Who is afraid of questions? Democracy and literature as unfinished exercise

Listening, seeing, and performing social responsibility are basic tenets of literature and democracy.

By Dr Om Prakash Dwivedi

What happens when democracy is wedded to a select few? And, what happens when literature becomes a cultural gatekeeping exercise?

At a time, when democratic ethos is eroding and literature is controlled by marketing rules, it is time we renew our relationship with these two highly vital catalysts for life. One might oppose the idea of establishing a relationship between democracy and literature, but it is useful to think of them together since the literariness of a country is also a reflection of the healthy pulse rate of any democracy.

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Both democracy and literature require a commitment to freedom, responsibility, and inclusivity. Whereas democracy provides citizens an opportunity to select their leaders with an aim to strengthen the social infrastructures, literature is a platform to engage with the world-making exercise in an unprejudiced and secular manner. Both in democracy and literature, we are accountable to each other, to society, and to the world.

This accountability, therefore, demands interpretative skills, empathy, and collective well-being. Unfortunately, the constant supply of populist narratives and our imaginative failure has brought us to a situation where thinking, engaging with others, and concern for social assets are being drawn away from us.

A good reader is expected to engage with the text carefully, in an unconditioned way; he reads between the gaps and silences, digs out the hidden meanings, and is inclined to live with the unliveable, recognizing himself in the sufferings of others, and formulating ways of emancipation.

Listening, seeing, and performing social responsibility are basic tenets of literature and democracy. However, these are exactly what democracy stoked by neoliberal ideologies dislike. It is afraid of dissent, of questions, of the common good, and of responsibility.

In literature, readers are in conversation with the text, the author, and the world, and the same is expected of our leaders in a democratic set up, engaging with citizens and listening to their woes. A text’s wrong interpretation or its bad review can often lead to the death of the author, as is the case in a democracy, where non-interpretative citizens can blur and obfuscate the democratic ethos.

As citizens, we seem to have forgotten that no democratic life is feasible without indulging in interpretation, careful reading, and interpretation. Yet, it is exactly what one witness in the present moment. Pitted against the rampant rise of social media platforms, and our inability to think, democracy and literature are losing their meanings lest we slow down and engage with the rhetorics of our leaders analytically.

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A case can be made that ours is a time that suffers from symptoms of jargon and narcissism. No wonder then, that literature is always in need of good readers, and democracy of thinking citizens. As Pramod K. Nayar argues,

“if democracy is built on the negotiations of difference and plurality in order to plot a common narrative for the nation, then Literature is the domain in which both difference and plurality find their strongest articulation.”

Any democracy that evades questions can be compared to medical doctors who do not know how to check the pulse of their patients, thus proving suicidal to patients and society. For, both the doctors and leaders have a greater responsibility to save lives, protect them, heal them, and nourish them. Apparently, we seem to be living in times where such leaders can be abundantly found, even celebrated and eulogized by many colour-blinded citizens Nations cannot be so weak as to ignore other colours and voices. The idea of any nation is also an idea of the celebration of differences and pluralities.

To counter the present situation, literature and democracy must always provide contingencies to engineer our collective freedom and the subsequent cultures of rights and responsibilities. Literature needs to be freed from the clutches of market rules and maintain its democratic outlook to envision a better future. It must continue asking questions to our leaders, to elites, to marketing gimmicks, exposing their self-accumulative interests and narrow-mindedness. Neither literature nor democracy can maintain its health and purpose in the absence of questions. After all, questions are seeds of life, creativity, empowerment, and building blocks of societies as well as democracy.

That said, democracy loses its meaning if it mutes its citizens, denying their voices as well as existence. Democracies must stop putting Socratic figures and enquiries to death if they wish to escape the same fate. It is another matter that most of our leaders have shown a perennial fear of questions.

Contributing Author: Dr Om Prakash Dwivedi is Head, School of Liberal Arts, Bennett University, India. He tweets @opdwivedi82

Disclaimer: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The opinions and facts are presented solely by him, and neither The Australia Today News nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.