World

Our New Culture of Cruelty

From the Rohingya to the Dreamers, our social contract is unraveling.

A crush of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Photographer: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

A culture of cruelty is sweeping the world and it cuts across ideological as well as national borders. In India last week, the murder of Gauri Lankesh, a prominent journalist and critic of Narendra Modi’s government, was met with euphoria by his online supporters. One of Modi’s own ministerial colleagues felt compelled to "strongly condemn & deplore," as he wrote on Twitter, "the messages on social media expressing happiness on the dastardly murder."

The left-leaning French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo responded to the catastrophic Hurricane Harvey with a cover cartoon that showed swastika flags and Nazi salutes poking out above floodwaters. The caption read, "God exists! He drowned all the neo-Nazis of Texas."

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate who is Myanmar's de facto civilian leader, not only remains unconscionably silent about an official and intensifying campaign of murder and persecution against her country’s 1.3 million strong Rohingya minority. She won’t lift the severe restrictions on humanitarian access to the victims.

Myanmar’s neighbors show a no less brutal face to the victims of what many observers are calling a genocide. Though Bangladesh has helped distribute aid to the Rohingya in recent days, it's previously refused to recognize many of them as refugees. Modi, visiting Myanmar last week, failed even to mention them. An official in India's Home Ministry claimed that the few thousand Rohingyas in India were "illegal immigrants" and "as per law, they stand to be deported." Meanwhile, President Donald Trump scrapped a policy that allowed immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. illegally as children to remain in the country.

Each one of these cruelties can be, and are, rationalized with reference to a high-minded abstraction. Denying hundreds of thousands of young people their right to a stable existence, Trump claims that "America is a land of laws." Suu Kyi and her neighbors also invoke the rule of law and national sovereignty. Charlie Hebdo upholds free speech as an unimpeachable principle.

The murdered Indian journalist, according to right-wing trolls, was asking for it with her persistent critiques of India’s present government. As Modi himself put it in 2002, when Hindu fanatics, provoked by an alleged Muslim attack on a train carrying pilgrims, massacred hundreds of Muslims, "every action has an equal and opposite reaction."

The logic in these arguments, whether derived from Newtonian physics or the national interest, is always as impeccable as it is morally numb. This is why around the world we confront a bigger crisis than the one commonly linked to political and economic dysfunction.

Demagogues are mere symptoms of an ethical breakdown. The more disturbing pathology is of people entrenched in different value systems, viciously hostile to each other.

These many different extremists all insist on their superior rationality and virtue. Thus, claiming free speech as an absolute value, and their leftism as a badge of pride, Charlie Hebdo can mock the victims of a natural disaster. Faith in Modi’s ability to make India great again makes it alright to dance on the funeral pyres of his critics.

"Everything really is permitted," in the caustic words of Raskolnikov, the murderer-protagonist of Dostoevsky’s novel "Crime and Punishment." It is also possible to rationalize and justify anything, as the global explosion of data-based whataboutery confirms. Whataboutery, in this sense, represents the apotheosis of reason and logic at the expense of ordinary decency.

A democracy more representative, or a market economy more inclusive, won’t be enough to liberate us from such moral mayhem. As it is, we have credited too much wisdom to the supposed rationality of market mechanisms and democratic choice despite their manifestly harsh outcomes: extreme inequality and brutal majoritarianism. Today, we are called upon, amid a worldwide fanaticism of speech and act, to recover nothing less than the basic building blocks of human society.

Something vital has been missing for some time from our political and economic ideas, though people continue to manifest it in everyday life: compassion. The loss seems more devastating when you remember that this feeling, not reason, was foremost in Rousseau’s mind as he drew the political blueprint for the modern society we inhabit today.

Rousseau thought hardest about how individuals, freed from traditional authority and hierarchy, were to live together as equal citizens. A common humanity for this germinal thinker was manifested not in our capacity for reasoning and logic-chopping but in our innate repugnance at the sight of suffering.

Devising a social contract, he assumed fellow-feeling and solidarity between individuals, and sympathy for the weak and afflicted. The social contract unravels today, and a culture of cruelty thrives globally, because we have lost sight of this fundamental basis of human coexistence. Political and economic solutions that do not reinstate compassion as an absolute and central human value can only push us deeper into our moral wilderness.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Pankaj Mishra at pmishra24@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net

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