27 August 2015

I’VE been noticing a disturbing phenomenon recently among my brethren. It is a type of mob behaviour where groups of people will attack a person online, usually female, accusing her of immorality based totally on something superficial, usually her dress.

It happened with the gymnast who was criticised for her regulation gymnastics leotard instead of being cheered for her gold medal. And it happened again when a seven-year-old girl was taken to task for wearing a two-piece bathing suit while on holiday with her parents.

To attack a little girl with an as-yet-unformed body who was holidaying with her parents seemed to me to be beyond reason. There is something else going on here besides the apparent self-righteousness.

If one wants to seem devout and to admonish someone for supposed unIslamic behaviour, there are recommended ways to do it. Online slut-shaming isn’t one of them.

I’m no psychologist but it is interesting to me that as our society gets more “religious” (at least by some people’s definitions), there is increasing mob behaviour against anyone deemed to not fit into those definitions.

Sadly our authorities’ idea of religiously correct behaviour involves more restrictions every day. Their key word is “don’t”, rather than “do”. Thus, people are told every day of the things they must not do if they are keen to end up in heaven.

Apparently there is a list of 70 major sins that we can do to ensure that we go to the wrong place. Odd, considering I was brought up to understand that Islam is a very easy religion with very few major sins, defaming people being one of them.

When people are told daily that they cannot do so many things, and yet they see that some people can freely do them, then resentments mount. How is it that some people can wear what they want but I cannot? How is it that some people can do what they want but I cannot?

What we thus have is an inequality of freedoms, and I believe this is closely tied to the inequality of wealth in this country.

If you have money, you are likely to go to better schools, have more job opportunities, travel more and buy whatever you want. The world is pretty much open to you.

If you don’t, then you have none of these options.

The income inequalities in this country are well documented.

Not only is there a huge swathe of people with very low incomes in this country but the gap between them and the very wealthy is getting bigger. But not a lot is being done to narrow these gaps, apart from giving the poor handouts which are one-offs and unsustainable. Besides, as the saying goes, they don’t teach a man to fish.

Thus, the way to assuage the feelings of those at the bottom is by telling them that while they may not have much, their advantage is that they are more likely to go to heaven. Rich people are apparently more prone to sinning, so be happy that you are poor but heading in the right direction. Hence the poor spend what they have on the right rituals, the right clothes, making sure their children are well educated religiously if nothing else. They will be rewarded some day, they are promised.

But meanwhile the bills need to be paid. The kids are getting nowhere because the schools are not preparing them for a productive life.

Food and public transport are getting more and more expensive. GST hits them harder.

Still our politicians and ulama tell us salvation is at hand if only we keep on that straight and very narrow path.

It’s hard going but we believe in them. Even when it’s clear that there’s not much joy in our every day lives.

Meanwhile, how is it that some of our brethren have the freedoms that we don’t have? How is it that they can go on holidays abroad and buy fancy clothes, not all of which are syariah-compliant? How is it that they can smile and laugh with impunity? Aren’t they afraid of going to hell by enjoying heaven on earth?

Thus the mob behaviour happens. How to justify someone else’s freedoms except to cast them as being sinful? It doesn’t matter if they are innocent children, they have to be as suppressed as our children are. Only then can there be equality in oppression, the logic goes.

Politicians may not notice this, and may even encourage this as a cover-up for their failures. But if the inequalities in income are not addressed, the inequalities in freedoms will continue to breed ever-greater resentments and who knows where this will lead to.

Something to ponder on this August 31. Are all our people equally merdeka?

14 August 2015

I RECENTLY attended a conference where the keynote speaker, a renowned academic, talked about science and conscience. One of the slides he showed was a quote from Sophocles, the Greek “tragedian” or playwright (496-406BC) which went: “There is no witness so terrible and no accuser so powerful as conscience which dwells within us.”

In most people, the conscience does play a big part in directing the way we behave.

It may come from the values our parents or teachers instilled in us or maybe it is something inherent in us, but the conscience is that little nagging voice in us that makes us feel guilty or ashamed when we have done something we shouldn’t have.

From childhood, that voice tells us that taking something that is not ours is wrong, or cheating in exams is unfair, or calling people names is hurtful. It’s that uncomfortable feeling when we’ve done one of these things and then didn’t own up to or apologise for it.

Everyone has a conscience in one way or another. Some psychologists say that we are born with an innate sense of fairness that either develops or lessens, depending on what happens in our lifetimes.

In any case, people have enough of a conscience to realise that some actions are regarded as anti-social behaviour and therefore must be hidden from others if done.

Consequently, nobody openly declares that they are going to steal, cheat or do anything that common sense says we should not, especially if we want to live among other people.

Our conscience is also that nasty feeling in our stomachs when we tell a lie.

When we were kids, we knew what would happen if we were ever caught lying to our parents. We might tell them that we had not got our report cards yet but it was difficult to keep a straight face when they kept questioning us about it.

Eventually the pressure would become too much to bear and we had to shamefacedly hand over our red mark-filled card and wait for Dad’s fearsome wrath.

Those memories of the consequences of lying usually stayed with us until adulthood, training our conscience on the virtues of honesty. As horrible as it may be sometimes, it is usually better to own up when we’re at fault.

This assumes that the things we need to own up to are fairly innocuous things, like our age or the fact that we forgot to pay a bill on time.

But our conscience can only be burdened with so much; if you do something really terrible, then we need to stop that conscience pricking us or else we cannot sleep at night.

Thus we start inventing justifications for the terrible things we did, or start telling ever bigger lies in order to cover up what we did.

After a while, we start to believe our own lies and even that we never did anything wrong.

I have known some consummate liars and I often wonder how they keep track of every lie they tell.

Everything depends on keeping every story unimpeachable, and making sure that nobody is able to compare stories with anyone else.

It must be a terrible strain and at some point you’re bound to trip up. And that’s where things start to unravel.

When they do, there is a mad scramble to keep things together which necessitates more and more lies. That conscience, that nagging voice, that inner compass that tells us where true north is, becomes muffled and ignored altogether.

Yet it has a way of peeking out and showing itself in odd ways; the inability to look anyone in the eyes, a voice that isn’t convincing, a hand that is shaky.

They are signs that can be seen by a shrewd observer though perhaps not by those who prefer not to.

Luckily for societies, not everyone becomes devoid of conscience completely. Otherwise they would become totally lawless and dysfunctional.

By and large, most people still obey traffic lights because they know it is a good thing to do. And they also do get angry at people who don’t.

They may tolerate the odd person running a red light but not if it becomes an epidemic because obviously it becomes very dangerous for everyone. It is those people who still have their consciences who will save society.

Today when everything in our society seems to be crumbling, when our leaders have become the ones who run red lights, we have to rely on those traffic cops who still have the conscience to do their jobs correctly, without fear or favour.

If we get rid of traffic cops so that we can run red lights with impunity, then we might as well be a society before there were laws regulating our behaviour on the roads.

Imagine if our conscience stopped being our red light.