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The Moral Crisis

– Dr C.K. Mathew, IAS (Retd)
We all talk about the moral crisis that is engulfing us now, while we still are not able to define what it all means. That there is a decline in values, is accepted; that the moral standards we had once upheld at great cost to ourselves, has now diminished is a given; that we have become men of straw is common talk at parties and social gatherings. But what do all these words mean: are they but a few high sounding phrases and idle words strung together or do they signify the crisis at the very heart of human conduct and action.
To answer this question is well nigh impossible. We will have to make a detailed historical analysis of how the rigour and discipline of a moral and ethical frame work surrounding our lives has, over the years deteriorated, and all code of conduct and social mores, and even religious diktats, are no longer important or even relevant. There was a time when holy books such as the Talmud or the Gita or the Bible or the Koran stipulated a certain kind of behaviour and conduct, in all things: from the dress we have to wear and how we are to behave with others, how our money dealings should be and how we interact with our neighbours. But not so now. All the commandants of life, by which we regulated our behaviour and conduct, have become diluted; their iron-cast characteristics have become flaccid and weak. The threat of social censure or divine punishment no longer threatens those who may casually or flagrantly violate them. Everything goes; sab chalta hai; there are no self-imposed boundaries or rules. All things are now acceptable.
I now ask you to consider the question of who is responsible for this state of affairs. How is that that over the last century, perhaps, all things considered sacred and holy, have turned common place and inconsequential, not worth a second glance from us. Who has been responsible for the slow rusting of the iron? When someone commits a prohibited act, why is no action taken, and why does the criminal go scot-free. Why is law a slow and dilatory process that blurs and diminishes, rather than clarifying and deciding? From small things such as violation of traffic rules to unpardonable crimes of murder and rape, we have grown thick rough skins that prevent us from feeling the pain and the horror of the transgression, and then, after a disgusted groan, we are back to business as usual. At best, it may generate some aggrieved street protests for a few days and then we are in our insulated lives where we are immersed in a cocoon of I, me and myself. We do not lead purposeful and ethical lives, nor are we governed by a strict code that can punish the transgressor and set the boundaries between right and wrong, good and evil, black and white.
And that is why I offer the answer to the question I asked. I say that it is you and I who are responsible for this decline, that all of us together have jointly and severally colluded and contributed to the crime of casual negligence of the mainstay of our lives, the moral underpinnings that should hold up our values and stiffen our spines. Let me add that I am not pleading for a world without compassion. Forgiveness is the very essence of a superior and civilised life; and we must have it in our hearts to recognise the contrition of a sinner and forgive him knowing that his remorse is genuine. But the rule of law must be upheld or else we face the destruction of civilisation as we have once known it.
And thus I come to the main burden of my essay today. I quote Dante Alighieri from the Inferno: “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” These words are damning and deserve our quiet and deep consideration. It is an indictment of those amongst us who, faced with a moral crisis, push our hands into our pockets and say with a philosophical wave of their hand, “well, that is how life is, what can you do about it ?” There is no anger, there is no raised voice of protest, and there is no rage at the gravity of the crime committed. We but swallow it and move on as we have done all these days of our lives. As if it doesn’t matter to us a bit, that we, the superior and cynical individuals that we are, are separate from the throng of humanity and that we care not for the direction in which we are moving.
I say, sir and madam, that our reluctance to enter into a moral stance, into a committed position that states in unequivocal terms who and what we are, what our values and moral codes stand for, is the prime reason why we stand directionless today. Indeed this is the main cause for the drift and slide in the foundations beneath our feet as we grope to find significance in our troubled lives. We have lost our true north, not because it has vanished from our sight, but because we have strolled into the opposite direction with our causal lack of vision in the real issues that surround us.
WB Yeats said it in his immortal poem ‘The Second Coming’: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” How tragic that the vociferous and the brawny should outshout the wise and the noble? We lack the steel to stand up and be counted, we do not have the resolve say enough is enough. And thus we dither: the world around us slides away into an unknown place where all is gray, where the difference between light and darkness, and indeed between good and evil, cannot be recognised.
I end with a brilliant quotation from Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Surely we owe it to ourselves and to all our forefathers who cast the die in which we were all once formed, to sit up and say with cold clarity: from now on we shall not be blurred in our vision, things shall not fall apart, and the centre shall hold.
Are there any good men out there listening?
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