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On Modi: Do Our Intellectuals Suffer From a Wilful Suspension of Disbelief?

On Modi: Do Our Intellectuals Suffer From a Wilful Suspension of Disbelief?

We acclaim our intellectuals as ‘eminent’, ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’. It is time to wonder what these words actually mean – especially the word ‘intellectual’in the context of political India. Minds of poor citizens who believed a stone Ganesh idol drank milk, just because some people claimed to have seen it, is andh vishwas or blind faith. This reaction that is devoid of any reason and refuses to demand logic or view evidence to the contrary is a perfect example of a willing suspension of disbelief.*

Is a person an ‘intellectual’ because they have published some books, preferably in English so that the elite in India and English-speaking nations abroad can read them?  Are they people who, having written a thesis and obtained a PhD many decades earlier, are invited to panel discussions on television?  Are they part of the Left movement who have appropriated the prerogative of being the only real intellectuals (since they also speak English) since Nehruvian times?  Are they the smalltown journalists, lawyers and teachers whom political leaders like Sharad Yadav choose scornfully to call buddhijeevi just because they can read and write?  Everyone resorts to quoting Dr Rammanohar Lohia but none read, write or live by his highly thoughtful and intellectual, often iconoclastic, political philosophy, expressed in a vast collection of writings. This was also because Nehruvians called him a ‘mad man’ since he opposed their elitist ways of thinking.

So, who is an intellectual?  Dictionary definitions say an intellectual is a person of superior intellect, a person who places a high value on or pursues things of interest to the intellect or the more complex forms and fields of knowledge, as aesthetic or philosophical matters, especially on an abstract and general level. Such a person is an extremely rational person; a person who relies on intellect rather than on emotions or feelings.  One of the best descriptions to be found among people with a common understanding of who is an intellectual states that an intellectual is one whose quest for knowledge never gets blunted or impaired by pride, prejudice or faith, though such a person may seem somewhat flexible in the absence of pride and prejudice and cynical in the absence of faith. An intellectual should also have independent motivation to solve problems and to know and understand what is outside of current understanding.  

Some aam aadmi descriptions of an intellectual found on the internet also fit the bill, with some humour thrown in:

a)    Someone with "book smarts" but not much common sense.

b)    They can argue why man is on this planet for hours, and still have no idea how to remove a splinter from their finger,

c)     Anyone who can persuade me they are brighter than I am, without me getting the feeling they are full of BS.

d)    99% - logic, 1% blind faith. 

e)    “Incestuous, homogeneous fiefdoms of self-proclaimed expertise (who) are always rank-closing and mutually self-defending, above all else” - Pulitzer Prizewinner Glenn Greenwald.

More seriously, Wikipedia defines an intellectual as a person who uses intelligence (thought and reason) and critical or analytical reasoning in either a professional or a personal capacity.   

Here from the internet is a good set of instructions for all those who wish to count themselves into that hallowed set called intellectuals:

  • Do not overstate the power of your argument. One’s sense of conviction should be in proportion to the level of clear evidence assessable by most. If someone portrays their opponents as being either stupid or dishonest for disagreeing, intellectual dishonesty is probably in play. Intellectual honesty is most often associated with humility, not arrogance.
  • Show a willingness to publicly acknowledge that reasonable alternative viewpoints exist. The alternative views do not have to be treated as equally valid or powerful, but rarely is it the case that one and only one viewpoint has a complete monopoly on reason and evidence.
  • Be willing to publicly acknowledge and question one’s own assumptions and biases. All of us rely on assumptions when applying our world view to make sense of the data about the world. And all of us bring various biases to the table.
  • Be willing to publicly acknowledge where your argument is weak. Almost all arguments have weak spots, but those who are trying to sell an ideology will have great difficulty with this point and would rather obscure or downplay any weak points.
  • Be willing to publicly acknowledge when you are wrong. Those selling an ideology likewise have great difficulty admitting to being wrong, as this undercuts the rhetoric and image that is being sold. You get small points for admitting to being wrong on trivial matters and big points for admitting to being wrong on substantive points. You lose big points for failing to admit being wrong on something trivial.
  • Demonstrate consistency. A clear sign of intellectual dishonesty is when someone extensively relies on double standards. Typically, an excessively high standard is applied to the perceived opponent(s), while a very low standard is applied to the ideologues’ allies.
  • Address the argument instead of attacking the person making the argument. Ad hominem arguments are a clear sign of intellectual dishonesty. However, often times, the dishonesty is more subtle. For example, someone might make a token effort at debunking an argument and then turn significant attention to the person making the argument, relying on stereotypes, guilt-by-association, and innocent-sounding gotcha questions.
  • When addressing an argument, do not misrepresent it. A common tactic of the intellectually dishonest is to portray their opponent’s argument in straw man terms. In politics, this is called spin. Typically, such tactics eschew quoting the person in context, but instead rely heavily on out-of-context quotes, paraphrasing and impression. When addressing an argument, one should shows signs of having made a serious effort to first understand the argument and then accurately represent it in its strongest form.
  • Show a commitment to critical thinking. 
  • Be willing to publicly acknowledge when a point or criticism is good. If someone is unable or unwilling to admit when their opponent raises a good point or makes a good criticism, it demonstrates an unwillingness to participate in the give-and-take that characterizes an honest exchange.
  • While no one is perfect, and even those who strive for intellectual honesty can have a bad day, simply be on the look out for how many and how often these criteria apply to someone. In the arena of public discourse, it is not intelligence or knowledge that matters most – it is whether you can trust the intelligence or knowledge of another. After all, intelligence and knowledge can sometimes be the best tools of an intellectually dishonest approach.

