In Search of Wisdom: Public Discourse and Democracy

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A key characteristic of an enterprising society is an intentional pursuit of knowledge and reasoning. Successful civilizations of the past, including that of our own, were committed to public reasoning for advancing social progress. Vedas, Upanishads, Mahabharata and many more ancient literatures are bold accounts of contradictions of thoughts. Geeta is an exemplification of contradictions between Krishna and Arjuna and their subsequent cohesion. Buddhist traditions are similarly rich in advancing public discourse as a means of resolving differences in principles and practices adopted in the society. It is said that Asoka’s Buddhist Councils were formalized medium for promoting open discussions on contentious issues while keeping the sanity of the society intact. Public debates build the foundation of a progressive and innovative society that constantly gives rise to new thoughts, systems, enterprises, and values.

But our potential to become an entrepreneurial society is muted for long as we replaced the culture of public debate with the worship of the victors. Consequently, we are unable to unlock our collective potential to INNOVATE, be it on art, philosophy, religion, social-organization, politics, economy, science, or technology. Instead we ended up maintaining a society that relies mostly on individual’s “right” to INHERIT and KEEP. This feudal tradition of reliance on inheritance of wealth, power, and status is forever overshadowing our innovative potential. However, the feudal school of thought in Nepal is intent on hanging onto this unproductive heritage on the name of honoring our traditions. This school of thought views all those who challenge the traditional norms with disdain and not with curiosity. This syndrome is passed down upon our intellectuals who love to be identified as being in the thinking-camp. The hallmark of this can be seen in a prejudice that keeps the followers of this school in a “denial club” whereas they may be thinking of belonging to a “debate club” or a “democratic club”.

In a country with poor literacy and education, the intellectual mass is rather dominated by the people of elite upbringings who are long exposed to specific elitist parties. These people implicitly convey a message that only the parties of the “experienced” and “educated” have the know-how of Nepal’s fundamentals and the country will fall apart if the elites did not rule all the time. They fail to be bothered even when their parties are no longer true to their stated principles and written manifestoes. When the poor and the marginalized become critical of their hypocrisies, the elite imply it as an intellectual inferiority of the common people. When the not-so-main-stream intellectuals write critiques, they perceive them as dangers.

Just a few weeks ago, I had made a small supportive commentary on an article in an online club. I had said, “Veterans of ‘democratic socialism’ ended up subjecting five years old children to ‘market’ for an essential tool of self-development like education. I love people who remain true to a philosophy and not to ‘their party’.” Responding to my comment, a friend wrote to me, “Just wanted to know if [you] see or do not see the roles for political parties for democracy.” This was completely unwarranted because I was not writing about any merit or demerit of having political parties at all.

I kept on wondering what may have prompted my friend to make an entirely off-tangent comment especially in light of the fact that I write frequently in defense of political discourse, existence of competing political parties, competing beliefs and thoughts, and my friend is aware of that. Moreover, I have been an advocate of proportional representation system which gives voices to even lesser known parties and minorities. If I have been against something that concerns democracy, that would be against a system that creates a monopoly of two elite parties and reduces the voices of the rest to nothing. I am always critical of those who loath compromises and prefer to give everything to the victor, including the ability to dismiss the ideals of their opponents.

Only way I can explain why my friend wrote that remark is that he must have been indoctrinated to believe that the term “democracy” and “democratic socialism” are trademarks of a specific party and one is likely not a democratic thinker if the remarks are detrimental to the “trademark owner”. It appears to me as if he is deliberately deflecting the pointed and issue-oriented argument towards the fringe and pushing the debate away from the stated theme. I would be pleasantly surprised if that was not the reasoning behind my friend’s comment. However, this is not any specific problem of my friend but a broadly existing mindset amongst our intellectual friends.

I find similar attitudes among the friends who wish to not conform to traditions and be on the side of the marginalized. Some times ago a group of friends expressed a desire to establish a “think-tank” that would focus on socio-economic equity, republic, and democracy, which included research on federalism as part of its endeavor. When drafting the charter, however, a friend wanted a specific phrase, “Federal Democratic Republic”, to appear in it or else he would not participate in the organization. He gave a “ceremonial-king groups” label to those who may not use those wordings. Although I am a convinced follower and promoter of a federal republic, I found the pursuit of my friend to be detrimental to the cause and the damage was evident from how quickly many well-intentioned friends disappeared from the scene. This push perhaps stemmed from an attempt to appear closer to the “trademark owner” of that specific phrase by becoming victorious in wording than by really refining the necessary thoughts and strengthening the philosophical footing of the idea.

In these examples, the first case exemplifies a situation where the debater is attempting to cleverly plant a fabricated but false image of the opponent while appearing rather inquisitive. The second one is attempting to advance a narrow agenda by exploiting the goodwill of the members of the same ideological camp by craftily harping on a fictitious opponent threatening to invade the camp. Although these two cases may look very different in surface, the effect of both approaches is that the intellectual discourse turns unhealthy and unethical. The “craft-masters” marginalize the other competing thoughts using counterproductive tactics. The sad truth is that such unhealthy loyalties to an ideological camp hinder the development of a culture of healthy public discourse. They inspire people to use exclusionary and deceptive tactics only for the sake of winning the argument by confining them to non-issues.

When I was a young and politically indoctrinated student in Nepal, we from various camps worked hard to smell danger on what other political camps had to say or do. There used to be war over a Nepali word for democracy like Janatantra, Janabad, Loktantra, Ganatantra, and Prajatantra, which carried marginal differences in meanings – except the last one for it accepts the supremacy of monarchy. The user of one word saw the user of another word with suspicion. However, it appears that we have not learnt our lessons from many decades of unhealthy debates and have not yet recognized public dialogue as a deliberate means of advancing knowledge and promoting innovation.

The consequence of not having innate affinity for promoting healthy and systematically developed dialogues is heavy. Nepal is a showcase of this scenario where all political parties pretend a great cry for the marginalized but the degree of marginalization steadily increases due to their policies sugarcoated with benevolent slogans. However, the followers of the parties see nothing wrong in their own party’s diversion, whereas they are critical of the others. This happens because the loyalty of an individual to a party is largely derived from a long running hatred developed toward the follower of the other ideas than any fundamental awakening from within.

Would not it be wonderful if people of intellect, who expressly project themselves as professionals as opposed to “political animals”, did not have an excessive hangover to a specific party? Would not it be great if intellectuals rather had a longing for principles of democracy, justice, equity, innovation, and other higher ideals? But Nepalese intellectuals are too hardened to make a healthy discourse possible. The elite intellectuals think that they only know the philosophy, thoughts, society and economy there is to be known. This “I know it all” mindset is eating away the vitality of our society for it espouses a tendency to see everything in black and white. For example, the black and white viewers see “market economy” and “collective economy” as being the two economies, and “capitalism” and “communism” as the two isms. This hardened approach prevents a culture of rational thoughts and reasoning from being developed.

That, these days, all intellectuals of Nepalese heritage claim to love democracy, may we all plunge into an endeavor of building a society of public debate and reasoning in which the democracy be founded? May we then accept that we can build an honorable society by advancing the intellectual potential of every citizen and exploring all avenues of knowledge acquisition? May we open our minds to new thoughts, new ways of production, and new ways of strengthening the civilization? Then we will naturally be honoring positive sides of others’ arguments and be naturally be united. The big question is, are we ready to embrace the diversity of opinions? If not, we will be perpetually waiting for the society to be filled by our “yes men”, while the world laughs at us!

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