People have often thrown strange tags at me – this -ist and that -ist.
Now, there are several online tests that will give you your tags if you’re fond of wearing them. I took a test, and it turns out I’m libertarian. Though my quadrant is left-libertarian rather than right, and since I appear to stand close to where Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are positioned on the analysis graph, I'm not worried.
Yet, on the face of it, who isn’t a libertarian?
If the essential guiding philosophy of libertarianism is ‘liberty’, then I certainly am one.
Freedom - of the individual, of the community, of the mind, of the body, of the species, of other species, of speech, of action, of thought, of expression, of enterprise, of art, of science, of trade, of service – is precious.
If there is one thing worth fighting for – it is freedom. The right to live as you choose. The right to say what you think. The right to do what you will – as long as you’re not hurting anybody.
But that is a bit of a stumbling block - this business of 'victimless' living. It is so easy to assume that you’re not hurting someone else, and so impossible to believe it. Like the poet said, ‘No man is an island…’
In fact, no island is an island, either. One volcano on one island causes currents and ripples in the ocean, which might cause a Tsunami on another island.
Let’s begin with simple examples.
You want a divorce.
Your husband doesn’t. Would a libertarian go ahead with the divorce? Because the husband is going to hurt like hell... What’re you going to do?
Your son wants to be a Bollywood actor.
You want to thrash him, but you don’t. You simply cut off his allowance. Your money… you have the right to do what you want. Your son has the right to pursue his Bollywood career. But he can no longer afford to. He gives in to your wishes and decides to become a bank manager instead. He spends the rest of his life feeling miserable. And hurt.
What’re you going to do?
Now, let’s take this to another level.
Let’s say you drive a car.
You need this car. You may have worked your backside off to acquire and fuel this car. You might drive very carefully, following all the traffic rules, but what will you do about pollution? Pollution in a major city might translate into a toddler being exposed to the equivalent of twenty cigarettes a day. If there are one million cars and one million toddlers…?
Are you hurting nobody?
Let’s say you live next door to an unhappy Muslim woman who wants a divorce but is not getting one, because she will lose custody of her children. It is none of your business, so you do not interfere. You are not a Muslim woman so you will not campaign for changes in the Sharia, nor fight to change the law of the land.
Have you hurt nobody?
Let’s say you set up a cola factory in a rural district where there’s only one source of fresh water. You set up shop, you pay your taxes, you put your little profit in the bank. It is true that there’s less water available for the villagers’ drinking, bathing, cooking, irrigation…
But nobody’s getting hurt, surely?
Let’s say you’ve got a girlfriend in another city. With cheaper airlines, it is absolutely glorious being able to fly down every weekend… and let’s assume that you’ve been convinced, beyond your ability to doubt, that human self-indulgence has led to climate change. That every decade of our development leads to rivers receding, polar bears dying, Amazon rainforests shrinking, deserts expanding, more frequent floods and hurricanes. The events that in the long history of planet earth used to occur at intervals of a thousand years, are now occurring at intervals of a hundred years, and by the time our kids grow up, will by happening every few years. There is more drought, more famine… and there’s cheaper air travel. Now, you just want to hold onto your girlfriend. You don’t want to hurt anybody.
In all honesty, have you hurt nobody?
Sure, we’re all advocates of individual freedom here. We’re all libertarians here… but each minute of each day, you are hurting someone.
Because you hurt people through silence. You hurt people when you refuse to rethink what you’re doing and why. You hurt people when you fail to acknowledge their needs and rights and ambitions and furies, as equal to your own. You hurt people when you betray their voice by superimposing your own agenda over it. You hurt people when you form opinions without checking on facts, when you fudge data, or tell only half the truth, show only half the picture, or fail to ask questions.
For, no man is an island...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind...
I know I should get on with my life. It is beyond one individual, trying to tackle the concerns of an ever-expanding, forever-besieged world…
But you know what?
I want those polar bears to live... I want the desert to stop somewhere far, far away from the doorstep. And the tides to stop at the shore. I want rivers to flow. I want children to eat. I want women to feel free. I want men to be happy and non-aggressive. I want everybody to work equally, but also to have the leisure to write poetry and paint masterpieces…
And it hurts me to see a pregnant mother bear dive into a frozen sea, again and again, coming up empty-handed, going hungry for eight months, giving birth, only to see a cub die...
It doesn’t kill me. But it hurts. It hurts even more to think that I am as culpable as anybody else, since I’m so busy doing my bit to warm up good old mother earth.
I don’t know about being this ‘-ian’ or that ‘-ist’. But I know we need to rethink ‘humanity’ and ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ and ‘growth’. A close friend recently pointed out to me that human civilization has charted a warped course for itself.
It has given us the tools to make nuclear missiles and to create the wonders of the world, to write poetry and to perform brain surgery. But it has failed to give us the tools to be content, to give each other the minimum possible pain. We have failed, as a species, to avoid hurting ourselves or each other.
We’re quite pathetic, come to think of it. We cannot be content with three pairs of clothes, or even thirty. We buy new jeans (and cell phones and ipods and laptops and television sets and insurance) each year. We buy bathtubs to bathe in. We buy plastic shower curtains for our bathrooms. And we don’t just take a dip in the sea. Instead, we buy bottled ‘sea minerals’ mixed with ‘soap-free shower gel’.
Guess what nobody buys?
The argument that we need to stop, and think about all this ‘growth’ and where we’re headed. To think about reversing some of our damage, and to acknowledge the victims of our passivity, to acknowledge the need to make amends when we do cause damage. That argument, nobody wants to buy.
(Disclaimer: There is no particular agenda to this post. I was writing all this in my diary really, chewing my intellectual cud… and thought it might be fun to get others to chew along. Chomp-chomp.)