A person who comes closest to an honest intellectual as pictured above was the late Nikhil Chakravartty, who published Mainstream.  Clearly of Left persuasion, he had been close to the Communist Party of India for decades and was certainly not a Congress Party supporter. A soft-spoken genial man, he sought out people from all political persuasions and ideologies to get a true picture and all versions of what was going on. He never condemned friends who linked up with people whose ideologies he did not support. Instead, he respected the friend and the relationship by spending long hours getting to understand how democratic socialists could link up with people of right- wing ideologies. The case in point here was the Samata Party headed by George Fernandes, assisting in the creation of the NDA headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Nikhil da would visit Fernandes after dinner and spend hours talking about political action, beliefs, and relationships, and whether ideologies did or did not affect governance. He never raised his voice, always listened carefully and debated points with an open mind. He was always ready to be convinced of a different viewpoint if it sounded convincing from a logical point of view. 

It has been hard to find a true intellectual ever since but it seems `Gujarat 2002’and the cry of ‘secularism’ has put paid to open-minded inquiries. Today’s intellectuals might just as well believe that a stone idol drinks milk.

Recently The Guardian published a letter sent in by some self-proclaimed intellectuals like Salman Rushdie and Anish Kapoor declaring that it would be a disaster for India if Narendra Modi were elected to lead it (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/11/narendra-modi-victory-bode-ill-india). They have a right to their opinion. One would think, though, that being ‘intellectuals’, their opinions would be formed on researched facts and not on the wild campaign that has been orchestrated forcefully across the world to denigrate an Indian political leader more than any other, including Indira Gandhi who sterilized Muslims, locked up her political opponents, tried some for treason, gagged the press and throttled democracy itself.

The very worst is their arrogance in arriving at their opinions without trudging the lanes of Gujarat, or even caring to leaf through central or state government reports, SIT reports accepted by the courts, or Madhu Kishwar’s meticulously researched book Modi, Muslims and  Media that no one has even cared to even review since liberals, progressives and seculars are all in that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ worldIn fact, they have all allowed themselves to become victims of (whisper-whisper) a `do you know what I heard?’ campaign at best, or fall into the Congress trap of obliterating the memory of the real pogrom and genocide of Sikhs in 1984.

Creative people like writers and artists are allowed to offer works emanating from their brilliant imaginations. But, when talking of the lives and choices and experiences of not just the real people of Gujarat but millions all over India, they cannot ignore them as if they were blind or bigoted idiots. If these wise gentlemen and ladies challenged Madhu Kishwar’s findings with point-to-point evidence to the contrary, looking at the entire canvas of people in Gujarat and elsewhere, one could respect them. If they have decided to believe the Teesta Setalvads of this world who have had strictures by courts for giving false affidavits and evidence they are choosing to be blind. If they believe the Congress Party megaphones of this nation, now joined by hysterical leaders who have resorted to calling Narendra Modi a butcher, fascist, poison and more, they are deliberately ignoring those large numbers of ordinary, normal, decent voters of all castes and creeds who have elected him to power in Gujarat for 12 years. 

However, rather than sit in the exalted climes of their own sophisticated enclaves and penning their views to the Western world, they should have hoisted themselves on to the platforms of any of the opposing political parties who are today screaming ‘butcher’ and ‘murderer’ to address the sweaty millions who patiently stand out in the sun to listen to all leaders. They should try to convince the young Indian voting public of why Modi would be a disaster for India.  It is nothing but a cop out or the height of laziness and arrogance to think that a flourish of their pens is enough.   

The social network  is a mine of commentary comprising sharp witticisms, often unfortunately obscene combat, and plenty of political cut-and-thrust. Here is a nugget on that letter to The Guardian:

“It's just a gimmick. All they are trying to do is to burnish their self-righteousness credentials among their echo chamber. In a way, it actually makes sense: their readers (or consumers of whatever it is they produce) are in the UK or they are the kind of people who dwell in the upper rarified cultural elite among Indians that actually reads The Guardian, and they are desperate for these people to remain assured of their collective saintliness” ( Srinivas IllWind, 10th April 2014).

The India-based variety of intellectual who regularly air their views on Op-Ed pages and television channels give convoluted analyses of Modi’s nomination procession. They have also raised to high political theory the ridiculous tamashas of the Aam Aadmi chieftain who has himself made political tomfoolery a high art.  They believe Congress lost a moment in history by not rolling out the next Gandhi progeny to fight Modi electorally.  Do intellectuals really not abhor dynasties, the antithesis of democracy?

Some intellectuals are working out various scenarios of how it would be with a dictatorial/fascist/disguised Hindu fundamentalist Modi at the top. They don’t realize this is a living, breathing, functioning democracy where the aspirational want him for a better life than that offered to them till now. The very same people will remove him if he does not perform. The gratuitous forecasts of  intellectuals are more to impress their peers than to be read by India’s voting millions who bear the heat and swallow dust every day. Of course, all these are only opinions based on the hyperventilating hearsay of the past decade and not reasoned positions based on verified facts. For now let them be termed “opinionists ".  We Indians need not bow low before them for that.

"Suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a `human interest and a semblance of truth’ into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspension_of_disbelief).

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About Author

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Jaya Jaitly

The author is an Indian politician and former Samata Party president, an activist, writer and Indian handicrafts curator.