It is hard to imagine an activist, of any hue or persuasion, not sporting a self-righteous streak. An action requires some force (push or pull) to be brought to bear on an object one wants to be changed or reshaped or displaced against an inertial resistance. Certain degree of self-righteousness provides the moral component of the force that is deployed to achieve the change. In the case of engineering in the material world the instinct that one is on the right track is based on the rational, objective and verifiable scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, in social engineering, a correct or a faulty recourse is more often than not based on a subjective assessment by and personal predilection of individual human beings of limited knowledge, perspective and strength of character. The sense of right or wrong, thus, becomes open to question.
The emotional motive force behind an idea for change may be entirely laudable. But this hardly guarantees that outcome of the idea would benefit those for whom it was designed or proposed in the first place. The worst and the most visible offence is almost daily inflicted upon people in a democratic polity, where a lot of irrational and short-sighted decisions are taken by individual political leaders or a cabal of them and actions thereupon follow sometimes with disastrous consequences, all in the name of the greater and lasting public good. This probably is a rather extreme and poor example of the travesty often wrought in our lives by a bunch of self-righteous people empowered, ironically, by ourselves through routine democratic processes. Perhaps more problematic is the case of significant and long term influence of a subversive idea for engineering a social or political change, challenging the status quo, based on the assumption of the ‘rightness’ of the idea.
It is impossible to outlaw germination of ideas for change within a given societal framework, questioning or challenging the received wisdom, morality, ethical principles that is expected to roughly govern individual behavior within that framework. A new pair of eyes and ears may perceive colors and sounds that the accumulated stagnancy of yore will barely refract. A fresh pair of legs will dare scale uncharted pathways and claim summits of achievements thought unassailable. Nobody seriously believed even twenty or thirty years ago that the sovereignty of nation states could be so profoundly undermined – not by surreptitiously taking forbidden pictures from the space, nor by offloading missiles from unmanned aerial vehicles on a territory marked inimical. Frontiers and barriers could be more easily breached by packets of information, an avalanche of them, providing words, pictures, sounds, colors, constructs from a distant and a different world, indeed an alternative perspective that is righteously subversive.
It is difficult to predict just when such a righteous challenge starts appearing antagonistic or destabilizing to the upholders of the dominant paradigm. And in the ensuing long drawn or shorter and more violent confrontation and replacement of the old with the new, the live throbbing ideas distilling out of perceptive individual brains start acquiring incrustations, perhaps instinctively, of this or that ‘identity’ and be well on the way to turn into an entrenched and ossified ideology. That is when the righteous appears like a tiresome old fogey spouting at best some heuristic prescriptions that might have outlived its time and we begin rooting for the new subversion and making common cause with its righteousness.
Time and again in the history of ideas (philosophical thoughts, science of societies, political ideologies) seeking the ‘seemingly’ right has motivated and enticed men and women, some of them of extraordinary merit and calibre, frequently not achieving the elusive right results held out as a promise. Is it possible that the importance of the ethical or the moral compass guiding human action is overrated ? And that this only serves to ignore a more objective, less dramatic and mundane down-to-earth evolutionary approach where emphasis is subtle amelioration of the old with new rather than outright subversion ?