A couple of months back, as I was driving to work one day, I found my car blocked by a delivery van which had stopped on the road. The driver and his helper were delivering supplies to shops lined against the narrow street, at a leisurely pace. I honked and I hollered, but they seemed impervious to my entreaties. Frustrated, I cursed at them. The next moment I found them beside my car . Well that worked, I said to myself. I will reason with them and help them see that their act of parking a big van on the road, blocking the way for others, was insensitive. I would then graciously apologize for my behavior (the fact that I cursed at them) and drive away. How naive of me! What happened next I hear you ask? Well, there was some shouting and yelling to begin with. Soon I saw them banging their fists against my car window, daring me to get down so that we could settle this with our bare knuckles. I somehow managed to extricate myself from that situation with my teeth and my dignity intact. Just!
Why have we become like this? We are angry, we are aggressive, and we are always ready to fight. I’m not just pointing the finger here at my ‘adversaries’ in the previous paragraph, but also at myself. Everyone wants to be heard but we are not as eager to listen. There is no ‘dialogue’. Conversation is more about the skill of articulation rather than the art of listening. Have you ever tuned in to a political debate on TV? Beautiful illustration of the point that I’m trying to make, isn’t it?
The virtual / online world is worse. Vitriol, abuse, shouting…I’m right, you’re wrong…Shut Up! Our relative anonymity in the virtual world brings out the very worst in us. Let us look at the latest ‘storm in a tea cup’ incident in India as a case in point. A young girl says something on social media and in the process references to her father, a martyred soldier. All hell then breaks loose as allegations, counter-allegations and personal attacks fly around. The ‘discourse’ spills over from social media to television and finally on to the street-corners and tea-stalls. There is no objective dialogue on the issue. What we have instead is name-calling and bickering. Even so called members of the intelligentsia and the celebrity circuit indulge in mud-slinging. Everyone is busy expressing outrage rather than discussing the issue dispassionately. I am not even getting into what the girl in question did, was right or wrong – according to me anyway. My take on it, if you are interested, is that what she did stemmed from a myopic worldview. However, I do believe that (a) she had every right to express her point of view and (b) the debate on the subject, both from people who were supporting her and people who held an alternate viewpoint, could have been carried out with more dignity and civility.
Political debates these days don’t offer much insight into the ideology of the individual / party in question. It is more about populist comments and slogans. What matters is not the quality of the discussion but the decibel levels at which they are conducted. Throw in television channels and news presenters who don’t just let the muck fly, but also actively encourage participants to have a go, you’ve got prime-time viewing material that will rival viewership ratings of any cheap TV reality show.
If you look at the pattern of any political ‘discourse’ or ‘debate’, this is how it plays out. The left extremists and communists veer between playing the victim and threatening violence. We are giving a voice to the lowliest and most disadvantaged groups…we have been abused for centuries…if you don’t listen to us we’ll spill onto the streets, and then don’t blame us for what happens. Right wing hardliners and conservatives induce a sense of fear and give a general call to arms / action. They usually speak about the perceived loss of something held dear by the community they represent. Our religion is in danger…our way of life and culture is being spoiled by immigrants…we have to protect our language against (insert relevant language) imperialism, the other community is responsible for the rising crime rate in our country.
Liberals, both left leaning and centrists don’t want to converse with the extremists on either side. Mostly belonging to the intellectual and elite circles, they think it is beneath them to engage in a dialogue with these so-called hardliners. They end up ridiculing them on public platforms and social media, thereby alienating a large section of society, who may not have the same level of intellect / wealth. Lot of people then start viewing these liberals as hard-nosed, condescending, and removed from reality. These people end up identifying more with the hardliners on either side. The hardliners of course take full advantage of the situation by playing the victim card. President Trump’s election, based on one of the most divisive campaigns in recent history, is a case in point. So is the people’s verdict on Brexit. As someone who considers himself a liberal, this pains me. If our well-known fellow liberals had engaged in a dialogue with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, rather than trying to either make fun of them or express outrage at their behavior, I believe the results would probably have been quite different.
So where does that leave us? Like it or not, we are a part of this world that we live in and have helped create. We cannot insulate ourselves from it and pretend that what’s going on out there will not affect us. So, we all have to take responsibility and do something. Let’s start by resolving to listen, to engage, to converse. Let’s resolve to participate in a dialogue. Can we?