The great Voltaire once wrote, “If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.” Indeed, an absurdity accountable for a gargantuan share of the brutal injustices inflicted upon people in all times and settings is the fallacy of collectivism.
How Collectivist Attitudes Harm the Best Individuals
E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India illustrates the inhibitive nature of collectivism to aspiring individuals. During the peak of Anglo-Indian sentiment against Aziz due to the false accusation of his assault on Miss Quested, the anger of the collectivist elite of Chandrapore shifts from direct indignation at Miss Quested’s violation to a vague but intense loathing of Indian natives in general. This further instills in Aziz’s accusers the perception that Aziz, a native of India, must be a tainted man because of his race.
Aziz’s friend Cyril Fielding must confront this sentiment in his attempts to ascertain the truth. “[Fielding] had not rallied to the banner of race. He was still after facts, though the herd had decided on emotion… Pity, wrath, heroism, filled then, but the power of putting two and two together was annihilated” (183).
Indeed, the irrationality of collectivist perception had caused Aziz’s accusers to spontaneously forget the man’s immense generosity and the extent of personal debt which he was willing to undergo to arrange the grandiose picnic on which he had invited Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested. Aziz’s intellect, personality, and companionship are ignored in favor of the stereotype of the dark-skinned “monster” with an “inherent affinity for fairer-skinned women” (as states a principal argument presented against him in court).
Yet not only Aziz is hindered by this stigma, but rather all Indians of an educated and intellectual background. Even the intelligent and philosophical District Superintendent McBryde is impelled by a collectivist mindset to state that “all unfortunate natives are criminals at heart, for the simple reason that they live south of latitude 30” (184). McBryde, although not possessed by as intense a loathing for Aziz as others of his countrymen, nevertheless hesitates to grant Fielding the necessary access to the facts of the situation which held the potential of exonerating Aziz, including an interview with Miss Quested.
But by far the most grievous insult to the autonomy and dignity of intelligent Indian individuals is a general sentiment uttered to Mr. Turton in the Chandrapore British Club. “Any native who plays polo is all right. What you’ve got to stamp on is these educated classes, and, mind, I do know what I’m talking about this time” (205).
To the collectivist snob, a stereotypically designated inferior is of no inconvenience so long as he compliantly acknowledges his own inferiority. This is also witnessed in the caste system of India, where, so long as one performs his assigned “duty,” one’s subordinate status is not employed as a vehicle for one’s further plummet into the abyss of humiliation. To perform one’s own duty poorly is thought superior to performing another’s duty well. But those who pursue, through education and interaction with the educated, their own elevation and the improvement of their minds and lives are anathema to a collectivist establishment. They are, to the collectivist, anomalies. They violate his primitive generalizations concerning persons of a particular caste and race. Hence, they must be coercively pressed back down into the preconceived framework of institutionalized hierarchy.
Collectivism’s Destruction of a Friendship
Among the principal aspects of the collectivist mindset is the judging of an individual on the basis of his perceived membership in an often circumstantial and artificially constructed group: a race, nation, or class. While in reality there exist only unique individuals with their own personalities, aspirations, accomplishments, skills, and knowledge, the collectivist mindset disregards all that and instead seeks to portray each individual as just one member of some homogeneous “greater whole.”
Collectivism is profoundly antithetical to the formation and preservation of friendships, especially among individuals perceived by the collectivists as belonging to distinct “groups.”
In A Passage to India, collectivism’s destructive effect on friendships can be observed. Cyril Fielding and Dr. Aziz maintain a strong friendship prior to the unjust accusation and trial of Aziz for an assault he did not commit. But collectivism tears their friendship apart. Despite Fielding’s courageous stance in favor of Aziz during the latter’s trial, Aziz gradually drifts away from his friend due to the mutual antagonism present between the British and Indian camps, each orienting itself against the other based on a collectivist perception.
When Fielding returns to India after a sojourn in England and eagerly writes letters to his old friend, Aziz even refuses to read them and hopes that the incessant rains will derail Fielding’s arrival. Despite a momentary reconciliation, a statement in a subsequent conversation between Aziz and Fielding reveals the ethnic collectivism of Aziz that has torn a rift between their friendship: “We shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then… and then… we shall be friends.” (362)
This is a brazen confession that irrational lumping of Fielding in with the Chandrapore elite that had assailed Aziz in court, as well as Aziz’s general and unfounded loathing for Englishmen and Westerners per se (not merely the fact of the occupation), will indefinitely preclude him from connecting with Fielding as an individual, despite their mutual respect for each other’s personalities and Fielding’s dauntless prior attempts to defend Aziz for the sake of objective, non-collectivist justice. Aziz is compelled by his bigoted sociocultural milieu (the group of fanatics, who, after the trial, had nearly demolished Chandrapore’s hospital), as well as by his own tendency to submit to popular prejudices, to reject one of the most productive relationships in his life.
A Passage to India insightfully demonstrates that collectivism is not a mere one-sided phenomenon. In most “group conflicts,” extensive and bigoted collectivism is displayed on both sides — as was the case among many British and Indians in the novel. The best people are caught in the crossfire, forced to abandon cherished relationships as a result of others’ superstitions and violent hatreds.
Demonstrations of Collectivism’s Inherent Violence
Collectivist attitudes inevitably lead to violence, because collectivism openly flouts the possibility of rational discussion, civil interaction, and mutually-reinforcing friendships among people who are thought to belong to distinct “groups.”
A Passage to India demonstrates such acts of collectivist upheaval. Following Dr. Aziz’s trial, the jubilant crowd of natives celebrating his victory re-channels its sentiment from one of celebration to one of spiteful vengeance. The natives march on the city hospital and prepare to demolish it. “The new injury lashed the crowd to fury. It had been aimless hitherto, and had lacked a grievance. When they reached the Maidan and saw the sallow arcades of the Minto they shambled towards it howling. It was near midday. The earth and sky were insanely ugly, the spirit of evil again strode abroad” (262).
Only the emergence of the Nawab Bahadur’s grandson in a recovering condition quells the crowd’s fury. However, what is used as the pretext for the march is not its cause. The crowd seeks a means to lash back at “those bigoted Englishmen,” which, as the text indicates, would fulfill the aim that they are deliberately awaiting.
The mob desires to avenge Aziz’s disdainfully collectivist treatment at the hands of his accusers with an even more brute and savage variant of collectivism. Aziz’s exoneration and the delivery of justice do not in themselves satisfy the collectivist crowd. To the collectivist, antagonism with his rivals is irreconcilable, and each particular incident is merely a spark to light a heap of firewood gathered over an extensive period of time. Hence, the collectivist does not rest when genuine threats to his welfare are eliminated. He desires to partake in hostility, and a victory merely places him on the offensive. Hence, both in reality and in fiction that profoundly analyzes the human psyche, collectivism, criminality, and social tumult are inherently linked.
But A Passage to India also contains examples of courageous individuals who resist the collectivist temptation and, through their courage, prevent further acts of vicious and unjustified violence from occurring. Miss Adela Quested, for instance, defies the expectations of her community in order to proclaim Aziz’s innocence in court and thereby fully exonerate him, while Cyril Fielding plays an integral part in the orchestration of Aziz’s defense and the gathering of evidence that would dispel suppositions of Aziz’s guilt. Both Miss Quested and Fielding are able to see past the superficial categories of race and nationality and defend an individual for what he truly is, an innocent, upright, and virtuous human being.