This op-ed of mine was published in the Hindu today.
Politicians like Trump and Modi play to our worst impulses as people believe what they want to believe.
The most surprising thing about these Gujarat elections is that people are so surprised at our prime minister’s rhetoric. Narendra Modi has eschewed all talk of development, and has played to the worst impulses of the Gujarati people. His main tool is Hindu-Muslim polarisation, which is reflected in the crude language he uses for his opponents. The Congress has a ‘Mughlai’ mentality, they are ushering in an ‘Aurangzeb Raj’, and their top leaders are conspiring with Pakistan to make sure Modi loses. A BJP spokesperson has called Rahul Gandhi a ‘Babar Bhakt’ and ‘Kin of Khilji.’ None of this is new.
Modi’s rhetoric in the heat of campaigning has always come from the gutter. From his references to ‘Mian Musharraf’ over a decade ago to the ‘kabristan-shamshaan’ comments of the recent UP elections, it has been clear that the Otherness of Muslims is central to the BJP playbook. Hate drives more people to the polling booth than warm, fuzzy feelings of pluralism. But, the question is, are the Congress leaders really conspiring with Pakistan to make sure the BJP lose?
Answer: It doesn’t matter.
A Disregard for Truth
In 1986, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay named ‘On Bullshit’, which was published as a book on 2005 and became a surprise bestseller. The book attempts to arrive at “a theoretical understanding of bullshit.” The key difference between a liar and a bullshitter, Frankfurt tells us, is that the liar knows the truth and aims to deceive. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care about the truth. He is “neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false,” in Frankfurt’s words. “His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.”
The bullshitter is wise, for he has cottoned on to an important truth that has become more and more glaring in these modern times: that facts don’t matter. And to understand why, I ask you to go back with me in time to another seminal book, this one published in 1922.
The first chapter of Public Opinion, by the American journalist Walter Lippmann, is titled ‘The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads.’ In it, Lippmann makes the point that all of us have a version of the world inside our heads that resembles, but is not identical to, the world as it is. “The real environment,” he writes, “is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance.”
We construct a version of the world in our heads, and feed that version, for modifying it too much will require too much effort. If facts conflict with it, we ignore those facts, and accept only those that conform to our worldview. (Cognitive psychologists call this the ‘Confirmation Bias’.)
Lippmann sees this as a challenge for democracy, for how are we to elect our leaders if we cannot comprehend the impact they will have on the world?
A Fragmented Media
I would argue that this is a far greater problem today than it was in Lippmann’s time. Back then, and until a couple of decades ago, there was a broad consensus on the truth. There were gatekeepers to information and knowledge. Even accounting for biases, the mainstream media agreed on some basic facts. That has changed. The media is fragmented, there are no barriers to entry, and the mainstream media no longer has a monopoly of the dissemination of information. This is a good thing, with one worrying side effect: whatever beliefs or impulses we might have – the earth is flat, the Jews carried out 9/11, India is a Hindu nation – we can find plenty of ‘evidence’ for it online, and connect with likeminded people. Finding others who share our beliefs makes us more strident, and soon we form multiple echo chambers that become more and more extreme. Polarisation increases. The space in the middle disappears. And the world inside our heads, shared by so many other, becomes impervious to facts.
This also means that impulses we would otherwise not express in polite society find validation, and a voice. Here’s another book you should read: in 1997, the sociologist Timur Kuran wrote Private Truths, Public Lies in which he coined the term ‘Preference Falsification’. There are many things we feel or believe but do not express because we fear social opprobrium. But as soon as we realise that others share our views, we are emboldened to express ourselves. This leads to a ‘Preference Cascade’: Kuran gives the example of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but an equally apt modern illustration is the rise of right-wing populists everywhere. I believe – and I apologize if this is too depressing to contemplate – that the majority of us are bigots, misogynists, racists, and tribal in our thinking. We have always been this way, but because liberal elites ran the media, and a liberal consensus seemed to prevail, we did not express these feelings. Social media showed us that we were not alone, and gave us the courage to express ourselves.
That’s where Donald Trump comes from. That’s where Modi comes from. Our masses vote for these fine gentlemen not in spite of their bigotry and misogyny, but because of it. Trump and Modi provide them a narrative that feeds the world inside their heads. Mexicans are rapists, foreigners are bad, Muslims are stealing our girls, gaumutra cures cancer – and so on. The truth is irrelevant. Facts. Don’t. Matter.
Think about the implication of this. This means that the men and women who wrote our constitution were an out-of-touch elite, and the values they embedded in it were not shared by most of the nation. (As a libertarian, I think our constitution was deeply flawed because it did not do enough to protect individual rights, but our society’s consensus would probably be that it did too much.) The ‘Idea of India’ that these elites spoke of was never India’s Idea of India. These ‘liberal’ values were imposed on an unwilling nation – and is such imposition, ironically, not deeply illiberal itself? This is what I call The Liberal Paradox.
All the ugliness in our politics today is the ugliness of the human condition. This is how we are. This is not a perversion of democracy but an expression of it. Those of us who are saddened by it – the liberal elites, libertarians like me – have to stop feeling entitled, and get down to work. The alt-right guru Andrew Breitbart once said something I never get tired of quoting: “Politics is downstream of Culture.” A political victory will now not come until there is a social revolution. Where will it begin?