Why do some of us lose our tongues in the face of social and political injustice? This isn’t about being scared, or worrying about reprisals against one’s person or family; by speaking out against injustice, most of us, will never be in the firing line, especially when you live thousands of miles away from the arenas of these ‘conflicts’, or ‘injustices’. This is about observing an inconsistency in behaviour; as conflicts rage in a specific people’s backyard, the same people seem more concerned about the oppressed elsewhere. It seems they want to be involved in the fashionable causes, by joining the rallies of the established ‘victims’ and hanging out with their fraternities. They’ll even go as far as collecting money for the poor ‘victims’, and shedding tears over them, as they never once turn their gaze to their own victims.
As someone with roots in the erstwhile State of Jammu & Kashmir, I suppose, one way of framing this conversation, is to look at my own experience. As Indian and Pakistani state-actors fight over my homeland, and peoples in all parts of this State are wronged, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Sunni, Shia, whatever the ethnic backgrounds of the “Kashmiris” being victimised, my people in the UK seem to be more concerned about the “Palestinians” – (without minimising the plight of the Palestinians).
So why do people behave like this?
Let me frame this discussion through our day to day experiences, as we transitioned from youth into adulthood and maturity, outside the world of political and territorial conflicts.
Is it because we want to appear ‘inoffensive’ to people who we look up to, or do we value their ‘social connections’ so much that we think we could get ahead in life by ingratiating ourselves to them? We think by telling them some home-truths, we could peril our own prospects especially when those being wronged are our ‘own’ people.
So we keep our mouths shut! Upward mobility demands it, we convince ourselves!
In many societies around the world, we have negative expressions for such behavioural tendencies; understandably the actual phenomenon in question exists everywhere. It’s connected with power-relations; some people are important, others are not. The important people have power, social prestige and privilege. The ‘not-so’ important people have none of this, and if you happen to come from the fringe of a society’s power structure, you want to join the ranks of the ruling class and you’ll do everything possible to get there, even if it means ‘poo-pooing’ your former lives.
Or at least that’s the idea behind social climbing, a pejorative expression used for aspects of upward mobility, which in itself, is not a bad thing.
Back in the days when we were free-spirited adolescents, with little cares for the outside world, we used to look disfavourably on such people but as we matured, we started to think of them as ‘aspirational’ and ambitious ‘go-getters’. Obviously, our formative years were free of contorted priorities. In many ways, we were positively ‘wet around the ears’, but naive and impressionable as we were, there was something inherently true about us.
In the decades that followed, a lot of that changed, and we became something else.
The school yard was a good place to see those dynamics unfold. Some ambitious students gravitated to the ‘in-crowd’ – the popular kids, even if this meant acting contemptibly with the peers they grew up with, their childhood friends. As they got older, and started to think about their future prospects, they flew further afield into the realm where they had to lose even more of themselves to be like the people they admired.
But our adolescent years was also a time to be ourselves. For some of us, we were trying to find ourselves in the midst of people who were similarly trying to find themselves. No one really cared about saying the right things or being anodyne; what you said came naturally to you, if you happened to be wrong it wasn’t the end of a friendship. From this cadre, we had the beginnings of the contrarians and those who refused to be silenced.
They never once self-censored.
But in the world of the upwardly mobile “go getter”, there’s a price for this kind of ‘authenticity’. In this world, our much-prided ‘vocations’ are little more than ‘careers’. We tip-toe around ourselves trying to placate our new ‘friends’ and ‘cultured’ peers. We want them to know we’re really like them, and not the people we were previously associated with; if ever the past-connection was to become known, god-forbid, we would be mortified! We want to positively efface ourselves of our former lives because this is the price for ‘fitting-in’, moving out of our old but natural personas into our new facade-ridden ‘identities’. If we mess up in this social environment, it’s as if the entire planet will combust!
Social climbing, or the worse aspects of upward mobility, in my mind leads to intellectual-regress. The two are connected in so many ways that they’re really two sides of the same coin. You no longer think for yourself. You no longer speak for yourself. You content yourself with being a sheep of popular fashions, attitudes, of conventional wisdom, because it’s the safest option and you hurdle with likeminded sheep who look the part, speak the part, dress the part, think the part. You fit in, or at least you think you ‘fit in’ even though you’re a sheep with nothing of ‘value’ about you as an individual. And so you’ll never speak up if something seems wrong because you want the permanent approval of your new peers, the ‘in-crowd’, in your mind – society’s leading icons – because you’re scared of becoming exposed as an ‘imposter’, a ‘wanna-be’ from some lower social order! You positively self-censor to the extent of losing your intellectual integrity if indeed you had any left. You force yourself to view the world through the prism of outsiders, even as you are an insider to your community; the outsiders are your peers now. It doesn’t matter how they behave towards your former peers, even as they were less benign to your parent’s generation.
