The fading face of self-esteem
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;/ T’was mine,’ tis his, and has been slave to thousands;/ But he who filches from me my good name/ Robs me of that which not enriches him,/ And makes me poor indeed,” sang the good old Shakespeare. Only two categories of people did not care two hoots for “good name” (or prestige or self-dignity): those who had none of it or who were too enlightened or detached to value public impressions.
But our bureaucrats do not fall into any of these two categories. The anguish expressed by Justice S Vaidyanathan of Madras High Court (Madurai Bench) in the course of delivering a judgment on August 20 that the suspension of officers no longer caused the officials any discomfort and that they even felt pleased that they could go on drawing allowances doing nothing and stalling the entire enquiry proceedings till their retirement, deserves to be examined as a developing psychological phenomenon.
It appears to be a symptom of a wider malaise pervading our life and growing contagious. No doubt some people may be wrongly suspended.
The High Court’s observation concerns those who, though guilty, exploit the legal provisions to their advantage. The situation leads to an uncomfortable question: is the individual losing his sense of self-esteem, the sense of dignity?
Alas, the answer could be even more uncomfortable. It seems more and more people are fast developing immunity to their instinctive feeling of guilt-conscience. What could have brought this about? Is it our loss of esteem for others that slowly but surely smothers our esteem for ourselves?
The origin of the process could be traced to our propensity to pull down others’ image, first unkindly, then cruelly and then ruthlessly. Criticism based on reasons by and by led to unreasonable abuse and thereafter, often for flimsy causes, burning of the effigy of the target—a demonstration of mock lynching, a manifest perversion. The humiliation intended for the target of this ritual cannot but be shared by his parents, his children, his kinsmen and friends in various degrees. In the process they will develop a bit of immunity to such treatment. Those thousands who perpetrate the mock lynching will automatically lose something of their finer human quality.
The target of the mock-lynching could have been someone garlanded by the same people earlier and necessarily a well-known human being. Well, a day may come when the real lynching of an unknown human being would seem only a routine with some variation!
In May 1973, while Bansi Lal was the chief minister of Haryana, Devi Lal, leader of the Opposition, was arrested in his home town Sirsa for an objectionable speech and was locked up in jail at Ambala. The next day he was led to the court, handcuffed, in a public transport bus crowded with curious passengers through Jind and Hissar so that the maximum number of people could witness his humiliation. On arrival at Sirsa, the exhibit was made to walk handcuffed to the court. Three years later with Devi Lal as the CM, a handcuffed Bansi Lal was paraded to the court and additionally, the sequence was filmed.
Each of the Lals must have thought that he de-dignified the other.
What they would not or could not think is that they were de-dignifying the very ideal and seriousness that went with leadership, that operas of this category irrecoverably lowered the prestige of the very institution of power and position. What is worse and what we the people do not realise is the fact that such conduct by those in power is a formidable check for the worthy elements to enter the citadel of politics, leaving its gates open to the unworthy not as the proverbial “last resort” but as the first resort. If we have still some sensible elements in that institution, it is an accident rather than a natural yield of a sound democracy.
While this is one of the sad aspects of our complex political reality, worse is the situation in the sphere of our collective culture. Once a vulgar entertainment is partaken of together by the elders and their wards, the dignity of relationship between them and the elder’s influence on the young is no longer the same. It will be superfluous to illustrate this issue.
The damage I cause to the self-esteem of others through brute criticism, ridicule and attack, inevitably damages my own esteem for myself. And, bereft of self-esteem I stand as a self-centred person craving for hedonistic satisfactions at the cost of others or the nation’s resources. Thanks to our collective attitude, we have more self-serving people in politics, administration and business than people with self-esteem.
There is no reason why efforts should not be made to undo this development. All said and done, we certainly desire a civilised existence. Can’t we expect our politicos to consent to a change? Can’t they arrive at a consensus to spare one another’s self-esteem? They will be obliged to do that if you and I, supporters of different manifestos, reject their call and refuse to indulge in acts such as mock-lynching, destruction of public property and invasion of the college campus.
But this may be a dream. Well, let us ignore the present generation. Let it wallow in the filth of greed and hypocrisy. The one practical way to ensure a dignified tomorrow is to prepare our children for it. The best way is to be absolutely honest with them—for they instinctively appreciate that—and to unfold before them, stage by stage, as they grow up, the worth of self-esteem that goes with humility as opposed to self-centredness that goes with vanity. Let us do so with confidence in our mission and with faith in the child.
The latest study of the infant’s consciousness establishes that its spontaneous inclination is towards love and joy and undiluted truth. They can transcend the ugly milieu of our making.
Eminent author and recipient of several awards including the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship