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Friday, June 29, 2012

Morality and corruption: At Chekhov's time and now

In one of his popular stories, Anthon Chekhov illustrates how same event/development can diversely affect people with difference in perception and attitude. I think it prudent to start this article with summary of this story. 

One day in a monastery located deep inside the bush, a drunken man reaches inadvertently after losing way in the forest. All the monks in the monastery gather around him, eager to know about the material world they know little about. They hear a terrible tale of the cities: men with lost religious virtues doing all kinds of unsavory things. The drunkard challenges the monks in a daring tone: what do you aim to achieve here in isolation while the whole world outside sinks deeper and deeper in sins? What is the use of your meditation and knowledge-building if that is not to be disseminated to the masses? 

Eventually the drunkard leaves but the monks are stunned. Suddenly their sacred belief that they were sacrificing their lives for the betterment of mankind flounders. The oldest and most respected monk makes a tough decision: he would go to a city himself and see whether everything the drunkard told were true. He departs and after weeks of observation, returns back to monastery. 

All the monks, very anxious to learn the reality of city life, surround the monk and wait impatiently. But the monk refuses to open his mouth. He looks depressed, sick and unwilling to do anything. He shuts himself in a room and does not communicate with anyone for days. When he comes out he tells the fiery tale of sinners: how they (un)dressed, how they danced, how they drank liquor, how they consumed narcotics, how they loved, how they married, divorced and remarried, and of course how they forgot the religious values altogether. 

Following day, something utterly unbelievable happens: the monastery becomes deserted; everyone except the old monk has left it. 

This story brilliantly shows the role perception and attitude play in shaping the practice in our lives. The events and developments around us are only one component of the process by which we react with them: the way we perceive, internalize and respond to them makes the other half of the process by which the interaction between person and the society takes place. 

Social evils do not necessarily express themselves explicitly as in the Chekhov's story. Neither can our responses to them be as simple as the act of the monks to desert the monastery. Still the analogy is very useful to see how different people looking similar from outside can have diametrically opposite attitudes.

There are liars, cheaters, thieves, criminals, lechers, and above all, hypocrites in the society. The acts of lying, cheating, stealing, debauching, committing crimes and pretending are so common that it is unusual for anyone among us not to have indulged in any of these at any moment of time. Yet an ordinary society does have a practical threshold of 'acceptability' of these tendencies. Those who cross that threshold are supposed to be exposed and penalized. Accordingly, ordinary people are supposed to make different attitudes towards the two categories of people: acceptable and unacceptable.

Now there is one term that encompasses all of the above things to a variable extent practically: corruption. One who sells his conscience and uses his position of privilege to steal, coax or embezzle other's (mostly public) property/privilege is said to be corrupt in ordinary sense. Since the amount of wealth stolen, coaxed or embezzled can vary hugely, there is no objective criteria or threshold to either label someone corrupt or exempt others from it. 

Case of the monk who gets profoundly depressed by the decline of religious values in the society represents the absolute tendency of a person to reject something that is (or is presumed) immoral. The others who desert the monastery on a mere glimpse of the immoral but apparently 'gratifying' life of the cities represent the opposite end of the spectrum. In between the two extreme lies the space where most of us fit in real life. Somewhere near the mid-part of the spectrum lies the arbitrary point of threshold that separates the acceptable practices from unacceptable ones. 

The problem with our society is that the threshold of immorality/corruption is relentlessly being pushed towards the immoral extreme, to the monks who desert the monastery in Chekhov's analogy. In the process, people have begun to practice with the evolving belief that there is nothing as such called threshold and hence no moral principle can be applied to segregate the acceptable practices from unacceptable ones. Eventually the very foundation of our cultural heritage; honesty, integrity and morality, all loose the relevance in practice. The new criteria to set the destinies in life and to judge the success in life becomes something else: the material gain of wealth and power. And needless to say, wealth and power can be gained exponentially and retained endlessly only by a (wo)man who dares to use/abuse authority and bend the rules in own favor. 

