Is there one overarching message from days of uproar over a BBC documentary? There’s the outrage over a ban sought to be enforced; there’s the anger over savage views expressed by a rapist and his lawyers; there’s plenty of debate about attitudes that many men hold. But does it all add up to something?

That may be an odd question to ask in a column that attempts to talk about mathematics. But I would like to try something of a diversion in this column, muse on the nature of what we say and do—that word “we" itself worth examining, as you will see—and how it is received. What does some of the language used in some of these debates really mean? And perhaps it won’t be such a diversion after all.

Well, we will see.

Start with the BBC documentary, and the comments a couple of prominent politicians made while seeking to ban it. Home minister Rajnath Singh thought it shamed India because it aired the rapist’s views. Venkaiah Naidu said it was part of a “conspiracy to defame India".

I read such remarks and wonder: they refer to India, these men, but there’s a yawning gap here.

Because I’m Indian, and I’m neither defamed nor shamed by this documentary—or at least, not in any sense that I might want it banned. Nor am I a shameless exception: I know that plenty more Indians don’t feel shamed either. One even organized a public screening of the documentary in a village near Agra.

So do Singh and Naidu think they know how all Indians think? Or let’s ask instead: what did they really mean by their statements? And how do the rest of us interpret them? Like their colleagues in government, who tried to enforce a ban on the film? Or like the millions of Indians who have seen it?

Move on to this: In October last year, President Pranab Mukherjee made a state visit to Oslo. While speaking to the Norwegian media, he was reported to have asserted that “the problem of terrorism in India was imported", with only “one or two out of 150 million" Indian Muslims involved.

At one level, this is a welcome declaration of faith in Indian Muslims. But look a little deeper for something else that’s going on, if perhaps unwittingly on the President’s part. Consider the implications of that number 150 million.

After all, the president did not say only “one or two out of 1.2 billion Indians" are involved in terrorism. Instead, he managed to suggest that if we are searching for terrorists in this country, it’s only among our 150 million Muslims that we need to look; it’s there that we will find them.

Why narrow the search so dramatically, let’s leave for another discussion. For now, note just the way his statement can be—and is—interpreted. Is there a gap between that and, again, the president’s intent in saying what he did?

I owe another couple of examples to the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter.

Last week, I wrote a column elsewhere about the curious notion, prevalent in many cultures, of worshipping women. Curious, because I have always thought this attitude actually manages to fuel crimes against women.

With that context, Hofstadter reminded me of the Islamic terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo in January. During the massacre, one shouted at his partner: “We don’t shoot women! We don’t shoot women!"

The rest of us must presume, from that “we", that this was a statement of respect for women that these gunmen believed their faith instilled in them. That, we must presume, was the man’s intent.

Yet I wonder: of what use is such respect—what can it possibly mean—when they are simultaneously slaughtering men?

In my column, I also remembered the late Pramod Navalkar’s claim that, as Maharashtra’s minister for culture, he had placed “curbs on obscenity". These were necessary, said Navalkar, because “not only do we respect women, we also worship them".

Hofstadter asked me: “Just who is the referent of the pronoun ‘we’ in that quote?" Did Navalkar mean all Indians? Indian men? Who?

I will leave that as a puzzle for you to mull over. But spare a thought, again, for intent versus interpretation. What was the Hebdo murderer’s intent in yelling what he did? What was Navalkar’s intent? And how do the rest of us interpret it all?

I am nitpicking, you think? Perhaps, but there is a subtle yet important point here. In his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, the philosopher Daniel Dennett explains it this way: “Meaning (is not) a simple property that maps easily onto brains, and we’re not going to find ‘deeper’ facts anywhere that just settle the question of what a sentence…really means. The best we can do…is to find and anchor best interpretations."

Whether the Paris murderers, or President Mukherjee, or Navalkar, or Singh, or Naidu or someone else: asking what they really meant is a futile exercise.

But interpretation? That we can do. (But who’s the “we"?)

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. A Matter of Numbers will explore the joy of mathematics, with occasional forays into other sciences.

Comments are welcome at dilip@livemint.com. To read Dilip D’Souza’s previous columns, go to
www.livemint.com/dilipdsouza

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