Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Public Reason, Indian Style

In a democracy, public opinion is the ultimate God, or so it is said. Even authoritarian regimes, at some point, fear its wrath. 2011 was the year, not of individual heroes, but of public opinion: public opinion railing against authority, oligarchy and corruption. But it was also a year in which public opinion, or so we are told, was transformed by the medium it used. Authoritarian governments found it hard to control flows of information and opinion. But the proliferation of new media — from TV to Twitter — also raised profound questions about the ways in which public opinion was going to be formed. Was the proliferation of new media forms genuine empowerment or did it rest on its own set of exclusions? Was it easier or harder for ordinary people to be heard? Where more people were expressing their opinion, did one have to shout harder to be heard? Would older forms of contribution to public reason survive? Could the old-fashioned, essay-style column, with complexity and nuance (and full disclosure, I have a vested interest in defending that genre), survive the Age of 140 Characters? Was the sound bite going to replace the sound thought? In short, what is the future of democratic discourse?

It is said, rightly, that in a democracy, nothing has special authority: not God, not History, not Reason. In fact, the radical promise of democracy is just that as Kant put it, “Reason has no dictatorial authority; its verdict is always simply the agreement of free citizens.” But how are these agreements going to be produced? Every democracy has worried about this. We don’t know how to institutionalise a conception of public reason in which all individuals can participate as free and equal individuals. But 2011 was an object lesson in the ways in which discourse operated in a democracy. Indian democracy is a feat of improvisation, and nothing reflects this more so than the character of our public argument. Here are some randomly collected lessons from 2011.

There are two dangers in a democracy. The first is what Aeschylus warned about: Freedom will be interpreted to mean, “Say whatever just came to your lips.” The second danger is freedom will be interpreted to mean, “Say just what you think others want to hear.” Both the excess of the first and the restraint of the second pose dangers to genuine public reason. In most parties, spokesman succumbs to the first temptation, government to the second.

Public Opinion can make the horse come to the water, it cannot make it drink.

The most valuable trait in politics is not rhetorical power. It is silence. Those who speak the least shall be prime minister the longest.

So long as the Anna movement used the power of music and maun vrat, they had a chance. The minute they took to the megaphone they blew it.

Arguments are made for cutting others, not for advancing understanding.

Representation is Reality — till the Representation changes.

For every argument, there is an available statistic.

In economic discourse, the most important part of any claim is “other things being equal”. This is the part we are also most likely to forget.

On important policy issues like the Food Security Bill, politicians can heed complex evidence: until the NAC weighs in.

Those who speak in the name of the poor will never let the poor speak.

Those who invoke the “people” really mean to say, “It is my way or no way.”

Those who work for the public good work away quietly. Those who cannot, demand new laws.

Our discussions are very principled. On each subject we invoke plenty of principles — except the one relevant to the subject.

The camera almost always lies. Or rather, the truth it represents is a function of the magnification angles of the camera.

The allure of a camera may be even more corrupting than the allure of money. The thought that millions are watching them, brings the worst out of most people.

If you want facts don’t look at news stories. There you will get opinion. But in an opinion column you might actually get an occasional fact.

A news channel will have more opinion than news. The more important a news channel thinks it is the higher will be its ratio of opinion to news.

India has immense diversity of opinion. Except that it is the same diversity over and over again.

“Search for consensus” means: “I don’t want to be held responsible for making a decision.”

There is no immortality except through being recognised by the press. Alas, that is also short-lived.

The professional standards of every profession have fallen, other than one’s own.

There is more space for book launches than book reviews.

The difference between Hindi and English media is exaggerated. The English media pays homage to the vernacular by ethnic chic. The Hindi media pays homage to English by translating content.

The power of Twitter is like the medium itself: confined and short-lived.

Media is more likely to want war than the people.

In a contest between fear and hope, fear always triumphs.

The “A” word will remain prohibited in the media, if used in a critical context. Guess what it is? Hint: Something to do with people who own a hideous house.

Only Indians can take the epithet “Argumentative Indian” as a compliment. Argumentative means someone who goes on arguing for the sake of it even after the issue has been settled.

There are many more lessons to be learnt. But it is all of this that makes our democracy so wonderful and vibrant. It is, in Plato’s resonant description of democracy, “a many coloured cloak decorated in all hues; this regime is decorated with all dispositions.” You have to admire a democracy where Rajya Sabha debates can get high TRP ratings. God forbid, we don’t want to tamper with this edifice. 2011 was the year of public mobilisation. Will 2012 be the year of public reason?
(By Pratap Bhanu Mehta)

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