Political Violence, “Rational Ignorance”, and “Political Illiteracy” in Bangladesh
Mar 1 2016 (IPS) – There was yet another shocking headline in this daily (February 22): “Priest killed, devotee shot”. Some “unknown” assailants raided a Hindu temple, slit the throat of a priest, and shot a devotee at Panchagarh in northern Bangladesh. This wasn’t a random violent crime. Of late, there is nothing exceptional about premeditated attacks on minority communities or on people holding divergent views on religion and politics across the country.
Unfortunately, many Bangladeshis, first of all, don’t consider such violence as politically motivated; and secondly, people are no longer that vocal against random or selective killing of people by criminals, terrorists, or law-enforcers unlike their predecessors, who wouldn’t remain quiet at any violent attack on fellow citizens by anybody. This was the norm across Bangladesh up to the mid-1980s.
Although the average Bangladeshis still take interest in local and national politics, their interest is dwindling. Firstly, the bulk of Bangladeshis seem to have become thoroughly depoliticised; and secondly, they don’t know whether politics has everything to do with violent attacks on minority communities, women, writers, journalists and others.
This apathy has nothing to do with the victims’ religion, political views, gender, or profession. The number of unresolved killings and “disappearance” of people has desensitised people; and to some extent, this apathy may be attributed to what political scientists consider “political illiteracy” and “rational ignorance”, which have devastating effects on political order, social cohesion, democracy, and freedom. Desensitised, apathetic, apolitical, and ignorant people throughout history have succumbed to absolute dictatorships in the name of religion, racist nationalism, or communism.
I’m going to elaborate these concepts with regard to the prevalent political culture of Bangladesh. Despite what many Bangladeshis say about themselves as being one of the most politically conscious people in the world, the overwhelming majority of people in the country are actually among the least politically conscious, and disillusioned people anywhere. Most decent people in society have shunned politics altogether, and rogue and corrupt elements have filled in the void.
While in some cases, the least desirable people have become politicians and fabulously rich through the “profession of politics”, hardly anybody ever raises this question, and nobody seems embarrassed about this weird state of affairs in the country! On the one hand, people’s lack of interest in raising questions about people’s illegitimately acquired wealth and power through politics is fear-induced; on the other, it also reflects people’s political apathy or “rational ignorance”, and “political illiteracy”.
The understanding of “rational ignorance” and “political illiteracy” requires an understanding of what democracy and politics are all about. People everywhere learn about the intricacies of politics not only from textbooks, but also from enlightened politicians. What’s Bangladesh today is no exception in this regard. People here used to learn about democracy, people’s rights and responsibilities, and about politics in general from political stalwarts like A.K. Fazlul Huq, Maulana Bhashani, H.S. Suhrawardy, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. There was a dialogue between leaders and their followers; they understood each other, and learnt a lot from each other too. Not anymore!
One of the most famous political scientists, Robert Dahl, believes everything in human relationship in power perspective is political. He thinks politics in a democratic setup is what “A” is getting from “B” to do what “A” wants through rational or manipulative persuasion, inducement, influence, authority and power. Since coercion and the physical force to back it up are integral to autocracy, democratic politics is all about effective participation, equal voting rights for all, and inclusiveness.
Thanks to the prevalence of unethical politics in Bangladesh, people in general don’t trust politicians. In a society devoid of mutual trust and respect, politics in Bangladesh is all about what “A” can get from “B” in the most unscrupulous way. Thus people here believe it’s irrational to learn anything more about politics – especially from politicians – as they see no benefit in politics.
Renowned economist and political thinker Anthony Downs’s theory of “rational ignorance” is very pertinent to our understanding of political apathy in Bangladesh. In his seminal work An Economic Theory of Democracy, he has defined political apathy as “rational ignorance” of people when they find the cost of learning something more expensive than any potential benefit from what they learn.
This has consequences for the quality of decisions made by large numbers of people, during general elections, where the probability of any one vote changing the outcome is very small.
“Rational ignorance” perpetuates blind political support or loyalty among citizens to particular political parties, X, Y, or Z. The loyal voters are too lazy to investigate if the old policies of their party has changed, or not suitable in the present, or the new leaders are less honest and capable than their predecessors.
What famous German playwright Bertolt Brecht has defined as “political illiteracy”, is the next most logical stage of a “rationally ignorant” nation. Despite the popular perception in Bangladesh, thanks to the manipulative and corrupt politicians, the overwhelming majority of people in the country are among the most “rationally ignorant”,and “politically illiterate” in the world. The fatal combination of “rational ignorance” and “political illiteracy” has turned the brave nation of Bangladesh – which in our recent memory was a nation of freedom fighters – into a nation of supine underdogs and conformist subalterns.
It’s time that politically conscious and patriotic elements in the country tell the people nothing is more important to know than the reality that everything that affects our living is political. We need to pay heed to what Brecht has said in regard to “political illiteracy”:
“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”
Politically apathetic people lose their sense of belonging to a nation, or even to a bigger entity called humanity, which are larger than their families, clans and ethno-religious communities. They become apathetic self-seekers, most unwilling to do anything for collective benefits of people not related to them by blood or by mutually beneficial ties. German pastor Martin Niemöller has beautifully narrated what happens to perpetually apathetic people in totalitarian countries.
Niemöller – who spent seven years in Hitler’s concentration camp – wrote a poem about the fate of politically indifferent people from his own experience: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –Because I was not a Socialist…. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Unless Bangladeshis shun political apathy, doctors fight for journalists and truck drivers; engineers defend garment factory workers’ rights; professionals fight for equal opportunities for all; men fight for women, and women for men; rich fight for the poor, and poor for the rich, the country will remain politically inert, socially backward, and economically stagnant without any rule of law and equity. I believe political apathy is the mother of all evils in Bangladesh. There’s hardly anything in life beyond politics. We’re all related to each other in power perspective.
The writer teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. He is the author of several books, including Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014). Email:[email protected]