“Arguments have a shorter life in this country, and invariably, they are more incendiary than insightful, more spectacular than substantial,” argues Siddharth Singh in his latest article for the Open magazine. Against the backdrop of several conversations that I have witnessed over the last few years on social media, dinner tables, and primetime news television shows, I find this observation to be an accurate summary of most of the arguments presented in these discussions.
I have strong reservations with the rest of Singh’s article, though. Broadly, he proceeds to argue that the that four murders in India have led to an explosion of public intellectuals who claim that India to be an intolerant country, and that in a country of 1.2 billion people, four murders is not enough to make this validate this claim. I have my reservations; because argument is made on a myopic premise, for those that argue that India has become intolerant, do so as much on the basis of the reactions from political leaders, the RSS and the general public following those murders, as much as due to the murders themselves. Singh has failed to take in into account this larger narrative.
In fact, the issue of intolerance in the country is much deeper, and while it revolved around religion even these days, it isn’t restricted to the same.
The smaller debates mirror the larger issue at hand:
For a while now; general intolerance to a stance that goes against one’s worldview has been on display on primetime television, and if you choose to look closely - over dinner table conversations and on your social media home feed as well. You will find that in their own little ways, these little discussions mirror the larger raging intolerance debate. Regardless of whether the topic of debate is on the veracity of the latest drought report, or India’s new National Security Advisor talks with Pakistan, you will notice that it’s easy to predict with reasonable accuracy the course that these discussions will take.
The majority opinion dominates the discussion, aggression always begets aggression and if you give it enough time, you will see that the debate usually recedes into a personal comment on one of the participants involved, at which point, the debate ceases to address the issue at hand and instead spirals into a chain of responses, explanations and justifications irrelevant to the core of problem.
If you’re watching TV, the clock will call off the debate, but if you’re on social media or worse, at a dinner table the debate usually only ends when one side decides that this is no longer worth the effort and stops responding – neither side any wiser, the issue largely untouched.
In a country where humility is fashionable only if you’re Rahul Dravid, the objective of most discussions seems to be to win, and a spirit of inquiry and openness to feedback that is essential to collectively engage in the exploration of what is right– the core of every healthy debate, is lacking. Comments on online news articles, on YouTube channels and on popular Facebook posts serve as strong reminders of this growing aggression and intolerance. These are symptoms of a larger problem. Where we live our culture dictates that the aggressor largely be forgiven, even celebrated, as long as he wins the fight. The Prime Minster of India, the captain of the Indian Cricket team and the most popular film star in India, did someone whisper?
The next generation:
In a recent article in Huffington Post, Tharoor argues that the intolerance in India is worrisome because it is hurting India’s global reputation. His concern is valid, but there is a larger and more imperative issue that spins off the intolerance and it has to do with the values that the new generation is growing up with, given what the nature of debate they are exposed to everyday.
Children in our schools need to be exposed to newer social and political role models that display composure and collected calmness in the face of adversity, and as Singh rightly points - move away from making arguments that are incendiary and spectacular. Given how the media isn’t playing the role it needs to play, it’s imperative that teachers and principals in schools step up to fill in this gap in the near future.
The education sector in India needs to create constructive spaces where children can come together to debate and discuss key social issues, where they are taught to respectfully challenge the opinions of others, where they understand that the underlying purpose of a debate is to exploring answers to a questions that are is beneficial to both parties, instead of trying to score points that win them debate. Unfortunately, the education system is itself one that is obsessed with the end-goal of getting marks in exams, stopping rarely to teach key values to children. - No wonder then, that we create and forgive leaders that meet the end goal at the cost of their values.
Ultimately, unless we take the time to engage with the next generation and teach them to maintain a spirit of collective inquiry, while respectfully challenging the opinion of others, the culture of intolerance is here to stay, and it’s doing nobody any good.