The demolition of reason

What we see today is the adoption of various strategies of evasion, obfuscation, deflection, and denial

It was always an exaggeration to claim that man is a rational animal, distinguished from others by his capacity to take rational decisions. But it is no hyperbole to say that all humans can learn to reason with beneficial consequences. Reason has many functions — to help arrive at a common understanding and consensual decision; discern what is and is not relevant; express our deepest thoughts and lend them coherence; differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, the significant or the urgent from the trivial. We are not purely rational and indeed should never be so. But to not use reason when it is badly required is plainly foolish or outright devious.

Reason in its most debased form

Seen widely in our world and amplified in the electronic media, however, is the collapse of reason. Or rather, the deliberate, wicked surrender of virtually every form of reason and the adoption, instead, of various strategies of evasion, obfuscation, deflection, and denial. Conversations are stalled, discussions disrupted, facts manipulated and distorted. Reason now appears to serve, as never before, only self-interest and power. So, reason may not have disappeared completely, but it is certainly reduced to its most debased form — one that is cynical and instrumental.

When reason is so sullied, words become vacuous — mere sounds without meaning. Intellectual differences are reduced to a cockfight, mere shadow-boxing. Witnessing a group of British journalists picking holes in the argument of the far-right UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, exposing obvious inconsistencies and throwing widely known facts at him to show that he was a liar, the Turkish writer Ece Temelkuran likened this effort to playing chess with a pigeon who knocks over the pieces and shits on the chess board. Then, “the pigeon departs, proudly claiming victory, and leaving behind a mess for you to clean up”. How does one engage and find common ground with those who make disruption and ignorance their primary values and are guided by them? Ms. Temelkuran describes the impossibility of having a proper political discussion with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supporters. Talking to them is “like making a milkshake without the lid on,” she says. Reason is utterly helpless when people choose to defy it.

Rounds of whataboutery

One of the most troubling features of current debates on television is that every substantive discussion of an important public issue is instantly replaced by an avoidable, unreasonable slanging match between the BJP and the Congress, as if all Indians are supporters of either the BJP or the Congress. More importantly, attention is diverted to real or imagined wrongs committed in the past by the Congress which helps evade fixing responsibility and accountability for wrongs committed in the present. For example, the recent horrific killings in Delhi cannot be discussed because “how dare those responsible for the 1984 pogrom against the Sikhs bring up Delhi 2020”? Likewise, a complaint about the muzzling of the press or about the fear experienced by ordinary citizens to speak out against the current regime simply has to be upstaged by a passionate denunciation of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. But why does the failure of one party to give us some good (say, freedom) erase the failure of another party to do the same? Why can’t people complain against both?

Consider this: forty years ago, a man was caught stealing red-handed and punished. Today he himself is robbed and goes to the police to report the crime. But the police asks, “Aren’t you the same man who committed a theft in 1980? You have no right to lodge a complaint”. This is absurd. Does a man forfeit his right to complain or protest merely because he once committed a wrong? What kind of an argument is this? Admittedly, some arguments have relevance and validity in the immediate aftermath of a crime. But they lose force as time passes and circumstances change. It might be valid to speak in the 1940s of the responsibility of Nazi Germany for the mayhem it caused by starting the Second World War but farcical to keep carping about it in the 21st century. The crime has long been acknowledged, punishment has been meted out, and Germans, even those who had morally disassociated from it much earlier, have apologised in word and deed. They have even institutionalised the remembrance of wrongdoing in memorials. This renders redundant any further reprimand of the Germans. What use is bringing it up now especially by those who are destroying liberty today?

The Emergency was a horrific event, a permanent blot on Indian democracy and we must remember it continuously to ensure that it does not recur. But it would be ludicrous to ask the Congress, the leading Opposition party, to shut up if it protested against the imposition of Emergency-like measures and crazy to order ordinary citizens, who first suffered in the 1970s and might suffer again, to stop being “selective” when protesting against an assault on free speech, the suspension of habeas corpus or the mauling of an independent judiciary. To compel anyone to speak about every single past violation of rights in the same breath as current violations is a devious way to bully everyone into silence.

Let us return to the present. We know that a slogan raised by some BJP leaders was an unambiguous incitement to violence. They were caught on video, reported to the Election Commission, and suspended from campaigning. This is an incontrovertible fact. Soon enough, horrific violence engulfed the national capital where the slogan was first raised. When a public interest litigation was brought to the court pleading that an FIR be registered about the culprits, their defence pleaded that unless all such hate speeches are examined, nothing should happen. As if this was not perplexing enough, another ridiculous feature entered the discourse. The speech of a Congress leader, which was not found to be inflammatory earlier, was pushed into the media and played out as a war cry by those who know its legal insignificance. Why then did they do so? To confuse and mislead people and to vitiate discourse. Is it not excellent ammunition for a new round of whataboutery?

Evaluating political actions

Recently I got talking with a taxi driver about the National Register of Citizens in Assam. I said that I was sorry to hear about the fate of the officer in charge of the survey, whose professional integrity was redoubtable earlier but who now has five FIRs registered against him. His crime? He had discovered large numbers of Hindus without documents to prove their citizenship, now declared to be illegal immigrants. Unfazed, he said: “But Sir, such a man would have been shot dead in Pakistan”, implying that India is tolerant compared with Pakistan. After all, India only paralyses people with false cases, whereas in Pakistan, the same conduct is rewarded with death penalty! This is whataboutery gone mad! Political actions in India today are evaluated by two standards. First, the worst practices of the Congress and second, the repressive acts, real or imaginary, of a ‘rogue’ state across the border. The political class and all those mesmerised by it have simply sidestepped constitutional principles and political morality.

Rajeev Bhargava is Professor, CSDS, Delhi

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