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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Digressive Rhetoric Dominating Public Discourse In India

Public discourse is essential for the functioning of a progressive democratic society but sometimes too much of it can be counter-productive especially in a society such as ours where politics dominates every sphere of our lives. For a long time public discussion was compered by print media journalists, radio hosts and electronic media,which took and transformed  most  somber debates to desi tamashas. Social media revolution has had a very different impact,while it has thrown numerous thought-leaders who would otherwise have passed away in obscurity or limited success,social media has also brought in partisans,radicals and mischief-makers. I refuse to call them "trolls" which was originally used for Usenet users with single-point agenda,but even they were far more knowledgeable than some of the current twitter celebs :p (note to self: post a short entry to elucidate the point).Anyway, blaming a horde of hare-brained web users can hardly be blamed for hijacking public discussions on national television shows. The fault must lie with the greater part of the debating public.


As things stand now, public discussion are becoming intensely personal and reactive. The definition of the term reactive here has less to do with Newton's action-reaction law and more to do with the childish behavior of passing the buck to other children. Of course,children just pass the blame to prove innocence,adults don't even do that prove ourselves innocent,adults simply point to similar and bigger offenses of adversaries. The debates become competitive sport of sorts in which the players score browny points not by proving their own honesty but by the dishonesty of the adversary. So it longer surprises us that whenever the issue of Gujarat 2002 Muslim genocide is raised, the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 invariably finds mention in the refutation. On this context, the two state orchestrated killing of innocent people have been so hyphenated that  I think if go into a tunnel and yell "Gujarat 2002", my own echo would reply with Delhi 1984!


If the BJP charges the Congress over the string of scams , it never fails to remind the BJP that it too has a vulnerable spot in the form of Karnataka Chief Minister. However, the grand old party has touched a new low by getting embroiled in the controversy surrounding a video clip which allegedly implies that the co-chairperson of the newly formed Lokpal bill draft committee, Shashi Bhushan may have been involved in a ploy to bribe a Supreme Court Judge. It doesn't require much intellect to surmise that true or false the allegation itself was made not with the intention of detecting wrongdoing  but as a ploy to derail or at least throw a spanner into the Anna Hazare led anti-corruption movement across India.

If it is saddening that even  the ruling party indulged in digressive rhetoric and preferred to hurl allegation of corruption in response to public's call for  measures to check corruption, it is outright tragic that the media and the debating public lapped it up. The other day when Barkha Dutt asked if the civil society representatives on Lokpal Bill Drafting Committee would step down the same way that a few ministers have done recently, she was over-generalizing separate issues. Swami Agnivesh's response to the question was even more generalized, which was bit of a shock for me considering the fact that he  has been one of the very few genuine social activists in the country. Swami Agnivesh by taking personal potshots at Barkha took the same line of argument that those he is fighting against take as a diversionary tactic. Cases of central government ministers siphoning of billions of rupees from the public money, a dubious allegation against a noted anti-corruption activist and current co-chairperson of an Lokpal bill drafting committee and  a news reporter accused of acting as a conduit between two parties during the pre-formation stage of a coalition government for, are three entirely different cases, how can they be treated in the same manner ?


Imagine the judiciary taking a similar approach. How easy the work of judges would be if it was all about generalization and categorization of cases based on allegations, instead of adjudging every case on their own merits! Heck, we could also do away with at least half of the judges and install software systems in their places. All the algorithm would have to do is compare values and categorize them. Adjudication was never an issue, the rich and the powerful often manage to get themselves acquitted and freed of charges if they don't delay the trial  indefinitely when out on bail. So for the political class the judicial process is not as much a nightmare as is their being charged in the first place. However, that is not  how thee judiciary works, so in the interest of justice, the media should refrain from over-generalization and not fall victim to the campaign of refuting charges by imposing more grievous charges on the adversaries.

The same applies to us too. While we are ever so eager to comment on most issues,are we really willing to spend time reflecting on those issues before taking stand on them.I am not so sure if it is our modern fast-paced life-style or an over-exposure to 24x7 news channels,the fact is we are becoming inimical to thinking for ourselves. I am not sure if its our shortening span of attention or shallow understanding, it is a fact that too many times we end up merely adding to the din. Public discourse of this nature is counter-productive, since the very objective of the debate is lost.

 Politicians belonging to both the government and the opposition (and those in between such as Amar Singh,Mayawati) must be given some credit for being manipulative enough to invisibly control the content to an extent. So what we are served during the prime time are rhetorical games that do provide intellectual brownie points (emotive) from their supporters but are riddled with  logical fallacies. From a less technical point of view these arguments invariable cancel each other out and the issue in question remains unanswered.

The most interesting part is that there often seems to be an unsaid agreement between those speaking for the government and those against it, to not go beyond a certain point. Public discourse's objective should be to apprise government of the general public's opinion not become a tool of the government or the opposition.May be this is the only lesson that the civil society can learn from politicians- unity !


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