The dinner table last night, like many nights, turned into a battleground. The topic was the migrant labour crisis. Casual arguments turned into hostile disagreements, with one section firmly supporting the government’s decisions, while the other, of which I was a part, critical of its handling of the crisis.
There was another section though – we are a large family – that posed as the neutral and unbiased party and started to enumerate on the importance of looking at both the positives and the negatives. They cautioned us of the dangers of sticking to a single narrative, subtly accusing both parties of being bipartisan.
The neutral band, or centrists, elaborated on arguments of both sides, with their favourite conjunctions ‘but’ and ‘also’: the government has done quite a bit, but it could have done more; India’s situation doesn’t look great, but the situation of even superpowers seems grim; things don’t seem great, but there’s a need to focus on the positives as well; the migrant labourers are suffering, but there are countless more who are being taken care of.
Riddled with disagreements, I consumed all the arguments. All but one. I refused to gulp down the notion that the suffering of migrant workers could be equated with those whose welfare had been taken care of by the government.
The concept of balance that occupies a position in narratives like the ones at our dinner table is a flawed one – and it’s a widespread practice. Political conversations are replete with people who want to inject some balance into discussions, be it dinner tables, parties or even journalism.
Statements such as “women have it tough, but so do men” or “this celebrity might have killed some people, but has also done monumental charity work” are some examples.
Balance, however, is not a weighing scale where the good levels out the bad. An approach such as this leads to false equivalence, which underplays the wrong and overestimates the correct.
There is a famous quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr., “The moral arc of the universe always bends at justice.” It is this justice that balancing acts deny by failing to recognise the mismatch in proportions between good and evil.
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The problem with centrism isn’t merely its misplaced ideals of balance, but also the way it does nothing to hold the powerful accountable. Because the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ come from the same source, the desire for balance has a neutralising effect. Thus, even if a centrist isn’t happy with the government’s work, one isn’t frustrated either. They take measure of society in terms of positivity and negativity. News, facts, narratives and stories are boxed into negative and positive compartments, and whenever the box of negativity opens, they look for stories that supply them with positivity.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to feel better. Everyone needs an escape. However, when the desire for positivity is used to cancel out harsh realities, it becomes a larger problem. This is why centrism is also a function of privilege.
Centrists feel that they reside in the middle of the spectrum, between the left and the right. The right- wing in our country though, has shifted so far to the right that the position of the centre itself has moved in that direction. Therefore, the definition of the middle ground changes and neutrality becomes an illusion.
What is it, then, that constitutes balance? According to me, balance can’t be struck by stacking the good against the bad. It can only be done by identifying the wrongs that are happening around us and demanding accountability from those who are responsible. That is balance in its truest sense. The good never cancels out the bad – it merely acts as a veil.
The migrant exodus that our nation has witnessed over the past few weeks and still continues to witness is a testament to the degradation of the lives of the poorest of the poor. People continue to walk to their homes for hundreds of kilometres. The number of such journeys is countless and while some stories are documented, others get lost in transit. Our highways were constructed to bear the load of vehicles. They were not meant to bear the burden of starving families walking to reach their homes. These realities aren’t glamorous, but they are the most important kinds of realities because they show society a mirror.
The migrant worker crisis that is unfolding before us is not merely a logistical question. It is a moral and conscientious question. Are we as a nation willing to desert those who spend their lives building cities, cleaning drains and sweeping streets? Can we look away from the trauma and indignity which have become the definitive feature of those lives that are walking towards their villages? Some are barefoot, some are pregnant, some are carrying toddlers and some are carrying luggage. They are devoid of resources. What they do have in abundance, however, is indignation.
Without a shadow of doubt, it is necessary to have well-informed opinions. But the nature of certain realities is non-negotiable and “balance”, as we know it, needs a rethink. One cannot use the welfare of certain sections as a pretext to balance out those who have been wronged.
After all, the fundamental difference between the good and bad that happens in a society is that the latter demands urgency. Demanding answers from the powerful and insisting on the accountability of those in-charge is the only way a crisis as grave as this can have some semblance of balance.
Aditya Chauhan studied psychology at Ashoka University in Psychology and currently works in Jamshedpur.
Featured image credit: Christophe Hautier/Unsplash