Our political discourse is poisoned because we tend to personalise all discussion, shifting the focus from the argument to the person making it.
This is a transcript of episode 49 of The Seen and the Unseen, the weekly podcast hosted by Amit Varma.
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The internet is amazing, isn’t it? When I first began to explore the internet, more than 20 years ago, I was blown away by the possibilities. I thought, wow, this is going to do so much to help people express themselves, and to help people communicate with each other. The internet put the tools of publishing into the hands of every individual. Anyone, with a little effort, could start a web page of her own. Soon, with even less effort, one could start a blog. And as time went by, with almost no effort at all, we could write posts about our lives that all our friends could read, we could broadcast our thoughts to the world, 140 characters at a time, we could post pictures and videos, and comment on the pictures and videos of others, and discover ourselves and the world around us, as distinctions of geography and race and class and even language would cease to matter. At the least, because of the internet, human beings would talk to each other more than they ever did before. That’s what I thought then. But, alas, it hasn’t worked out that way. One of the big lessons of our modern age is this: we may all talk a lot at the same time – but no one really listens any more.
Welcome to The Seen and the Unseen. This is episode 49 of this weekly podcast, and the first one in which I will have no guest, and will be on my own. Just for this one episode, my intention was to try and go solo, and sort of freewheel my way through it: just me and my thoughts. I figured that, as this releases on January 1, 2018, I will talk about the year that just passed by. But having started the episode by talking about how we don’t listen to each other any more, I’m going to talk a little bit more about that – and I guess it’s kind of ironic then that I don’t have a guest on this episode, because that makes it the first episode where I won’t be listening at all!
Three weeks ago, in episode 46 of The Seen and the Unseen, I spoke to my friend Prem Panicker about the state of the media. What I was trying to wrap my head around was this: back in the ’80s and ’90s, when I grew up, before the internet was ubiquitous, we all got our news and information from certain mainstream media sources. We’d get one of more newspapers at home – in my case I have been a captive audience for the Times of India, among others – we’d have a handful of TV stations to choose from, and we were, just by dint of inertia, a captive audience for them. We were passive consumers of information – and most of us, when we had things to say, would communicate that to individuals or at best small groups. The internet changed all that – and thank goodness for that.
The internet put the tools of publishing in the hands of individuals, and reduced the cost dramatically. You no longer had a gatekeeper – like a newspaper editor – to have your thoughts published. You were not tied down to the news cycle, or to standard formats of content, like the 800-word op-ed, for example. When I started my blog, India Uncut, I found it liberating that I could post stray thoughts when I wanted to, and a post could be one sentence if I felt like, or a 7000-word essay, and I did not have to worry about what anyone other than me thought of it. So many people I knew started writing blogs – and blogs tended to find their own audiences. There was a greater diversity of voices out there now, and more diversity is always, always a good thing. I was already a journalist, but the success of India Uncut got me invitations to write columns for newspapers, and many other bloggers also made similar transitions. But of course, that’s history, as blogs are more or less dead now.
Social media democratised this process even further. Blogs were an outlet for those who liked to write. Social media gave an outlet to everybody. Anyone could post a Facebook update what what they did that day, or how they were feeling, and could post their vacation pictures and see those of others. On twitter, they could reach out to like-minded people, or expand their own worldviews by engaging with people from outside their narrow geographical circles. Technology enabled this, as smartphones allowed us to do so much, including make feature films if we wanted do. The empowerment of the individual – the great libertarian dream.
But that’s not quite what happened. Let me take a detour for a moment to a social science experiment carried out in 2005 by Cass Sunstein, David Schkade and Reid Hastie. I read about this in an excellent short book by Sunstein called On Rumours. The study itself is titled, ‘What Happened on Deliberation Day?’, and you can find it if you Google. So, in this study, Sunstein and his colleagues gathered together 60 people, and divided them into 10 groups of six people each. Now, this grouping was not random: it was done so that each group was homogneous, and all six members in it fit the same kind of profile in terms of political ideology. Half of these groups were liberal – in the American sense – and half were conservative.
