Jack out of the box

Social crises often lead to a greater reflection on mechanisms of social change. Usually this reflection ends in a call for a more informed and active political participation by citizens. Politics is, after all, the activity that orders the most fundamental power relationships in society. When those relationships are distorted, they reverberate across society, casting their shadow on everything. In this sense, engaging with politics is supremely important. It is central to our identity as citizen.

But in India there is another, somewhat more peculiar challenge. The spectre that haunts us is not just a lack of appropriate civic engagement. It is a complete confusion of roles or lack of identification with any. Societies function when each profession performs its role. To take your bearings in part from your professional role is to act according to your core competence; it is to at least discharge the ethical obligations that define any professional activity. Reaching outside the profession, broadening the horizons and an engagement with general affairs are absolutely necessary. However, an indiscriminate confusion of roles can weaken society in subtle ways.

The most important functional component of morality in complex societies is not personal virtue or sacrifice for the collectivity; it is rather contributing to society through your profession. In the long run, societies can mobilise the collective power of their citizens only if they at least minimally fulfil their professional roles, whatever these happen to be. If you are in a society where, for example, teachers don't show up to teach, no amount of civic engagement or personal virtue can compensate for that lack. This is a complicated problem; some may attribute it entirely to an absence of punishment mechanisms. But there is probably a more complicated moral psychology at work, where the job does not become part of your professional identity. A society that has to rely largely on external mechanisms to produce compliance is doomed from the start.

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