By Mohabbat Morshed
The writer is the journalist of a leading daily newspaper
I have been living in Dhaka for almost 10 years and since my first day in this city nature of the people dwelling in the capital has always terrified me. Let me cite an example. Just a few days ago new tenants came in the flat next to my one. So out of courtesy and an urge to get introduced, I asked my wife to knock their door and have some conversation. My wife tried it several times but they behaved in such a way that clearly indicates the fact that they are not at all interested in such chit-chatting and greeting. Feeling dejected my wife stopped talking to them. However, this is not an isolated incident rather almost everyone living in the apartments in this city is going through the same kind of experience every now and then. But why is this happening? Why are the people in the capital so reluctant to talk to each other? The answer lies in a single word- individualism. It is because of the ideologies of individualism that the people nowadays are growing to be increasingly intolerant of others’ feelings and co-existence.
Individualism is a moral stance or ideology that promotes the exercise of one’s goals and desires, and so values independence and self-reliance. The principle that interests of the individual should achieve precedence over social groups is also one of the major precincts of individualism. At the same time, it opposes external interference in one’s own interests by society. While the debate over the priority of individualism has continued for ages, the doctrine has found its strong place in modern civilization. The people in modern civilization are so self-oriented that their nature can easily be perceived by the ideas of individualism. For instance, the inhabitants of Dhaka are extremely individualistic, because their entire thoughts centre around their own interests and privileges.
The past has not witnessed the extent of an extremity of individualism which we see now. It is the age, when people are constantly refraining themselves from saying hello to their neighbors, working together for greater welfare of society, having warm conversations with others and so on. The situation has worsened in the 21st century when modernism entails a normative pattern of behaviour among people that give an ego-oriented priority over all other things.
It is really distressing to see that people are so individualistic nowadays that they do not even know anything about the family living next to their houses or flats. Many people do not even dare to approach their neighbours because of uncertainty over whether they will be treated congenially or not. This is how individualism is not only turning ourselves into egocentric people, but also giving shape to fear for the unknown inside our minds that may take a severe form in the near future.
Moreover, people living in this city do not have even a moment to spare for someone else’s sake. For example- the other day I witnessed a terrible accident at Asad Gate (in front of South East bank) while I was sitting in a bus stuck in the traffic congestion on the opposite side. A man of middle age was relentlessly hit by a bus. The man at once fell to ground and blood was profusely coming out from the injured head. I was totally taken aback by the reaction of the crowd in the nearby area. Not a single man stepped forward to help that moribund man. All of them were simply watching and whispering to themselves. It took about three minutes when a man, at last, proceeded to save the man while others just walked away. But why did merely one man go forward out of about forty men? The answer is that humans actually, according to T.S. Eliot, are spiritually dead. T.S. Eliot, the renowned modern poet, in his poem “The Waste Land” compares the modern civilization with a wasteland, where people are no more concerned about others. In the poem, he clarifies his point through a metaphorical comparison of people of wasteland with the people of London city. The people there are so preoccupied with themselves that they walk looking into their feet. They are pure individualists, who are indifferent to the rest of the world. He regards these people as being dead-alive, taking us to a situation when people are ‘spiritually dead’. The lines are as follows: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge; so many/ I had not thought death had undone so many,/ Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,/ And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.”
In a sense, the individualists of this age do not lend credence to any philosophy that requires the sacrifice of self-interest of the individual for any social cause as modern society (modernisation) is inculcating a sense into humans that prioritise ego-orientation over collective-orientation. And it is because in modern society, the race is about how fully-fledged you are (an individual), not about how thriving your society is and, therefore, people are getting more and more self-centred without taking the interest of society into consideration.
In the end, even if we ignore all these discourses, the question that we cannot just throw away is whether there is really any society or not in this post-modern age. “Man is by nature a social animal. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to and, therefore, does not partake of society is either a beast or a god,” says Aristotle. Then, to which group do the individualists of modern civilization belong to?