We talk a great deal about change in the modern world. We want change because we want to have better circumstances around us so that we can have a better quality of life in the changed environment. How do we bring about the desired change?
We assume that we can bring about the desired change with the help of scientific knowledge. But this line of reasoning cannot be taken very far, before you confront serious epistemological and existential problems. It is only then that you begin to interrogate the very terms that you earlier had taken for granted. This is true for all three terms used in the title of the present article.
We use the terms ‘knowledge, change and quality of life’ in our day to day lives but do not often face overt contestation of such usage. This is because these terms can be used in many situations in a generic sense without invoking any specific meaning. But, when we try to use our ‘knowledge’ to bring about change in a particular context, we could see contestation and resistance from certain people who do not subscribe to our versions of knowledge, change and quality of life. The turmoil in the world and in our own midst today is due to the relative nature of these three terms.
When applied to social, economic, political and cultural contexts, knowledge, change and quality of life invoke very different meanings in the minds of people. This is because there is great diversity among us in terms of our ideas and interests. It is in this light that we need to understand overt and covert conflicts in contemporary societies including our own.
The phenomenon described above is not confined to politics, though it manifests more glaringly in the political arena. It is pervasive across and within human societies. This has been true perhaps throughout human history.
But, in a rapidly globalizing world, people who lived very different lives in different parts of the world in line with their own understanding of the world around them, very different notions of change and diverse meanings and purposes of life have come face to face creating a situation where their conflicting ideas and radically divergent lifestyles make at least some of them intolerant of each other.
While many people who live in multi-ethnic and multi-religious environments, often remain tolerant of diversity or at worst indifferent towards each other, a minority of highly ethno-centric, religious fundamentalists everywhere strive to bring about ‘change’ in a way that would establish their hegemonic position.
What is the role of scientific knowledge in highly ideologically charged socio-political contexts?
As is well known, the European enlightenment prepared the ground for the emergence of a pervasive, secular world view where natural and human sciences shaped the thinking of younger generations exposed to modern secular education. More and more people got accustomed to the use of modern scientific knowledge for diverse practical applications to bring about change in their living and working environments. These applications in turn resulted in radical shifts in the way people lived and transformed ideas regarding quality of life.
In the sphere of demography itself, the resultant change had been radical characterized by low birth rates, low rates of infant and maternal mortality and high life expectancy. The impact of such changes on gender relations has been far reaching, leading to the expanded freedoms of women.
In spite of the scientific revolutions resulting in the enthronement of scientific knowledge in the context of modern secular education and the wider public discourse in many countries, knowledge itself has remained largely relative.
Religion has remained an alternative source of ‘ knowledge’ in many societies including the west. Religious scriptures have continued to guide many people and their world views are shaped largely by religious teaching. This is particularly so in many developing countries in general where modern education is often interlaced with religious teaching.
Unsuspecting children move between the school shrine room and the scientific laboratory with ease and seem to feel comfortable equally with both mystical religious rituals as well as laboratory experiments. The same is also true for most school teachers. No wonder some of the radical religious fundamentalists are so -called well educated youths.
Relativity of knowledge has also become evident from the increasing disenchantment with the dominant development paradigm today. The continuing exploitation of natural resources resulting in massive adverse environmental impacts has become clearly unsustainable and counterproductive.
The introduction of sustainable development goals (SDG’s) by the UN in 2015 as an alternative development paradigm amounts to a rejection of the conventional, unfettered capitalist development model. The new development model aims to bring about change in the way countries hitherto pursued economic development. With the change also come more sustainable lifestyles.
In other words, quality of life is no longer perceived as a product of unrestrained mass consumption of unsustainably produced commodities. The tiny South Asian country, Bhutan has hit news headlines with the new idea of GNP, as an alternative to GDP as a measure of development.
The country strives to meet the basic human needs, by striking a sound balance between development and environmental quality, without going through the mill of capitalist development that has seriously compromised ecological integrity. The idea is also to achieve a higher quality of life or human happiness by avoiding environmental destruction, hyper urbanization and wasteful consumption of almost everything.
The issue that has been discussed in the present article manifests in diverse contexts. People who interpret social reality in conflicting ways tend to advocate change also in very different ways. The political and terrorist violence we witness in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere is due to the above reality.
While the Liberals stand for a Secular State that guarantees Fundamental Freedoms and diversity in lifestyles, religious fundamentalists strives to establish theocratic rule. There are also more benign forms of contestation of knowledge systems. Those did not lead to violent conflicts. In the age of Internet, these often come to the surface, often leading to mass mobilizations. Some of these relate to animal rights, bio-diversity, inequality, migration and automation. Mobilization of public support for or against some of these issues is aimed at bringing about a change for a better world based on very different understandings of social and natural phenomena. Managing such diversity has become one of the most pervasive challenges in the modern world.
This is also clearly evident from the current social and political discourses in Sri Lanka.
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