The editorial and op-ed pages, which market research had shown to be the least-read part of the daily newspaper, have been rejuvenated by the internet. Four years ago, DNA decided to drop the edit page altogether; now we have opinion-only websites such as DailyO that feature no reporting or “news”.
But the increase in the quantity of expressed opinion, and perhaps its range, have not led to more meaningful or educative political debate – in fact, it may well be the opposite. Here are ten reasons why.
1) Ad hominem attacks
To respond ad hominem is to attack the person making an argument rather than the substance of the argument itself – whether by imputing malice or an ulterior motive, or by questioning their character. Of all the factors that inhibit political debate in India, this is both one of the most common and the most pernicious. Arun Shourie’s recent criticisms of the present government were met not with substantive counter-arguments but with the claim that he is simply bitter at not receiving a government post. Ad hominem attacks, where they are not simply false, are unfalsifiable, and inimical to productive debate.
This one is so notorious that it is often prefixed by a #. We all know the form. Criticise Modi’s handling of the 2002 riots – what about 1984? Condemn Dinanath Batra’s crusade against Wendy Doniger– why didn’t you stand up for Salman Rushdie? Whataboutery is a particularly egregious example of ad hominem – it constitutes a refusal to engage with substance. And these attacks are often inaccurate – the fact that a person has, in fact, been consistent and spoken out on all these issues is simply ignored. The allegation of condoning the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, in particular, is levelled even against those who weren’t alive at the time. But even when accurate, they are besides the point, and counterproductive. As academician Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it, “[W]e spend all our psychic energies in exposing each other, not in defending values. If freedom is to survive, we have to set aside this debate on hypocrisy.”
3) Echo chambers
Social science research has shown that associating primarily with like-minded people leads to us forming more extreme and more unchangeable views. This is an important reason why social media, in particular, has not fostered debate. The overwhelming tendency on both left and right is to follow and engage with those who share our worldview – their opinions confirm our own, in a process that is psychologically gratifying but intellectually stunting. The excessive use of Twitter’s Block and Mute functions is a manifestation of this – no one can be faulted for choosing not to be subjected to vicious abuse, but too often they are used to shut out the world of opposing views.
4) Broad-brush generalisations
Living in political echo chambers also leads us to form reductive and pejorative perceptions of those outside our herd. Name-calling and broad-brush generalizations are common on both sides– “libtard”, “sickular”, “dynasty bootlicker” on the one side, “sanghi”, “chaddiwala”, “bhakt” on the other, “troll” the all-purpose favourite. These catch-all terms are childish, abusive, and unhelpfully vague. “Bhakt”, in particular, is used to refer to any supporter of Modi or the BJP in a manner that cannot but connote – even if this is not the intention – a contempt for Hinduism itself. On both sides, the name-calling signifies a basic lack of the respect and courtesy necessary for debate.
There is a case to be made for preserving the option of anonymity online, for the purpose of enabling subversive satire, or in situations where free expression involves grave personal risk. In India, however, the broad effect of anonymous or pseudonymous expression on public discourse has been utterly debilitating. Anonymity enables uninhibited personal abuse and the rapid circulation of libellous statements, which then take on a life of their own (as exemplified by the various “Lutyens” accounts).
On Twitter, it enables accounts whose sole purpose is the harassment of a single individual – accounts that Twitter has proven pathetically unable to police. There is a delicious irony in the fact that most of the influential anonymous accounts in India belong to the far Hindu right – the most bigoted Islamophobes out there depend on a kind of digital niqab to prevent the expression of their views from causing social and professional ostracism. Political speech is often an act of great bravery – online, and anonymously, it is closer to pure cowardice.
6) Snap judgments
For political debate to thrive, opinion needs to follow from facts. But whether on TV panel discussions, in opinion pieces or online, the contemporary trend is towards snap judgments – opinions expressed without a knowledge of the facts, or before the facts have been properly considered and contextualized. This leads to displays of breathtaking ignorance: the historian Irfan Habib’s recent comparison of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh with the Islamic State – a remark richly deserving of substantive refutation– was met by claims that Prof Habib, who has spent half a century deploring religious fundamentalism of all kinds, was an “Islamist”. On TV panels, the tendency to invite the same guests, no matter the topic of discussion, has the inevitable consequence that opinion tends to be fact-free.