At the start of the experiment, each participant was asked a series of hot button questions. Their anonymous answers were noted down. Then they went into a room with their group of like-minded people and discussed those issues. Fifteen minutes after the group discussion ended, they were again asked the same set of questions, anonymously and one by one.
Here’s how Sunstein summarised the results:
In almost every group, members ended up holding more extreme positions after they spoke with one another. […] Aside from increasing extremism, the experiment had an independent effect: it made both liberal and conservative groups significantly more homogeneous—and thus squelched diversity. […] Moreover, the rift between liberals and conservatives widened as a result of discussing.
Sunstein called this effect ‘Group Polarisation.’ Sunstein defined it thus: “When like-minded people deliberate, they typically end up adopting a more extreme position in line with their pre-deliberation inclinations.”
You can see where I’m going with this. This is pretty much how discourse on the internet proceeds. First, we find like-minded people. This is not always easy in the real world, where our social circles are small, but online, no matter what our beliefs are – the earth is flat, ancient Indians invented plastic surgery, Barack Obama is a Muslim – we will find others who believe the same thing. Feeling validated, and thus empowered, we will then form an echo chamber with these new fellows of ours – and mind you, we could be part of multiple echo chambers at the same time, encompassing different beliefs. We would find comfort in belonging to this group, and our beliefs would be strengthened, and thus grow more extreme – what Sunstein called Group Polarisation. We would then become impervious to facts – we would ignore all facts that did not fit our beliefs, and accept only those that did: behavioural economists call this the Confirmation Bias.
And this is exactly why our political discourse today is so polarised. On the internet, most arguments consist not of people talking to each other, but talking past each other. This affects not just content, but also tone. We have become so shrill and contemptuous of each other.
I’d written a column a few months ago titled, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Politics’ – a sly nod to Raymond Carver, obviously. My lament, in that piece, is that there is no argument in our political discourse any more. Whenever someone says something that we disagree with, we shift the focus from the argument to the person: we attack him. We have no appetite for discussion because we have already made up our minds, and opposing views are a threat to us, which is why we react so viscerally. So instead of refuting the argument, we attack the person. There are a number of ways in which this happens. Let me lay out the common ones – and I’m sure you will find them all familiar.
The number one way of personalising an argument is Whataboutery. For example, if you mention the Gujarat riots of 2002, a Narendra Modi fan might well ask, but what about the anti-Sikh riots of 1984? Why don’t you speak about that? Whataboutery is basically two things. One, it is an attack on the person who made the original statement. So if I say the 2002 riots are bad, by asking me, What about 1984, you are implying that I am a hypocrite, and that I don’t really care about human life at all. And two, besides being a personal attack, it is implicitly an admission of guilt. All Whataboutery basically says, yeah, guilty as charged, but what about those other guys, they’re also guilty.
Whataboutery poisons the discourse by shifting the focus from the argument to the person. And it is pointless to engage with a Whatabouterer. Often when I speak out for free speech, when some fringe Hindutva group does something, I’ll get asked: but what about the Charlie Hebdo murders? What about the Danish cartoonists? Why were you silent about that? Now, the truth is that I wasn’t silent then, and I wrote columns arguing in support of the Danish cartoonists, and the murdered employees of Charlie Hebdo, and I am a free speech absolutist regardless of such content. But it is a waste of time to point this out, because your attacker will then just move on to Method No 2 of personalising an argument.
Before I get to that, let me point out that Whataboutery is not just something that trolls on Twitter do: politicians do it all the time. For example, when Arvind Kejriwal was asked about the tens of crores of taxpayers money – our money, coerced from us – was spend on running ads for his government, he asked the reporter, “Why are you asking me? What about Modi? The BJP spends much more money on advertising?” That’s a classic admission of guilt, but no one sees it that way.