Over time you become someone else.
Behaving like this boils down to not having any personal integrity. We think it’s natural progression from our early years of trying to better ourselves socially. It isn’t. Trying to emulate those with ‘power’ because you formerly lacked it, is more about you than the people who have the power, or your poorer relatives. The dominant group in any society self-perpetuates because it has people like you wafting around it and prepared to join at the cost of becoming its poor extension. Perhaps, if you do enough grovelling, they’ll let you into their inner sanctum and you wont feel the need to be ‘insecure’ all the time.
Hopefully, you’ll even forget about your origins. If you can’t, you’ll positively hate on your ‘people’ to prove that you’re not from them. A lot of what we read about ‘bad communities’, ‘bad groups’, ‘bad people’ is usually at the behest of people who’ve just joined the dominant group, as they hate on the fringe groups. Think of it like this, aristocrats couldn’t care one iota about the people at the bottom of the social pecking order, they are comfortable in their skin. They have nothing to prove. It’s usually upwardly mobile people from humble backgrounds, crucially when they morph into the social climber, who produce a lot of the dribble you read about ‘dysfunctional communities’.
Clearly, individuals who behave like this have no intellectual integrity. To have intellectual integrity, you have to be invested in your own person, your own beliefs and you don’t care how uncomfortable your beliefs make people feel. You express your views because you genuinely believe them to be true whatever the social consequences. We know from history, the people with the greatest chance of changing their societies are fiercely independent and their positively disliked by the powers-be because they refuse to become social climbers. They refuse to emulate those in power, and directly challenge them. It’s these sorts of people that change their societies for the better, and not the sheep who want to drape themselves in the flags of their ruling peers. When things go wrong, our self-hating social climbers try to find another powerful tribe they can join, and they start the whole process again of doing someone else’s bidding. They overcompensate to be like their new admired peers, even as they lose even more of themselves.
Hear me, when I say this to you, my brothers and sisters, you’ll never find contentment by being like this, because you don’t know who you are.
By becoming someone else, and ‘social climbing’ your way to some imagined social utopia, means you’ve never once looked in the mirror and said, who am I really? Where did I come from? By being yourself, you’ll start asking questions about your roots, your beginnings, your parent’s life stories, about your forebears and their struggles, about your neighbours, the people ‘hating’ on you. You’ll start pondering why some people are celebrated whilst others are not; why do we have ‘victors’ and ‘losers’, ‘rich and poor’, why does the world seem so unjust – was this all by accident?
And it’s then your mind will become perturbed.
But you’ll never self-hate again. You’ll have more self-respect.
Because you won’t feel the need to belong to the right ‘tribe’ for the sake of getting ahead in life. You will speak your mind because your words reflect who you really are, and you don’t need a tribe or a group to validate your social worth. Your personal experiences will validate your words, and that’s just fine. And if it turned out you were wrong in some of your observations, no biggy, you still had intellectual integrity, from which your personal integrity comes.
For our social climbers, no amount of social climbing and self-hatred of their former lives is ever going to bestow upon them personal integrity even though they hold fastidious to their new ‘social status’. If that’s the price they want to pay for losing themselves for upward mobility and social status, then I guess, their new peers are all the more welcome to have them! I just feel sorry for their children who are orphaned from the life-stories of their forbears and know nothing of their true origins, as they go on to look down at others who come from the same stock as their parents.
In sharing my thoughts, I am not speaking about the hundreds and thousands of people, from our wider society in Britain who speak up against social and political injustice, even if it means going against their own families and extended networks. The social and political equality we see in Britain, by no means perfect, is the cumulative struggles of people who demanded rights for everyone else, because they refused to be ‘sheep’ merely accepting their dues on account of their backgrounds. They challenged authority, were ostracised, demonised, victimised, but they never gave up. Ultimately, they succeeded, and we are all so much better for it.
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