This article was not intended to be a morality tale and I am well aware of the social, political and economic factors that shape the lives of the people and hence their deeds and attitudes. Indeed the sociologists, political scientists and economists have pondered for millennia over the question of how societies function and malfunction. But with the utter failure of the communist states to clean the 'capitalist' parasites that infested the world and the menacing institutionalization of corrupt practices in the capitalist world, host of diverse perspectives have gained relevance. Chekhov's analogy may not be a part of any social program intended to cure the societies' ills but this can definitely form a conduit to better understanding of those ills. 

Here I would remark that there is nothing absolutely corrupt, vile and unacceptable in real world sparing some notable exceptions. An absolutely corruption-free society, as envisioned by some of the remarkable and most fashionable anti-corruption crusaders of our time, is not even a remote possibility. This never means one should loose all hopes of punishing the corrupt and reducing the burden of corruption in society; rather the contrary. Condemning the corrupt persons and demanding stern action against them is always laudable and voters can always choose to defeat a corrupt candidate in democracies. 

But in reality, the problems are manifold: most corrupt persons are able to project their 'clean images' and often that is the only image the people know about; politicians manipulate the masses so cleverly that 'our corrupts' are projected as 'better' than the 'their corrupts'; and most importantly, a very large pool of utterly and criminally corrupt people thrives beyond the scrutiny of the public: in armed forces, in business houses and corporations and in different professions. This makes even the task of identifying corrupt people exceedingly difficult, let alone punishing them. While those on political domain have some vulnerability to public scrutiny (at least in theory), most in other profession  are immune from that. 

 I would strongly disagree with the idea that corrupt practices are essentially a morality problem amenable to rectification by promoting 'moral practices' (as is usual with many), and by now, we may well have passed the point of time where the latter would have been a viable option. Corruption in state machinery is a strong social and economic phenomenon and its remedy should be sought with the reasonable legal mechanisms and a modest act of ensuring better accountability at all levels is a far better way to resist the menace than a big, rhetorical promise to 'cleanse the system' or 'to create a corruption free bureaucracy'.

Yet I cannot avoid being fascinated by Chekhov's analogy where he depicts the conflicting halves of the monks' selves: ascetic and incorruptible while looked from outside, they are just few of the many ordinary beings who refrain from corrupt or immoral deeds so long as they do not get the opportunity to indulge in them. This is a very important morality question for all of us: while condemning the corrupt practices of others (that are usually of very big scale), are we not indulging ourselves in smaller acts of corruption (or even in those reasonably troubling to others)? 

Morale of the story: while judging and blaming others, do judge yourself too and look for hiatuses that exist in your own attitude and practices. Not hesitating to condemn others' vile deeds, make sure you are not indulged in similar deed of different magnitude of vileness. You may never succeed punishing or 'rectifying' the corrupt others in society yet you can  change yourself for better with the awareness that being corrupt is not a phenomenon destined for select few in leading positions who are visibly corrupt, often criminally so; rather every being is sometimes or others enticed by the harvests that are yielded through corrupt means. Whoever resists the most to the tendency of 'following the stream' stands out as 'incorruptible'. 

If we long for 'material life', let's not be monks. But honesty and incorruptibility are not the privilege of only monks; the more they are in our 'material life', the better. 

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जीवन, खुशी अहंकार

जीवनमा अफ्ठ्यारा घुम्तीहरुमा हिंडिरहँदा मैले कुनै क्षणमा पलायनलाई एउटा विकल्पको रुपमा कल्पना गरेको थिएँ, त्यसलाई यथार्थमा बदल्ने आँट गरिनँ, त्यो बेग्लै कुरा हो त्यसबेला लाग्थ्योः मेरा समग्र दुखहरुको कारण मेरो वरपरको वातावरण हो, यसबाट साहसपूर्वक बाहिरिएँ भने नयाँ दुख आउलान् तर तत्क्षणका दुरुह दुखहरु गायब भएर जानेछन् कति गलत थिएँ !

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