Okay, on to method number two. The second way of personalising an argument is to question your intent. So if I criticise something that you agree with, you could, for example, call me a presstitute. Now, this label baffles me, because I don’t view ‘prostitute’ as a pejorative – sex workers are no different morally from workers of any kind, and even I sell my labour for money, nothing wrong with that. But the implication behind calling someone a presstitute is that he or she is getting money for criticizing, they have an agenda, and therefore the focus conveniently shifts from the argument to the person. A presstitute is just one version: you could be a CIA agent, you could be acting on behalf of China, you could be funded by a Christian or Jihadi group that wants to spread their religion, and so on.
So if someone is cooking biryani for a party, and you enter the kitchen and see that they’re putting rotting dog meat in it, and you point that out, imagine them saying, “Oh, of course you would say that. You’re from the mutton lobby.” And everyone at the party surrounds you as they chant, ‘Mutton Lobby. Mutton Lobby. Mutton Lobby.’ And then they all eat the biryani and die, which is probably what’s going to happen to our democracy. You get my point.
On to method number 3. Method number 3 is identity politics. Your argument is ignored because of who you are. For example, if you are Muslim or Hindu and argue with the BJP, your argument is irrelevant. They will invoke your identity, and that’s the end of that. It isn’t just the right wing that does this, the left wing too, especially woke millennials who like to talk about privilege.
Now, privilege exists, and is an excellent analytical tool, and we should all introspect about the different kinds of privilege we have benefited from. But invoking it in argument is toxic for our discourse. If someone makes an argument about, say reservations, saying that reservations don’t work as intended, shutting him down just because he is ‘savarna’ kills the discourse right there. If a man makes a comment about feminism, to say that they need to check their privilege, and their argument should be ignored just because they are men, is like poison to the free and open expression that a democracy needs. Now, someone may make a poor argument because of their privilege. But the thing to do there is to point out the flaw in their argument, rather than invoke their identity. To refuse to engage with someone’s argument just because of a person’s identity, usually something they have no control over, is just toxic. Again, thinking of privilege might be useful to analyse how opinions get formed and so on, but invoking it in conversation ends the conversation right there.
Method number 4 is actually an extension of method no 3: labelling. So someone makes an argument, and you call them a libtard or a bhakt or an aaptard or a pinko or a commie, and then refuse to engage. The label is a pejorative, and you use it not only to dismiss the person, but by extension, to also dismiss their argument.
There are many ways of ending an argument other than personalising it which are also intellectually dishonest. Arthur Schopenhauer had once written a great essay called 38 Ways to Win an Argument, which I reposted on India Uncut, so if you head there, you can search for it there. These include time-honoured methods like shifting goalposts and attacking straw men. Schopenhauer probably intended his piece to be cautionary, but I bet its used as an instruction manual by some people.
Now, some of you might say, given how things are, why even bother to engage with people on social media? On Twitter, for example, the main rhetorical tool employed is snark: it is much easier to make fun of someone, thereby feeling superior yourself, than to actually engage with humility. If you can do this in a clever way, you will get many RTs and taalis from others in your echo chamber. Isn’t that gratifying?
And indeed, most conversation – at least most political conversation on Twitter is equal parts preaching to the choir and being gratuitously derogatory to opponents. On the one hand, if someone disagrees with you, you stick a label on them – hypocrite, presstitute, fool, whatever – and dismiss them. And too much of what I see on Twitter also is virtue signalling: people saying look, I’m so noble, or compassionate, or woke, and so on. Indeed, I suggest that before we post anything on Twitter, we should ask ourselves two questions (and I’ll call this the Amit Varma Test for Social Media Posting): One, Am I being derogatory about someone? Two, Am I trying to show myself in a good light? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, don’t make that post, just watch a cat video on YouTube or something. There are better ways to waste your time.
I shall end this episode here: thanks for listening so far. If you have any feedback, either negative or positive, about this first attempt of mine to record a solo episode, do let me know on Twitter or elsewhere. My twitter handle is @amitvarma. You can listen to past episodes of The Seen and the Unseen at seenunseen.in. Have a great year, and hey, this year, listen more than you talk. Goodbye for now!