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Why we should have higher standards for the good

We must ask a question that is never asked of the good. Are the mediocre good as dangerous as competent evil?

A still from ‘Man Of Steel’. Even Superman, the ultimate good guy, is held accountable for his actions.
A still from ‘Man Of Steel’. Even Superman, the ultimate good guy, is held accountable for his actions.

One day Muslims and Dalits and small farmers and gypsy girls and everyone else in India who needs protection may want to know why they lose. And it may occur to them that they lose because their guardians are doomed to lose, and they may want to know who exactly their guardians, who are numerous, are. They may then see, or most probably they may not see, the true nature of their guardians: Well-meaning men who are in politics not because they are the fittest to survive, but because they have been genetically ordained to enter politics; conscientious lawyers who are always saying the right things on TV to people who already know the right things; that middle-aged guy who after failing in all his material ambitions now sits with a glass of whisky every night and tweets what is good journalism and what is not; that pious young writer who is into “long form only", who is exactly like the Kung Fu Panda—innately lazy but eager to learn from foreign masters; and those activists who recently made over 50,000 farmers march 200km to Mumbai in the hot sun for, as it now transpires, nothing really beyond the appreciation of the middle class of Mumbai, who were so impressed by the fact that the farmers made an effort to prevent traffic jams; and that Mumbai comedian with modest talents who makes fun of “the bad guys" because it is easy; an urbane rural affairs activist who has been lamenting the plight of small farmers for decades without ever wondering that if he has been saying the same things for decades then he, too, has been completely useless to the farmers; and the scores of people who might feel it is they I am talking about because they are all the same really.

The miseries of India are not only the triumph of evil, but also the failure of those who claim to stand for all things good. So it is futile to lament evil alone. We must ask a question that is never asked of the good. Are the mediocre good as dangerous as competent evil? Is it enough for “the good" to be virtuous, or should they also be smart and hard-working and talented enough to win, and to win often, especially win elections? Are the current crop of “the good folks" deserving of the attention they receive or are they only beneficiaries of their social networks? What if the fact is that public attention is finite and zero-sum, what if the attention on the privileged or posturing “good folks" is attention lost on more competent reformers, who may have a far better shot at the polls?

The regular people, the consumers of news, activism and revolutions, tend to have no standards for the good. As long as people have good intentions, or they claim to stand for the right values, we reward them with respect, attention and money. This even though the hell of modern India is not the creation of any single diabolic man but the team effort of people with very good intentions.

In a society that has no standards for the good, the activists who will rise to public attention will be those who have influential friends in the media, the type of people who can survive for decades using the subjectivity of lament activism. They do not contest elections or allow themselves to be measured objectively in any way. They do not face any serious consequences for failing to meet their own objectives. Such a cesspool of the good attracts many whose claim to goodness is chiefly that they are not evil people. It is a bit like that Captcha statement, “I’m not a robot." You need to just tick the box. Not surprising then that the contemporary fellowship of good folks is primed to make a noise, and to posture, but not to win.

We should raise the bar not only for career activists and journalists and lawyers, assuming there is a difference, but also for ourselves. On what basis do we grant ourselves that warm cosy feeling of goodness? What is it that we actually do to deserve it? We have compassion only for the kind of poor who do not threaten us—like farmers marching in the night so as to ensure the smooth flow of cars. This is actually a feudal emotion that masquerades as compassion. Also, we have begun to articulate noble thoughts but this is largely pointless. The articulation of good intent only saves us from the requirement of actually doing something. Also, Indians who lament inequality are precisely those who send their children to attend expensive courses in the US. Not for a moment am I suggesting that we should not admire meek, innocuous and, not to forget, “organic" farmers; or that we should take the trouble of doing difficult right things instead of just articulating sweet ethical things; or sending our youth abroad to give them an unfair head start. I am saying we should do all this stuff but we must stop claiming to be patrons of goodness. If we deny ourselves some easy masks, we will work hard to gain face, we will find ways to do what is more difficult than just posturing. That is why I sacked myself as a good person, and I will persuade you to do so, too. And that is exactly why atheists usually do more good than believers—because they have no recourse to supernatural rituals to claim to be good and have to instead perform duties in the real world.

That the lucky should take care of the unlucky is the greatest human invention. It is too important for us to have a low bar for the guardians of the weak or even for the rest of us who claim to be good. We must sack the mediocre good.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets at @manujosephsan

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