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Dr Jahanbegloo’s ‘Letters To A Young Philosopher’ On Crisis Of Conformity

“Madness is the result not of uncertainty but of certainty” – Fredrick Nietzsche

It is perhaps useful to consider the book of Iranian-born Canadian Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo in light of the Canadian PM’s visit to India earlier this year. Like Justin Trudeau, Jahanbegloo is a Canadian with ties to India. Unlike Trudeau, he is no fan of Canada. One of the recurring themes in many of his recent works, including the one under review in this article, is the lack of a soul in Canada’s “bleached out” culture. He laments that technocratic cultures like Canada are too artificial and synthetic for his liking. Indeed, his critique of such “odorless and colorless” societies forms one of the main tropes of ‘Letters to a Young Philosopher.’

In this dialogic book, wherein he is building on the tradition established by Rilke in the classic ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, Jahanbegloo stresses that modern societies have fallen prey to the plague of conformism. He avers that this is a major problem for the world today because we are losing touch with our humanity and with the very purpose of existence. We have devolved into mere automatons mindlessly performing bureaucratic functions and tasks without heed as to why we are trapped in this meaningless existence.

In order to help his fictional young interlocutor escape this morass of meaninglessness Jahanbegloo provides something of a road map. This he does by reflecting on his own experiences in life, both positive and negative. His chapters on the art of loving and dying furnish instructive lessons in this regard. His advice on romantic love, for instance, will resonate with many.

Quoting Freud, he states that “From being in love to hypnosis is evidently only a short step. The respects in which the two agree are obvious. There is the same humble subjection, the same compliance, the same absence of criticism towards the hypnotist just as towards the loved object.” Jahanbegloo, therefore cautions his young interlocutor from giving into the illusion of idealisation when it comes to love. He cements this advice by saying that we should not fall into the trap of conventional myths about marriage, but should ideally strive for selfless love.

In the chapter on the art of dying Jahanbegloo urges his younger associate to pay no heed to what others think. A single-minded pursuit of excellence, he says, is the only way to break out of the zombified mindset we are trapped in. It is because modern societies have forgotten to pursue excellence that there is a decline in civilisation and a proliferation of ‘bubbles of protectionism, nativism and exclusion.’

These bubbles function as echo chambers drowning out the potential for asking questions and challenging the established order. Jahanbegloo says that the main reason we are so mediocre is because of our certainties. We forget to question the things we take for granted in life. Instead of achieving excellence by questioning and dismantling established shibboleths we become hostage to a herd mentality.

Such a mindset throttles the imagination of the young, leaving them under the illusion that excellence is about grades and a high GPA. They may believe that it is better to parrot back what the teacher is saying in class rather than give in to curiosity about the world beyond the four corners of a syllabus. After all, for many students, high grades are a passport to a high paying job, the traditional metric by which excellence in educational outcomes is measured.

Actually Jahanbegloo reminds us, excellence in education is precisely about breaching the confines of prescribed textbooks and ‘lighting the fire of imagination’. Learning occurs when each individual student charts her own course of discovery because as Chomsky says “if you can learn how to discover then it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. You will use that talent elsewhere.” That is why the famous MIT professor Victor Weisskopf would tell his students at the beginning of each semester when asked about the syllabus: “it doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover.”

‘Letters to a Young Philosopher’ brims with many such excellent points that deserve careful contemplation from the reader. The decline of Jahanbegloo’s notion of education, for instance, as an end in itself should give us pause. This is a matter of no small concern as colleges and universities across the world have succumbed to succeeding waves of corporatisation over the past few decades. As a result professors can now rarely look forward to tenure. They are much more likely to be adjunct or temp faculty members – in other words, too financially insecure to raise uncomfortable questions about the status quo. Students themselves are crushed under heavy debt burdens that discourage them from emulating their peers from a few generations ago who transformed the world through their activism.

However to return to Canada, some questions can be mooted about Jahanbegloo’s critique. Certainly Canada like many modern capitalist societies may be subject to the deadening aura of conformity and mindless bureaucracy. But Canada is also a beacon of hope for many progressive causes. It is far more humane than many other capitalist societies in offering a welter of socioeconomic benefits to the poor and marginalised, which have been won through the kind of dissent and protest extolled by Jahanbegloo.

Canada is also, despite his lamentation of ‘a false sense of multiculturalism’, home to a rising cadre of minority politicians who espouse a bevy of progressive political causes and whose rise and prominence in Canadian politics, signals the success and advancement of previously marginalised groups. In this vein, Trudeau’s recent apology to Indians for the Komagata Maru incident heralds the dawn of a new era of racial sensitivity in Canada.

Also on the question of obedience of the masses that Jahanbegloo decries for electing the likes of Trump, historical evidence suggests that they were anything but obedient and compliant. They may not have known their Shakespeare but they were more than willing to question and rebel against the established order. That is why eminent figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson vigorously called for ‘proper’ education of the masses – not because they were too ignorant or stupid to question, but precisely because they were questioning the established order too much! His call to educate the masses to keep them at bay reveals his fear in the potential of the general public to rock the boat of society.

Some reviewers have critiqued ‘Letters’ for diluting the young interlocutor’s agency because we are deprived of his reaction to the advice meted out to him. But the responses to Jahanbegloo’s meditations should come from us, his readers, in conversation and dialogue with each other, which is the ultimate aim of the book – to inspire and reignite the lofty tradition of civic friendship in an unfriendly and passionless world.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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