STEREOTYPES CALM the conscience. They reduce complexities to convenient definitions. In a world where ideologies overlap and political beliefs defy old divisions of left and right, we still need palatable potentates and easily comprehensible evil systems to hasten our rage, keep our conscience on the righteous side of despair. Stereotypes make the enterprise of outrage, the profession of dissent, easier, demanding less intellectual enquiry.
In the world of conscience-friendly stereotypes, the word fascism reigns supreme, a capsulated abuse prevalent in angst-ridden seminar rooms and wherever the state of our wretched existence is dissected. Petty autocrats and democratically elected leaders who play out the mandate with a strong will are lazily labelled as fascists—and any system where the strongman-redeemer, legitimised by an overwhelming popular vote, dominates the political space is a showpiece of fascism.
This is not to deny that the temptations of authoritarianism happily coexist with the loftiness of democracy, that the institutions that sustain a civil society can be diminished by the paranoia of the ruling class. Still, labels only reinforce stereotypes; they make reality a pattern of certainties.
What they achieve, in the end, is a trivialisation of history—and the dehumanisation of memory. By the casual deployment of the word fascism to form an effective judgment of the day, the conscience-keeper shuttling between hoary headlines uses the past, a darker past, as a mirror to reflect the present. To de-contextualise the horrifying finalities of fascism, as experienced in Franco’s Spain or Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany, is to turn history into a motivational lesson. The enormity of a lived experience is not transferable.
And that’s why the crimes of the outrage industry are more than semantic. It may have built a republic of shape-shifting evil in which murder stories featuring sundry zealots qualify as genocide, a communal clash as Holocaust. It may have instant effectiveness in echo chambers. It just brings out the failure of analysis, if not understanding. It desperately seeks the clutches of abridged histories to navigate the present maze. It blocks the thought process. Stereotypes make arguments static sentences of indictments with a use-by date.
It has become even more prevalent at a time when new redemption regimes are being built on the wreckage of parties with standard-issue qualifications such as liberal and rightwing. It is a new reality, not an extension of the old. History alone won’t provide you with the words to make sense of a world that has changed beyond the perceptions formed by the glossary of the past terrors.
The failure of perception has made it easier for rejectionism to pass off as dissent. The rise of the new class of redeemer-strongmen is not a flaw of democracy; it is the impatience of democracy. Judgment-givers seldom bother to study the impatience, or the sociology of change. They reject the undesirable present, without ever asking why. Dissent as rejection adds handpicked adjectives from the past to the present.
And that’s one reason why the Modi government has fewer critics and more rabid rejectionists who still refuse to engage with change. Democracy is richer when dissent keeps the conversation between the government and the governed a permanent feature of a civil society. Rejectionism is an angry monologue, so certain in its idea of the present. It is a present portrayed to perfection, allowing no intrusion of social or cultural sentiments. In the realm of rejectionism, change is an anomaly, not worthy of asking why; dissent is not an argument but an attitude. Like any other elected leader, Modi can afford criticism and acknowledge the uses of dissent in a democracy. He is under the attack of stereotypes. Obviously, he remains unscathed.
And dissent remains righteous noise. Righteousness is selective morality in which a leader’s popularity is not a reflection of democratic choice but a manipulation of democracy itself. When the so-called strongmen came to shatter the cosy assumptions of politics-as-usual, the righteous rage had shown little interest in understanding the power of the outsider-liberator. It just emphasised the evil with hellfire eloquence. It dismissed popular re-evaluation of identity and a reassertion of nationalist sensitivity as a return trip to history rather than as a rediscovery of the future.
It all comes down to reinventing the present to satisfy your moral urges, your ideological certainties. Dissent is a real-time moral position, and it is not played out on a platform built on stereotypes. Pity the dissident-turned-ruler who said that dissent is all about “living in truth”. In the simulated wretchedness of the 21st century, we can’t miss the dissident who is trapped inside a semantic hell.