Reason, Anand Patwardhan’s courageous, epic documentary, traces the arc of India’s cultural history over the last 100 years, from the high of Gandhi’s liberating non-violent satyagraha (truth force), to today’s new low, the mass descent into the violent Hindu nationalism that has brought Modi to power. The film, riveting in its close-up immediacy to the events taking place, is illustrative of the regression to a pre-modern, pre-rational, absolutist, ethnocentric stage of development that is happening worldwide. Americans who viewed the screening here had no difficulty recognizing our own situation–the closing of partisan hearts and minds, the inability or unwillingness to distinguish truth from lies, the virulent racism of us vs. them, the worship of guns, the misogyny, the rise of a malevolent demagogue to the position of supreme political power.
We need to ask why, just as our world has grown more interdependent than ever and when the acute existential threat to the life of the global commons that now exists requires global cooperation more than ever before, such dangerous fragmentation and sub-optimizing behavior, the tragedy of both our civic and environmental commons, is taking place.
First, we need to recognize what the normal evolutionary path of human development is. Most theories suggest it is a progressive expansion of identity and relationship from egocentric to ethnocentric to world centric. These cultural stages mirror stages in individual human development. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment ushered in our capacity to think globally, to embrace rationality and the emerging natural sciences over dogma and superstition, to recognize our shared humanity, and to rule ourselves democratically. But this ascent of the modern beyond the traditional or ethnocentric has not achieved a stable state in our culture, and we now see it threatened by a regression to ethnocentrism.
Robert Kegan of the Harvard Graduate School of Education estimates that 60% of Americans remain at ethnocentric or lower stages of human development. Philosopher Ken Wilber ( in his book Trump and a Post-Truth World, p. 18) writes: “If you think that this ethnocentric stage–with its tendencies toward racism, sexism/patriarchy, misogyny, mega-tribal dominance, oppression, and fundamentalist religion–sounds a bit like hard-core far-Right Republicans, and that it starts to push into recognized Trump territory, you’d be right.” This is essentially the stance of jihad–holy war. “The correct approach to a nonbeliever is,” in Wilber’s description, “in order of increasing severity–to convince them, convert them, torture them, or kill them, but letting them alone in their mistaken beliefs is ungodly and to be avoided at all costs.”
A useful explanatory theory for this mass regression from the worldview from which our democracy and scientific advance was created was one I heard from Martha Crampton about the universal defenses against “premature integration,” such as the universalizing sweep of modernity and today’s globalizing economy–its world without walls–seems to many. The defenses are “encapsulation” and “primitive fusion.” “Encapsulation” is a hardening of the traditional boundary around one’s group identity that separates “us” from “them.” Fundamentalist religion is an obvious example. “Primitive fusion” is the surrender of individual autonomy and responsibility by melting into mob psychology, so visible at mass political rallies like those once held at Nuremberg or in Mumbai and the U.S today. We can see both defenses at work around the world where pluralism, the acceptance of others who are different, especially under the increased pressure of immigration or the imminence of minority status, is perceived as threatening and the mob response is to “Build the wall.”
Of course there are currents of hope, as Anand Padwarhan captures among the college students in Delhi standing up against police oppression or the marchers at the funeral of murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh who chant: “Our blood is not HIndu. Our blood is not Christian. Our blood is not Muslim. The blood in our veins is human.” This affirmation, of the essential dignity of every human person and their right to recognition and respect, is the light that will carry us forward past this current trough of fear and protective disconnection.
Reason is a long film, too long for many audiences, but I can’t think of another instance in which a film-maker has so heroically dived directly into the maelstrom of the most frightening historical forces inflaming our world today and, miraculously, lived to share his tale with us. Anand Padwardhan deserves a medal of honor for having dared, with such extraordinary artistry, to wake us up.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, Dec. 2019