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The importance of a country’s self-image

Professor Rajeev Bhargava, CSDS and Institute for Social Justice

This article was originally published by The Hindu

Publicly acknowledging and attending to flaws rather than ignoring them is pivotal to nurturing a healthy, positive self-image

The recent remark by the outgoing Vice President, Hamid Ansari, that there is growing unease among Dalits and minorities caused rancour amongst some of our fellow citizens. It is a bit puzzling why, for this was not an unusual observation. Many Indians, including the former President, Pranab Mukherjee, had raised concerns about growing intolerance in our country and the threat to our pluralist ethos. But Ansari’s remarks were seen by some to be particularly disturbing because they appeared to damage the country’s image. Some went as far as to say that they were an insult to the country.

A concern with the country’s image is not to be scoffed at or dismissed as inconsequential. A country’s image is important. Since a country is made up of its people, its image is the collective self-image of a people. Each one of us wants to be viewed by others favourably because how one is treated is frequently determined by how one is seen. We don’t wish to be misrecognised by others. We all wish to be recognised for what we truly are and not be seen through a distorting lens. Besides, a positive self-image is crucially linked to our self-esteem. If our self-image is damaged, our self-esteem is necessarily lowered and we are bound to feel humiliated and insulted. This is equally true of our collective self-image. If our country is portrayed negatively, we feel ashamed, angry, or even outraged. There is no denying the importance of a country’s image.

Self-image: A double-edged sword

Yet, a self-image should not be confused with the person’s real self. There is always a gap between how one is seen (by others or by oneself) and what one really is. Moreover, there are two kinds of self-images. One, constructed self-reflectively, constantly realigns how we appear and what we really are. Conscious of the pitfalls of self-deception, it relentlessly unmasks defects and vulnerabilities. Building a real self and constructing a self-image are here part of the same ethical process.

The other thrives on deliberate distortion. Though carefully crafted, such a self-image is far removed from reality. Disconnected from the real self, the image overtakes it and becomes all that matters. Indeed, it even masks the real self and its flaws. An obsessive concern with self-image undermines the growth of the real self; wasteful energy is spent on polishing the self-image, even as the real self is tarnished by neglect. This is as true for nations as it is for individuals.

Publicly acknowledging and attending to flaws rather than ignoring them is pivotal to nurturing a healthy, positive self-image. Cosmetically engaging with them or being indifferent to the creeping malaise damages the self and its real image. What or who then is damaging a country’s self-image? And who amongst us is nurturing it positively? Consider a teenager habitually cheating in exams but who is caught, one day, by an observant and scrupulous teacher. Though his acts reflect badly on his own moral character, they probably tell us even more about the poor quality of moral life in his family. The appropriate thing to do here is for the parents to own up their mistake and find ways of rectifying the moral ambience at home, so that this does not occur again. But what happens instead is bizarre! The parents begin to blame the teacher for publicly ruining the reputation or image of the family! How twisted can a mind be!

Some years ago, the country was hit by a cascade of corruption scandals. Imagine if those who exposed it were blamed for damaging the country’s image, and the scamsters came through unscathed? Today, it is clearly the lynch mobs who are damaging the image of the country, not those who express concern over the lynchings and want the government to put a stop to them. Surely, there is some perverse logic operating here.

Internal and external image

A second feature of the obsessive preoccupation with image is this: those persistently anxious about the country’s image leave unstated that it is the country’s image in the external world that they are really embarrassed about. But equally, if not more important, is the country’s image amongst its own people. Do we not need to ask what the image of the country is in the eyes of Dalits, minorities, ravaged farmers and others who feel alienated and excluded? Can we please start getting concerned about the country’s internal image, the imprint this intolerance leaves on our alienated citizens?

Quite like an individual, no country is perfect. We all make mistakes, stray from the path, get misdirected, temporarily lose our way, and even reach the wrong destination, but the more intelligent and wise amongst us are self-correcting. They can tell when and where we have gone wrong. And take steps for course correction. The discriminating ability to tell right from wrong, the courage to acknowledge that a wrong has been committed, and the collective resolve to fix it — these are all crucial for the health of a nation.

The image of the country is greatly enhanced when its citizens speak out against any wrong committed in their name or in their land. It is even more reassuring to hear people in the highest positions of authority acknowledging public wrong with responsibility and purpose. It shows that we are a vibrant, self-examining, introspective people. It also shows that we are an assured democracy. That indeed is the image that we should wish to have of ourselves, both inside the country and abroad.

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