Talk

What we talk about when we talk about politics

Amit Varma | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on May 13, 2016
Whataboutery: Why do we have a picture of Modi here? What about Pappu? What about Muffler? Photo: A Shaikmohideen

Whataboutery: Why do we have a picture of Modi here? What about Pappu? What about Muffler? Photo: A Shaik Mohideen   -  The Hindu

Amit Varma

Amit Varma

Online political discussions turn into barroom brawls faster than you can say ‘ad hominem’

One of the great things about social media is that we talk to each other much more. I am not being ironic: because of Facebook alone, I know much more about my friends than I would otherwise. I am also in touch with many more people than I would otherwise be, especially old friends. This is useful as one gets middle-aged. At some point around 40, the world starts to narrow and goes on narrowing. Social media keeps it broad, and even recluses stay up-to-date and tip-top, as they would say back in my day.

This column is not about the personal, though, but the political. There is far more political awareness among young people today than there was when I was growing up in the ’80s. When I was a teenager, I did not know the difference between left-wing and right-wing, and my informed opinion of Rajiv Gandhi was that he was handsome. Today, 12-year-olds have vociferous opinions and are signing online petitions when they are not on hunger strikes in-between meals. Political discourse has increased exponentially in volume; but how much is noise and how much is signal?

There were hopes that social media would lead to a virtual global town square where informed citizens could debate with one another. Instead, it has led to a conglomeration of echo chambers, some of them truly bizarre. No matter what you believe in, you can now find hordes of like-minded people online, and be reassured by the validation they provide. This has lead to a phenomenon that social scientists call ‘group polarisation’. The economist Cass Sunstein defines it thus: “When like-minded people deliberate, they typically end up adopting a more extreme position in line with their pre-deliberation inclinations.”

Thus, we find that most political discussion online consists of people talking past each other. And when they do talk to each other, it isn’t pretty. Anonymity (or even physical distance) turns mice into tigers, and most political discussions online turn personal really fast. If you want to dominate a discussion, you ignore the issues involved and attack the person instead. There are three key ways in which this happens.

One, you accuse your opponent of hypocrisy. (This is also known as Whatboutery.) So if someone talks about the 2002 Gujarat riots, you go, ‘But what about the 1984 Delhi riots? I didn’t see you condemn that?’ If someone points to a Muslim lynched by a Hindu mob, you say, ‘What about that Hindu social worker killed by Bangladeshi migrants in Assam?’ If they defend the free speech of a member of phallana community, you say, what about dhimkana community, where were you when they were censored? Not just trolls, all politicians do exactly this. When Arvind Kejriwal was questioned about the hundreds of crores of taxpayers’ money he spent on running ads for the Delhi government, he replied, ‘But the BJP also does this. Why don’t you question them?’

Two, you question the intent of your opponent. She could be a CIA agent, a pinko stooge of the Chinese, a lackey for the corporates, a ‘paid audience’ or a ‘presstitute’, in that colourful coinage of a retired army general with that typical Indian penchant for tasteless puns. Ah yes, she could also be anti-national, trying to break up the country. Any issue they raise, they can be told, ‘Ah, but you have an agenda for kicking up a storm. We’re on to you!’

This can be combined most effectively with Whataboutery. For example, if the Congress raises the issue of a corruption scandal in the BJP government, the BJP can say that their intent in raising this matter is to divert attention from their own scam from a week ago. And so on. This can even get recursive. (To visualise this process, imagine fractals.)

Three, you categorise your opponents by applying a pejorative label on them, and then dismiss that entire category as being beneath contempt, thus removing the need to engage with it. This happens across the spectrum. Just go on Twitter, and you’ll find it packed with ‘bhakts’ and ‘aaptards’ and ‘adarsh liberals’ and ‘sickulars’ and so on. Once you apply such a label to someone, you do not need to engage with them in reasoned debate.

Attacking the person instead of the argument is an ancient tradition — some intrepid historian might even find that it is of Indian origin. I have just enumerated the three most common ways of doing this. There are many other ways of appearing to win an argument without even engaging with it to begin with. Google for a great essay, ‘38 Ways to Win an Argument’, by Arthur Schopenhauer and you will see some examples. They include noble techniques such as shifting goalposts, attacking straw men and appeals to authority. The 38th of them is masterful, and one that many Twitteratti are adept at: “Become personal, insulting and rude as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand.”

In a sense, this gets to the heart of the matter. The whole point of political discourse seems not to be political but personal. When we take a point of view, we make an assertion not about the state of the world but about ourselves. Our ideologies become a proxy for personal statements: ‘I am compassionate’. ‘I am righteous’. ‘I am clever enough to engineer society’. Many of our actions in the political sphere are not meant to actually affect change, but to show our nobility. And because our positions are so tied to our identity, any attack on them is an attack on us. We react viscerally. It feels personal, so we get personal.

Amit Varma is a novelist. He blogs at indiauncut.com; @amitvarma

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Published on May 13, 2016
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