Words have power, the power to do both harm and good. And this is more so when they are uttered by those, either individuals or organizations that are in a position to influence others, such as individuals and groups.
Unfortunately, bad thoughts expressed as words that are put into people’s mind and that are based on exclusivist ideologies particularly those of a religious nature, tend to gain more potency and to spread like trails of gunpowder. This is the case with the spate of terrorist attacks that seem to have multiplied over the past two decades, so that the world is having to conduct a continuous war against terrorism inspired by religion.
Before that we had already made war the metaphor of civilian life: war against corruption, war against drugs, war against poverty, war against disease, war against AIDS, war against… That had added to war tout court, the one in the sense that people usually understand it: people fighting each other with arms. It is an old Latin saying that if you wish for peace then prepare for war. Alas that this should still be the dominant mindset.
Millions of people have died unnecessarily in thousands of wars since the dawn of human history. Which perhaps led to the observation that has become a truism: that the greatest enemy of man is man. However, there’s a new dimension to the usual scapegoat, namely the other who is the enemy – it is now the individual who is his own worse enemy, and in succumbing to himself he makes others suffer. The extremist is the one who welcomes death both for himself and for the others he hates and targets.
Take the ongoing… war against corruption, which until fairly recently was thought to be a problem of only the Third World. The financial crisis of 2008 put a lie to this view by exposing the veneer and hypocrisy of the corporate world, and many countries have been recently purging their military (China) and their political leadership (Brazil) of those deemed corrupt. Locally ICAC has its hands full over a number of years with several cases only too well known to the public.
If people did not want things out of turn or undeservingly, or did not expect favours from politicians, then maybe the latter would not need to be funded by private businesses also wanting favours and out-of-turn or undeserved contracts, etc? It takes two hands to make a clap: there’s the corrupteurs and the corruptibles. Need it be that way? What is the fundamental reason that leads to corruption or, to use UN jargon, what is the root cause of such corruption?
In such cases there is only one answer: greed.
Mahatma Gandhi’s words, ‘the Earth has enough for our needs but not enough for our greed’ are often cited in relation to the preservation of the environment. However, they are even more relevant to all the ills that currently afflict us and for which known remedies address the apparent rather than the underlying and common root cause, namely the greed which the Mahatma pinned so long ago. On this are then grafted pride, selfishness, envy, lust, anger and finally hatred which leads to destruction.
Let us take the ‘wars’ one by one. Why a war against drugs? Because there’s a greed to make a quick buck. Why? So as to show off and exert power over others. Greed and arrogance invariably go together.
Poverty? One of the major causes for its existence is the greed and selfishness of the haves who will not share with the have-nots. There are also policy decisions – or indecisions – that contribute. All this does not absolve those who are poor from a degree of self-responsibility, but it certainly behoves those who are more privileged or in positions where they can do so to trigger the process of self-help.
AIDS? Sure, the virus jumped from monkey to man (according to the scientific evidence), but what perpetuates AIDS? It is lust, pride, selfishness added to greed. That is why the biggest battle to be fought is that of changing the lifestyle or behaviour of people so that they don’t contract and/or spread existing disease.
No doubt medicine has been able to provide the triple therapy that has made a dramatic difference in outcomes for specific categories – such as maternal to child transmission – but the onus of leading the struggle will have to remain with the individuals and groups. Not only behaviour on the part of the former has to change so that they don’t fall victims or, if infected, do not infect others, but there is also much work to be done to change social attitudes so as to take care of victims, women victims in particular in societies where ostracism prevails, such as in parts of India.
Disease? No doubt many diseases are caused by factors not within our control, especially the infectious diseases. But the increasingly important group of non-communicable diseases or NCDs are directly associated with behaviour patterns of greed and passion.
We eat, drink and indulge our senses in vast excess of what our bodies need or can handle normally. We do not make the effort to exert self-control, to tone down or live within our means. And if we have the means, we are consumed by the desire to flaunt it and excite the envy and anger of those who are not as lucky.
We could go on examining aspects of our life in this manner – and every time we will end up identifying the root cause as greed plus one of the other factors associated with it. All the scandals that have rocked both the world stage and our own island in recent memory are related to excessive desires to own, to control, or dominate over others. In this game, only the end matters and not the means.
Honest labour, honest people, the hard-working common man tending to the needs of his family by the sweat of his brow, trying to make ends meet, perhaps putting a little aside for a rainy day: all these are disdained by the filthy rich who have ill-gotten wealth and the powerful. There seems to be no reward for good work done and progress made at the cost of self-effort. Glamour, glitter, artifice replace humility, truth and sacrifice.
It is such a climate of greed and warped ideology that leads to the larger wars. As Harold Laski wrote: ‘The glamour of war is as unreal as the bought affection of the prostitute; it exists only in the inexperience of those who have not known its deadly furies. For the few to whom there comes the occasion of chivalrous exploit, there are the millions to whom it means death and disease and maimed life.’
I would say, apparent chivalrous exploit, for can it be an exploit to knowingly and willfully eliminate other human beings especially innocent men, women and children going about their daily routine and peacefully so?
We have enough ‘wars’ to fight already, and could certainly do without anymore.
* Published in print edition on 29 July 2016