India is often categorised, under Francis Fukuyama's schema, as a "low-trust society". Whether or not it has always been thus, distrust dominates and pollutes our public life. In terms of preventing debate, distrust takes two forms. The first is the long-established distrust citizens feel towards politicians and the more recent distrust of the “mainsteam media” (more commonly felt on the right). This distrust often has solid foundations. It leads, in practice, to an instinctive scepticism, bordering on a refusal to engage, and often to a presumption of malice. It is the root cause behind ad hominem attacks and many of the other unedifying features of our political culture.
A second form of distrust operates at the level of party-political debate. Where once Vajpayee could eulogise Nehru in the Lok Sabha, the national parties now regard each other as fundamentally illegitimate – “Rome Raj” and “maut ka saudagar” are not merely political rhetoric, but a fair expression of actual perception. Both parties now believe that it is profitable, when in Opposition, to use the tactics of street protest and civil disobedience rather than conduct parliamentary debate.
8) Irresponsible journalism
If we are to create trust, however, we need to eliminate the roots of distrust. The growing distrust of news outlets is exacerbated by how careless so much journalism is with the facts. Newspapers and TV channels spend less money on news gathering and rush stories to print or air – online, the urge towards speed means less editing and fact-checking. It makes it harder to rebut right-wing critiques of “MSM bias” when journalists are allowed to refer to “69% of India voting against the BJP” (leave aside the dubious relevance of the point; it was 61% that voted against the National Democratic Alliance), to imply that Modi literally claimed to have a 56-inch chest, or to refer to a “$15,000 Savile Row suit” (the suit was tailored in India for perhaps a third of that sum). These assertions, not so much lazy and misleading as genuinely false, are alarmingly common in mainstream journalism.
9) Team mentality
Arguably no law has had as chilling an effect on political debate – both in practice and as a principle – in India than the 1985 constitutional amendment known as the Anti-Defection Act, which effectively prevented politicians from breaking with the party line on specific issues. This directly contributed to the trend that has seen virtually every party in India run, internally, on authoritarian, centralised lines. There is hardly any public debate within parties, and outside parties politicians are reduced to mouthpieces for the “official” line. This has seeped into broader discourse, to the extent that commentators who support one party or ideology are very rarely willing to express a differing view in public, for fear of letting the side down. The rare heterodox thinker – the likes of Sadanand Dhume or Ashok Malik, on the right – tends to receive more abuse from his or her own side than the other.
10) No listening
Finally, there is a deeper feature of contemporary Indian society and culture which prevents the translation of political engagement into political debate. Can debate take place in a culture which places little value on listening? Where interruption is socially acceptable? The person most associated with the rise of opinion journalism, Arnab Goswami, works daily to prevent meaningful debate from taking place, in exactly this way. When not cutting off his panellists himself, he is goading them to interrupt one another. Nothing seems to frustrate him more than a panellist actually answering the question that has been asked. Each segment in Super Primetime on the NewsHour is called a “debate”, but even watching the show on mute gives the lie to the claim – it is eight or so talking heads, plus the host, all speaking at the same time.
But Goswami, apart from being a rather soft target, can hardly be blamed for a national culture of talking rather than listening. And there are others who can and should do more to change it. Those who know or have met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi describe him as a serious and attentive listener. But in public he sticks to one-way communication, avoiding direct questions from the press while staying away from Parliament. He is a fine orator, but oratory is both easier than debate and less beneficial to our politics.
The democratisation of opinion is, on its own terms, something to be valued, even if opened channels have thus far led to closed minds. It is too early to give up on creating a culture of meaningful and respectful political debate. The man who remains the country’s most popular and influential leader could do a great deal of good by extolling the virtue of listening in Mann ki Baat.
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