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OP-ED: A den of vices

  • Published at 08:50 pm August 16th, 2020
Between sleaze and spirituality MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

We live in a society where honesty has become a liability

In the last five months, during the corona period restrictions, both the benevolent and the malevolent sides of society have come to the surface. 

While countless people who were lucky to have food and cash to spend came to aid the underprivileged, there were others who took the emergency as a way to hoodwink the government and masses to make a quick profit. This immoral group includes educated people with socially respectable posts. 

The truth is that such unprincipled people are not low in number. In fact, in many cases, I had the dubious pleasure to see the thin line separating the moral from the immoral, a line which became rather blurred. 

Capitalist ideals have entered the social structure with such vengeance that from the young to the old, the sole topic of conversation often seems to circle around money. 

The method adopted to make money is totally ignored once someone has made it big. 

The swanky car, the rodomontade about connections at the top places plus the heady aura of wealth provide a sense of impunity. 

In the last four to five months we have seen fake certificates given out for Covid-19, online fraud involving foreigners and locals, extortion allegations made against law enforcers, and, finally, the ongoing murky drama over the killing of a former military officer. 

In all these events, the only common factor seems to be one thing -- greed for money. 

The driving force behind avarice

From a layperson’s perspective, one sees two major reasons for the rise in avarice. One, the demand for more injected in us by a viciously consumerism-driven culture and two, the desire to recoup the money which was spent as bribe to secure permanent employment, usually in the government. 

Talking about the first, the much exalted ideals of integrity are so demoded now that even the young university graduate often has the vision of making it big by one massive stroke. 

Of course, one never knows when luck strikes but for many of the youth I have talked to, the desire for a “get rich quick” formula involves ruthless manipulation of political/social links. 

The other day, I faced the rebuke of a junior friend when he found that I had no connection at the health ministry.

His advice, in a tone of admonition, to me: “With corona, money is flying in that department; try to make connections and secure a contract to supply safety items.” 

Manipulation of tenders and using influence to get work have become so normal that they do not fall within aberrations anymore. Regrettably, the person who tries the honest way by staying transparent is often ridiculed as being naïve. 

In English, the definition of “simple man” man means a person without too many wiles, but in Bangla, “shadashida manush” is actually a pejorative term, indicating someone whose honesty is his/her liability. 

Therefore, unknowingly, we are actually hinting that if someone is too honest, then his/her life will be doomed. Cynical as it may sound, such a caution about being too straightforward was voiced by Chanakya, the ancient Indian statesman: Don’t be too honest; straight trees are cut first and honest people are screwed first.  

But I am sure even Chanakya would be shocked at the pervasive mercenary ideals that have come to dominate current social creed. 

The second reason behind the rise of venality is the fact that many jobs are secured through huge bribes. Again, the word “bribe” is not used anymore because it is socially accepted that, for certain posts, money is solicited. 

For the middle-class, this money is arranged either through loans at interest or by pawning family jewelry. If it’s the former, then the money has to be paid up within a certain time and, therefore, once the job is secured, the job holder becomes desperate to make extra cash on the side, discarding all scruples/family teachings. 

The same law applies for redeeming jewelry because unless the valuables are brought back, there is the possibility of having them forfeited for good. 

Whatever the case, money becomes the major issue. For quite some time, we have seen newspaper reports about cash transactions to secure jobs, ensure transfers to major cities, or to guarantee promotion. 

If such is the case, then we need hardly raise eyebrows at the surge of grafts because the incentive money has to come from somewhere.   

What the young see, they learn

We have been taught from an early age that what a child sees in a family is what moulds his/her character. At least, most of the time. 

So, a father who is engaged in blatantly immoral acts cannot expect either his son or daughter to grow up with different principles. If a mother is seen using deception all the time by the daughter, chances are high that the daughter will grow up with the notion that duplicity is a way of life. 

In the same way, when a person purchases something which is beyond the capacity of his/her known source of income and the family silently accepts the new item, whether it’s a car or a phone, without questions, there is tacit approval. 

In the past, the predatory nature of many young people surprised me but not anymore -- these young people also face pressure from their families, either directly or indirectly, to make money. 

Interestingly, a convenient symbiosis between sleaze and spiritualty has taken place. Someone who is manipulating tenders, dealing in contraband items, or collecting extortion money for local political leaders is often religiously devout. 

When we were growing up in the late 70s and 80s, society had a distinctly delineated ideology based on moral values. During that period, when the middle-class was homogeneous with similar habits, teachings at homes didn’t differ that much. 

Religiosity was always encouraged but, within the family sphere, basic integrity, honesty, and moral courage were taught. 

Unfortunately, now we often hear seniors intently advising their juniors to do whatever it takes to make money. Actually, advice is not needed because the young can see how things are done. 

However, all is not lost yet because the recent busting of unscrupulous people underlines one point: Vice is deliciously tempting but bland virtue also has its day; it’s called karma.

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.