Getting uncomfortable

I have shared extensively what I have learnt from literature in navigating the choppy waters of journalism. Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Rabindranath Tagore, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Isabel Allende, Toni Morrison and a host of other influential voices have not only shaped my world view but also defined my writing. Though literature is the discipline from which I derive multiple life tools, I also draw from the social sciences to address many tricky issues.

Dealing with polarising views

One of the toughest issues confronting a news ombudsman is how to express profound differences in a polarised world. Democracy Features is an academic initiative to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century. It tries to explore the new idea of choice, where one is forced to choose between two opposing positions. In this world view, as Sabine Selchow, a Research Fellow at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney, points out, “reflection and compromise are seen as admitting weakness, defeat, and even a betrayal of one’s position.” Her prescription for dealing with the challenges of polarisation is to “get uncomfortable to open up new horizons for imagining and acting in the world.”

I often tend to use the tools developed by anthropologist Anand Pandian to get uncomfortable and to bring in a more nuanced approach to the elements that make up a credible information ecology. Prof. Pandian won the Infosys Prize 2019 in Social Sciences for his brilliantly imaginative work on ethics, selfhood and the creative process. As a Tamil, I was always interested in the complex, yet organic, relationship between Tamil Nadu and its vast diaspora. Jothi , a magazine edited by V. Swaminatha Sharma and published from Rangoon, provided the template for modern Tamil journalism. It was Prof. Pandian’s collaborative book with his grandfather, M.P. Mariappan, Ayya’s Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India , that gave insights into the dynamics that bind the locals with the diaspora.

Prof. Pandian wrote a brilliant anthology of essays, ‘A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times’, which helped me as a journalist to look at newer approaches that are more inclusive and less judgmental. The key question he sought to answer in these essays was: “In a time of intense uncertainty, social strife, and ecological upheaval, what does it take to envision the world as it yet may be?” His vision of a possible anthropology was “the one that may be adequate to the challenge of seeing and thinking beyond the profound fissures and limits of the present.”

Charting a new path

Prof. Pandian wrote: “These are times that call for anthropological faith and existential generosity, ways of cultivating sympathy, openness, and care as liveable realities. For the humanity yet to come — now, as always, we will need such anthropology.” I am convinced this applies to journalism also. Prof. Pandian, in his recent essay in The Guardian , ‘What I learned from an unlikely friendship with an anti-masker’, explains the need for a sustained dialogue with those on the other side of the ideological fence. He documents his interactions with Frank, whose views were disturbing, a brazen assertion of white privilege. Frank is a pseudonym as he wanted to remain anonymous.

Frank used the idea of freedom to denounce masks worn to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (he called them “face diapers”). For him, the idea of vaccination symbolised “compliance, control and capitulation.” He opposed any restriction of movement and joined ‘Operation Gridlock’ against the preventive measures taken by the Governor of Michigan. Frank justified the storming of the Capitol. For him, it was the outburst of a populace long under siege, struggling against a power constantly wielded in the name of care. It is obvious that Prof. Pandian’s views on each one of these topics were diametrically opposite to that of Frank’s.

As a news ombudsman, I get mails almost daily from readers like Frank. They find masterstrokes in every decision of the Union government. They feel that any critical voice against the ruling regime is undermining their rights. They discover virtues in obvious flaws. They are generally hyper-nationalistic; they are sceptical of any affirmative action.

Prof. Pandian sees masks and vaccines as “the truth of our vulnerability, our capacity to wound and be wounded by others.” When we are tied to each other’s whims and disdains, it is not only anthropology but also journalism that needs to chart a new path.

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Printable version | Aug 11, 2022 4:35:53 am |