British author Hilary Mantel delivered a lecture on the commodification of the Royalty at the British Museum, which was later published in the London Review of Books (February 2013). Within a short period of time, there was an avalanche of pure vitriol and irrational comments against the author. The political debate is debased to a new low. Strangely, and unfortunately, the attack on Ms Mantel is not an isolated episode. The situation in India in the run-up to the general election is no better.
I value the letters from readers as wonderful feedback. Most readers provide excellent insights. They are alert, intelligent and respect the norms of public discourse. Even when they disagree with something that the paper has carried, they express their dissent or unhappiness in a manner that is civil and dialogical in approach. Unfortunately, some of the responses since the beginning of the election process do not belong to this category. The attack on opinion writers has been either rant or defamatory.
It is vital for readers to make a distinction between news and views. I, as the Readers’ Editor, have been with readers in alerting whenever this crucial distinction is blurred. At the same time, I know the importance of opinions. They offer nuances and liberate the political narrative from getting trapped in a black and white, simplistic and reductionist discourse. The idea behind opinion pieces is to hold people who want to represent the people accountable, scrutinise their past and make sense of what they promise. It is a process of disaggregating the sales pitch, and looking at each individual thread on its own merits, and how these threads are entwined to form a political discourse.
Objection to opinion pieces
For instance, one of the readers, Seshachalam Dutta, took serious objection to opinion pieces by Shiv Visvanathan and Ananya Vajpeyi. He wrote: “Recent columns in The Hindu by Shiv Visvanathan (April 5, 2014) followed by Ananya Vajpeyi (April 9, 2014) in succession are holdovers illustrative of one-sided, uncritical spewing of venom couched in verbose writing. Shiv Visvanathan’s column is outright abusive and disparaging of Modi, although Ananya’s is more civilized but just as destitute of substance.”
Without going into the merits of the arguments advanced by these scholars, Mr. Dutta shifts gears and launches an attack on the Congress party without even acknowledging that this newspaper did not refrain from pointing out the omissions and commissions of both UPA-I and UPA-II. He then, by a very skewed logic, makes these scholars apologists for the ruling party.
His arguments on entitlement and affirmative actions are extremely lopsided; they lack empathy and fail to meet the fundamental criteria of good journalism: verifiability. He claimed: “Congress wants to promote their oligarchical hegemony in the name of entitlement politics throwing crumbs to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Backward Classes and further fragmenting Hindu society to the point at which each fragment becomes much smaller minority in essence, even smaller than Muslim and Christian. All these groups are constructively lower in status to Muslims and Congress seeks the latter as their constituencies, hence they resort to the false slogan of secularism. India has only tribal castes and no secularism.”
How do you come to terms with such reactions? Can one find fault with a layered argument of a scholar because one of the readers is consumed by the election fever where he is not willing to hear any criticism of his political icon? How can one respond if the criticism is very selective and consciously oblivious to the newspaper’s multi-pronged approach where everyone is treated without fear or favour?
‘Public debate is debased’
I share Ms Mantel’s angst when she says that political debate has been replaced by abuse and bullying. It is worth recollecting what she said in an interview to New Statesman recently: “I do think the level of public debate is debased. To know how far it is debased — well, you have to be on the receiving end of a hate campaign like that to know how bad it is…Mary Beard has pointed out that if you are a woman who ventures an opinion in public, ‘you are fat and ugly’ is thought to be an adequate response. This is what I got all the time after the Kate business…What appals me is that people mistake this constant storm of trivial abuse for some kind of freedom … It’s not. It’s actually a huge distraction of the bread and circuses variety. To a large extent proper civic engagement, community engagement, proper political debate and activism has been replaced by this. By illogic. By platitudes. And actually a lot of it is just abuse and bullying.”
I believe that the present level of intolerance and personal abuse for having an opinion that is contrary to a certain form of conformism will subside once the election is over and give way to meaningful dialogue and informed interactions. I hope this is not a misplaced belief.