The arrival of Donald Trump at the White House and the rise of populist politicians across the globe signal a worrying trend of complacency and conformism among citizens of the world. What we can call the “Trumpisation of politics”, therefore, is not the cause of the erosion of public social trust and crisis of political action, but its severe symptom. A symptom which is pushing the zombified populations of America, Europe and elsewhere into bubbles of protectionism, nativism and exclusion. However, the most tragic part of the story is that the rise of mediocrity and complacency in contemporary political life is accompanied with a loss of dissenting minds among public intellectuals and the remaining gadflies of human civilisation.
As such, one of today’s most important challenges lies in the act of questioning the reality of our world without necessarily taking it for granted. The act of questioning — as a Socratic gadfly and by a Socratic gadfly — is different from our habitual practices of asking questions, if any questions are asked. Any questioning which is truly public and transparent, addresses the challenges of its time. Hegel understood this well when in the preface to his Elements of the Philosophy of Right, he wrote: “Philosophy is its own time apprehended in thoughts.”
In other words, the philosophical formation of a public gadfly is itself based on a marginal and non-institutional approach to the question of critical engagement. Therefore, to practice dissent today as a public gadfly is not only to practice what Edward Said called “speaking truth to power” but more precisely to live and think outside the mental ghettos of our societies as a constructive marginal. It is only by being a dissenting outsider that one can radically rethink the very basic foundations of our common humanity and its corruption into a decivilising process. The relevant question, therefore, is not why we are dissenting, but what we can do with our dissent.
Not surprisingly, the simple act of non-conforming could be an expression of dissent. Here, there is not only a call for the renewal of social questioning, but also a way of remaining true to the ethical through an effort of exemplarity. It is, thus, only by being exemplar, that is, living and thinking against the current, that a public gadfly can leave a sustainable influence on the public scene. That is why, dissent, more than being a simple manner of protesting, is an invitation to awareness.
Through its art of questioning, the real task of dissent is to challenge and defeat the twin corruptions of democracy: Imposed conformism and normalised complacency. And also because democracy is about questioning and dissenting, to be a guardian of the democratic soul is not to give one’s allegiance to those with whom we are embedded as a community of citizens. That is why any allegiance to democracy should not turn imperatively into an allegiance to the politicians and the principles of the state. In the same way, any allegiance to academy is not a form of servility to the suggestions of the Vice Chancellor or Registrar of a university.
In that sense, good citizenship is not separable from the exercise of the right to question one’s consent with regard to an institution. It is only such public consciousness which shapes a republic of gadflies. Now, however, it is rare to find self-awareness and self-criticism among the intellectual conditions of present-day politics. This in itself shows the difficult task of public gadflies, who need to grow up culturally and mature politically outside of, and in opposition, to the hermetic structures of our civilisation. Perhaps one should add that Socratic gadflies have always been and will continue to be disturbers of unquestioned power and non-democratic consensus. As Vaclav Havel affirms: “The intellectual should constantly disturb, should bear witness to the misery of the world, should be provocative by being independent, should rebel against all hidden and open pressure and manipulations, should be the chief doubter of systems, of power and its incantations, should be a witness to their mendacity.”
Truly speaking, the quality and character of moral and political leadership, which is committed to dialogue and inclusion, is related to the nature of dissent in our contemporary societies. However, if this is not case, as in the case of the process of “Trumpisation of politics”, disquieting thoughtlessness and fanatic self-assertiveness would take over. In such an unexamined political life, the dynamic of living together turns into an aimless and meaningless activity. Gadflies, therefore, have the philosophical task and the political responsibility of exposing the shortcomings of their own political society and its institutions with sincerity and critical mindedness.
But the greatest moral strength of a Socratic gadfly is his moral capital. Moral capital does not connote merely being ethical in politics or having feelings of empathy for the sufferings and misfortunes of others. The moral capital of a public gadfly is to grapple with the ethical problem of the use of violence in the face of the political evil. The key point here is that, whatever the critical approach of a Socratic gadfly in regard to an unjust or mediocre social system which needs to be transformed, the quest is pursued in accordance with, and not to the detriment of, compassionate solidarity. As Martin Luther King Jr. remarks, “that one seeks to defeat the unjust system, rather than individuals who are caught in that system. And that one goes on believing that somehow this is the important thing, to get rid of the evil system and not the individual who happens to be misguided, who happens to be misled, who was taught wrong. The thing to do is to get rid of the system and thereby create a moral balance within society.”
In the light of this moral and intellectual urgency, it is plausible to conclude that in the age of Trumpisation of politics the only way to respond to the blows of fate is not to lose the appetite for dissent and critical thinking and not cease to ask embarrassing questions. As Jean-Paul Sartre says: “The intellectual is someone who meddles with what does not concern him.” That is why, to practice dissent in an age of Trump is to have dirty hands, because thinking must position in relation to politics. For thinking and questioning are neither public agreements nor business contracts. They are constitutive for all public action and political organisation of the society. If humankind is looking toward a future, it necessarily requires convictions and commitments, but it also requires Socratic rebels, of the mind and of action, who have the courage to swim against the tide and think against the general drift to superfluity and meaninglessness.
The writer is professor and executive director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre, Jindal Global University