This piece is the third installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through.
As a blogger, I often get phone calls from journalists who have been instructed to write a story on blogging. Generally, all they know about it is that it is some new kind of buzzword, and they have often not read any blogs. Their questions invariably include the phrase “blogging community.”
Oh how they generalise. “What does the blogging community feel about the new KBC?” they ask, or “What do bloggers write about?” I try to be polite and say that I can only speak for myself, but I won’t deny that the image of hanging a journalist upside down just above a vat of boiling oil gives me great glee at such times.
Bloggers have a community as much as drivers have a community. Would you ask a random person in a car, “So sir, what do drivers feel about abortion?” You wouldn’t dream of doing that, because you know that drivers are just individuals who happen to drive cars. And yet, we lump all bloggers under one convenient label.
And we have many convenient labels like that. Imagine someone saying, “Some Indian bloggers have been seen cheering for Pakistan during cricket matches. Therefore, all Indian bloggers are anti-national.” Or “Some bloggers burnt a train full of drivers, therefore we drivers will slaughter all the bloggers we can find.” Or “Bloggers have been discriminated against in the days before the internet, when they didn’t have access to any readership, therefore we will reserve a set amount of newspaper space for them.”
Would it not be equally ridiculous to take a poll of bloggers, find out that the majority prefer to use the blogging service Blogspot, and then force all bloggers to use only that service? “This is the will of the bloggers,” you could say, or “the bloggers have given their mandate.”
The above examples sound ridiculous, but you would have recognised the references. We tend to think in categories, and ignore individuals in the process. We are pattern-seeking creatures, and this can be a useful cognitive shortcut: classifying things into groups of things helps us make sense of the world. But it has its perils when we take it too far.
And we do. Millions have been killed citing the good of ‘nation’ and ‘race’ and so on. Every day, individual rights are trampled upon under the guise of the good of ‘society’ or ‘community’. This is a mistake committed on both extremes of the political spectrum, both by ‘pseudo-secularists’ and those who have coined that term.
The Hindutva parties in India and their supporters do this all the time when it comes to terms like ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ and ‘Pakistan’ and so on. Claiming to speak for all Hindus, as if that is even possible, they whip up hatred against Muslims in general citing the acts of particular Muslims. They demonise Pakistan and Pakistanis because of the acts of its government, as if that government is a representative one. They oppose globalisation in the name of ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, as if those two things lie preserved in a glass case.
The Left parties aren’t behind. How much generalising do they do against ‘multinationals,’ ‘imperialists,’ ‘upper castes,’ ‘the middle class’ and so on? They praise democracy but speak darkly of ‘free markets’ as if they represent anything other than individuals being empowered to make their own choices. They claim to speak for some mythical beast called ‘workers’, though all their policies harm individual workers, and as if workers aren’t also ‘consumers,’ a kind of beast that they don’t quite like.
The classic example of thinking in categories gone wrong is our reservations policy. Under the pretext of clearing up historical wrongs done to one group of people by another, we effectively redistribute opportunities and resources by taking them from one bunch of individuals and handing them to another. Some individuals suffer, others get lucky, and that’s all there is to it. What is worse, they actually perpetuate such thinking in categories instead of bringing an end to it, and make the problem worse instead of solving it.
It reminds me of Ayn Rand’s famous quote, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.” But do we really care about individual rights, and personal freedom, in India?