt. She challenges the notion of power having a mandatory connection with sovereignty.

We must take note of the existing political background to her writings. She, along with half the world, stood against the Soviet Union. Communism was not just a bad word, it was inherently evil. So strong was her position against Marx’s writings that she blamed ‘the social’ for the destruction of the political realm. The political realm was the place for public discourse. Deliberation helped in protecting freedom whereas the urge for leveling down of human life resulted in the destruction of democratic practices. However, what was most egregious was the tendency of communism to regularly violate the autonomy of the individuals.

The ‘social’ was not just a command of a sovereign, it was implicit in hegemonic structures through which obedience was guaranteed. Why is this relevant today? It is relevant for its implications on how we judge regimes. Are we to be satisfied with just a form of legality or do we want to prevent violations to whatever principle it is that we have chosen to hold dear, albeit for the century? If we choose the latter, then Arendt’s expectations from a model citizen do not seem too demanding. We must constantly sit in judgment, not just of the laws that govern us (plenty of people do that already) but of the tools of reasoning we use in our political discourse. It is our justifications and not just our positions in a political debate that catalyzes hegemonic authoritarianism.