Humility in public discourse

Freedom of speech is not only about having the opportunity to speak freely but also about exercising the positive traits of one’s character

Updated - July 04, 2024 02:08 pm IST

Published - July 04, 2024 01:46 am IST

“Personal attacks and hate speech push relevant and meaningful information to the margins. More importantly, they mask the refusal to understand both one’s own limitations and those of the opponent”

“Personal attacks and hate speech push relevant and meaningful information to the margins. More importantly, they mask the refusal to understand both one’s own limitations and those of the opponent” | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the wake of the recently concluded general election, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s comment on the need for humility and decorum in public discourse is a wake-up call. The idea that the best way to respond to political criticism is through verbal harassment has become popular in the era of TRP-driven media. Public discourse has become a gladiatorial game, teaching the common citizen to be impressed with the nastiness of verbal blows rather than by how they serve matters of importance to the individual or the country. This problem is faced by liberal democracies throughout the world.

There has been growing literature on the issue of polarising discourse in the West. American Philosopher Elizabeth Anderson diagnoses the problem of personal attacks as the failure of participants in a democracy to distinguish between first-order and second-order moral claims – “First-order moral claims call us to perform good and right actions… Second-order moral claims evaluate people’s characters as virtuous or vicious… When people interpret first-order claims as illegitimate second-order claims, they disregard the first-order moral concern at stake. Every call to action is dismissed as hypocritical, smug, and disingenuous. This creates a culture of impunity and irresponsibility.” This tendency is often observed in TV debates and election campaigns, where the only response a speaker has to any issue is a comment on the other speaker’s past record or personal character.

Personal attacks and hate speech push relevant and meaningful information to the margins. More importantly, they mask the refusal to understand both one’s own limitations and those of the opponent. They create distance between sections of the society. Conclusions are drawn about another person’s values and character based on their views, without understanding how they came to hold those views.

Similarly, there is a failure to acknowledge that each of us speaks only from partial knowledge. Overcoming these tendencies requires the virtues of humility and care.

Unfortunately, it is a contemporary consensus that the cultivation or discussion of such character traits can only happen in the personal sphere. They are not matters for government or public discourse.

Charles Taylor, the great critic of our ‘secular age’, states “the need to train character has receded even farther into the background, as though the morality of mutual respect were embedded in the idea of individual self-fulfilment itself.”

We owe much of our idea of modern constitutional government to the French nobleman and philosopher Baron De Montesquieu. Beyond the procedures and institutions necessary for the separation of powers in a democracy, for which he was famous, Montesquieu was primarily concerned about the education necessary for citizens to preserve democratic ideals. He wanted the “whole power of education” to be used to cultivate “a constant preference of public to private interest”.

The spirit of renunciation that Montesquieu wanted citizens to have is related to the virtues of humility and care, which are absent in today’s political discourse. Due to the subsequent course of political philosophy, especially in Anglo-American thought, Dr B.R. Ambedkar could only express apprehension that “however good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot.” He could not do anything about it. Whether the future citizens of India turned out to be a “bad lot” or not could be a matter of concern for the Constitution or government, even if the survival of the Constitution depended on it.

Historically, freedom of speech was seen as necessary for arriving at the truth, based on the view that human nature is capable of learning and improving from external criticism. Unless both the listener and speaker are tolerant and humble, they cannot, through their faculty of imagination, understand the perspectives of those whose character and opinions are entirely foreign to them. Therefore freedom of speech is not only about having the opportunity to speak freely but also about exercising the positive traits of one’s character.

Pursuit of knowledge

Today, people are constantly told that knowledge is power or a matter of individual achievement. So, why would someone who believes they are more knowledgeable be open to relinquishing their social capital? Why should one have intellectual humility? Traditional Indian thought never viewed the pursuit of knowledge as an individual enterprise, with the individual being a modern, atomic one.

Prof. Vrinda Dalmiya, in her works comparing Mahabharata and western philosophy, finds a focus on character over one’s store of knowledge in the epic. Acquisition of knowledge or the quest for truth is not an amoral exercise involving method and study alone but an essentially moral one involving care for others. Even sages and gods become better by finding humility. Ms. Dalmiya shows, through the example of the great Sage Kausika who learns from the butcher and the housewife, that intellectual humility ‘is relational as it involves not only a single person’s beliefs and awareness but a focus on… others.’ Some of us may have come a long way from this way of thinking and living.

Mr. Bhagwat’s comments are a call for reorientation.

Adithya Reddy is Advocate, Madras High Court

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