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Loss of public discourse

Barkha Dutt

There are many things that feel unhealthy about India’s democracy right now, but none more so than the fact that we have lost the ability to talk to each other without the use of narrow labels.

Some of the polarisation is engineered by politics. The divisive citizenship legislation, for example, has created quarrels within families, intergenerational disputes and meltdowns on family WhatsApp groups. On college alumni pages – including the normally sanitised, apathetic Facebook forum of my old institution, St Stephen’s – there are furious debates that often descend to name-calling and abuse.

I used to laugh when close friends in America would tell me they would not live in a neighbourhood where people voted differently from them. Of course, as a feminist and pluralist, I am aware that the personal is always the political; but I don’t remember another time in contemporary history when so many Indians were unable to have a conversation with so many other Indians.

This reductionism of public discourse is partly the consequence of our media, both television and online. It is shameful that mainstream television channels and self-respecting anchors and news presenters are willing to use phrases like “tukde tukde gang” for anyone who departs from the dominant narrative. There is not much to separate the hounding of individuals online via hashtags of hate from the protagonists of prime-time prejudice. This capture of television media by nativists and populists – and above all, by those who wield power – has numbed us to how dangerous this phenomenon is. Contrast it to America, where not just are institutions much freer – Stephen Colbert pans the American President every night – but where Right leaning Fox News and centrist CNN joined hands and spoke from the same side when Jim Acosta’s credentials were held back by the White House. This would never happen in the Indian news
industry today.

The complicity of mainstream and new media in the coarsening of discourse has led to offline mobs. It doesn’t matter where you stand on the citizenship legislation or the Jawharlal Nehru University (JNU) turmoil; that Yogendra Yadav, among others, had to face slogans of “Desh ke gaddaro ko, Goli maaro salon ko” at the main gate of JNU, is proof, if we still needed it, that what separates words from action is very little.

The Rightwing has most definitely been better organised – with more resources and aggression – than other groups, whether on television or Twitter. But what is disturbing is to see liberal dogma as a counter-slogan.

I am extremely uncomfortable, for instance, with the ease with which all ideological affiliations call for boycotts of products and individuals. Deepika Padukone had to face that for expressing solidarity with the students of JNU who had been at the receiving end of brutal violence. But I have also heard passionate arguments among liberals for boycotting products made by groups or individuals that support or fund the present government.

This is a self-defeating position. You cannot transform into all that you claim to oppose. Yes, boycotts were and remain Gandhian in spirit and a great tool of mobilisation. But only if used in the rarest of rare cases – and for egregious injustices – not for the mere expression of an opinion or a political preference. Else we become the mob we fight.

Something similar happened recently when historian Ramachandra Guha was viciously trolled for his views on Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. Guha, otherwise known and respected for his fierce intellectual individualism, bent over backwards to explain himself. While Guha has been a trenchant critic of the Narendra Modi government, he has also not pulled his punches about the ineffectual leadership of the Congress party and his disagreements with it. In a genuine democracy, this should be as valid and acceptable a political position as any. But Guha was called everything including a “fascist enabler”.

The eruption of this needless controversy underlined the precarious point our democracy stands at, where everyone must be pushed into neat silos that can be catalogued and put away. It’s the modern-day version of thought control. Phrases like “presstitute” and “anti-national” have already done damage to what was once a healthy and argumentative public
discourse.

But if a country loses the art of having a conversation with itself, that only strengthens majoritarianism. Rightwing trolls have certainly been the key offenders in organised trolling, vilification campaigns, slander and even sexual violence. But if the progressive response is to counter it, albeit in a less abusive idiom, with the same sort
of thought control, it is entirely
self-defeating.

Plus, this polarisation of personality and thought only suits those who fan it.

And in the end, the mob wins.

(HT Media)

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