Is objectivity actually a disorder?
When people say “be objective”, they usually mean, “agree with me”. But the world does know the meaning of objectivity. It is, in fact, a moral goal, an expectation that society has from its most learned, most of whom think they are highly objective. But there are only a few who actually walk the middle path, which is a desolate road, and they are not there because they are enlightened. They are there because they cannot help it, they are made that way, they are afflicted with disbelief. Objective people are a personality-type.
How might our age look to those who ail from innate objectivity? They are probably like the lonely who gape at the festive commotion of other people who so easily fit in; they see groups making circular formations in cosy parties and holding uniform views about diverse subjects, including organic vegetables, farmers, giant corporations, the equal distribution of wealth, free markets, dangerous Muslims, sweet Muslims, hydrocarbons or polar ice caps. The middle-path dwellers may often wonder who is stranger: the rich who claim to be Marxists, or the broke youth who claim to be capitalists.
Can people ever be the labels they give themselves? Can it be that socialism and capitalism, like many other powerful ideas that have names, are only thought experiments of dead eccentrics that the world has taken too literally? The economist Amartya Sen told me in an interview, about four years ago: “I don’t know what socialism means any more, I don’t know what capitalism means. It is a complete waste of time to discuss socialism and capitalism. Every successful economy in the world will be a mixture of both. It is a question of balance you are looking for. If it is the tipping point you’re looking for, it would be the tipping point of terminology.”
But in choosing where they belong, individuals do not depend on how well an idea works in practice. They need to only ask how well it works in theory.
There are immense social and professional advantages in belonging to an ideological or intellectual camp. People make useful friends, they have delightful conversations. They look around at their large tribes and their biases find corroboration. They find clear political and economic directions. They begin to answer the important question—about who they really are—and the answer is collective and glorious.
Take, for example, India’s social elite who migrated to the US and immediately became, in situations, the underclass, finding comfort in an exaggerated love for their homeland. Or India’s sophisticated gentry, including the Nehruvian old money, who have been eclipsed by new money, who have lost their easy privileges and whose wealth has been devalued by the higher threshold for the very definition of rich, who have sought refuge in the moral guardianship of the poor and the weak. All defeats and humiliations are today subsumed in collective biases.
A person afflicted with objectivity, on the other hand, has no relief. Not for him the comfort of belonging to a group of people who can agree on comforting lies. His arguments against the narratives of his tribe are increasingly annoying to the other members and in time he is isolated. The others on the middle path who know how to keep their mouth shut are no less lonely. Also, in many important walks of life, the middle path is, by its very nature, dull. The most popular journalists and novelists and comedians, for instance, are those who have picked a side.
Many who are on the middle path are, not surprisingly, misanthropes. As this column has argued before, the modern misanthrope is not essentially a person who hates humanity but one who may not wish to engage deeply with too many of his species.
Also, the objective-personality-type can be detrimental to marital peace. There are situations in a marriage when the pursuit of truth is not as wise as blindly taking the side of the spouse.
One summer, at a restaurant in Spain, I heard an Indian woman whisper to her husband that the white waitress was a racist. The foolish husband disputed the claim based on the fine logic that the waitress was equally unpleasant to everyone in the restaurant, and that what his wife found repulsive was not racism but a demonstration of European social equality, where a waitress can possess what is generally known as “attitude”. From there, the couple’s lunch was a disaster.
Outside emotional relationships, objectivity is revered. Maybe humans worship objectivity because it can be used to rehabilitate lies, but the social prestige of objectivity has resulted in farcical demonstrations of the virtue. Most famously, India’s claim that it is secular. India is, of course, not a Hindu nation the way Pakistan is Islamic, but India’s idea of secularism is not the dismissal of god but, instead, equal rights for all the gods.
Posturing objectivity is in the heart of some kinds if journalism in the form of “balance”, where to win the right to make a point you have to nominally fabricate “the other side”. You first patiently state a whole lot of things you do not take very seriously, then rubbish them. As Jon Snow says in Game Of Thrones, quoting his father, “Everything before the word ‘but’ is horse shit.”
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.