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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  Letter from... assorted WhatsApp groups

It was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. I am referring to demonetization, of course.

Two weeks ago, driven to insanity by the non-stop analysis of demonetization on a whole host of WhatsApp groups that I am part of, I muted almost all of them for good. Except for a few groups comprising very close family, I have relegated all my other groups to complete and utter silence. I have no idea what is going on in these groups.

Occasionally, I rapidly scroll through them to see if anybody has specifically targeted a question or comment at me. Otherwise I participate not at all in the constant ruminations ongoing in these groups.

Why did I do this? Was it because too many people had opinions that I did not agree with? Not at all. For the better part of the past decade I have spent time at work, in real-life meetings, on blogs and on social media vehemently disagreeing with people.

There is a certain lack of privacy in the life of a columnist and editor. Having to deal with disagreement comes with this territory. Was it because people were being abusive or rude? Nope. I have spent far too long on Twitter engaging with all kinds of people to wilt at insult. (Twitter is useful like that. It numbs many sensibilities including the sense of numbness.)

No. What put me off was the astounding lack of empathy that permeated most analyses in these groups. Day after day I was subject to people passing opinion on “groups"—Muslims, poor people, the unbanked, Syrians, Dalits, Trump voters, Hillary voters, black people, migrants, Brexiteers, Bremainers—with an astonishing lack of empathy.

Mind you, I say “empathy" and not “information" or “insight". Nobody can truly understand what it means to be somebody else, let alone somebody who is oppressed or in peril or at the sharp end of bad politics. Factual inaccuracies or generalizations are inevitable and also part of the tone and texture of public discourse.

No, I am referring to an astonishing lack of empathy. A lack of empathy that manifests itself in ways that I found mostly unbearable and often depressing.

Oh, those people standing in line all day to change their money? They should stop complaining and see the bigger picture. Oh, those estate workers struggling without pay because they don’t have bank accounts? They should just suck up for some time and open bank accounts. Government has made it very easy for them now.

Instead of reporting on people who are upset by all this, why don’t newspapers write about how good this is for the economy in the long run? Oh, those people dying in Aleppo? Well sorry about that but nobody told you to... umm... be born there...

Partly, this lack of empathy is reflective of the kind of groups I am part of. Most of these groups are full of people with an engineering degree, a business degree or, mostly, both.

Most of these groups comprise people who come from middle- and upper-middle-class backgrounds and have since moved into high wealth brackets by virtue of their jobs or businesses. Few of them, I suspect, have any real exposure to the communities and groups that they seem to have such little empathy for.

What, then, makes people like these—people like me—lack empathy?

I have some theories.

Firstly, I think it is because many of us live extremely hermetic lifestyles.

We go to schools with people like us, we train for entrance exams with people like us, we eventually go to engineering colleges and business schools where there is greater heterogeneity, but where we eventually end up making friends with people like us. We then go to work in my companies where once again we tend to draw most closely to people like us. And then at home we usually marry people who are also mostly like us.

There is little chance, or incentive, for us to break this pattern. Is it little wonder, then, that when demonetization was announced the nearest, and in some cases only, “poor" person we could reach out to was the guy who drives our car or the lady who cleans our house?

Our entire engagement with another much larger section of society out there was through the eyes of the two people in our lives who were not like us: maid and driver. So if my maid thought demonetization was a great thing, then surely it is. If my driver was struggling to feed his family, then how many other millions were in the same predicament. (However, at least you are empathetic towards your domestic help. Which is something.)

Hidden in this is also the assumption, entirely unfounded, that all “poor" people are alike. And have the same feelings and ideas about everything.

Empathy, or a tendency towards empathy, at least partly depends on trying to engage with people out there who are not like us. Who do not share the same values, aspire for the same things or are prepared to make the same compromises.

This is not easy. And in fact is only getting harder. As I have written before, things like the Internet and the collapsing scope of electronic news coverage only helps to strengthen our sense of collective identity and commoditize the “other" people all around us.

Secondly, I think it is difficult to feel empathy when we have not lived lives that depend on empathy ourselves. By which I mean that many of us like to think that we have achieved everything we have thanks to our participation in a seeming meritocracy.

We cleared entrance exams, thumped through group discussions, aced interviews, won seats, cleared exams, secured job interviews, and now everything we enjoy is the fruit of our intellect and timely efforts. Nobody has done us a favour.

Which may well be true. But this also makes us oblivious to the lives of people who depend much more broadly on empathy, favour and generosity. It makes us blind to the lives of people who simply do not have access to the same “meritocracy" that have greased our career trajectories.

It often makes us blind to the role that empathy has played in our own lives. It makes us forget that once upon a time our grandfathers or great-grandfathers were socialists or communists—ha, ha, ha, stupid lefties—not because they believed in Marxist theories or in the inevitability of revolution, but because they were fed up of crushing servitude, unfair taxes, a foreign overlord and a broken spirit. And the man with the red flag treated them like a human being.

It makes us forget that once upon a time our father lived in the backroom of a petrol pump in Dubai, near the old Plaza Cinema, because he could not get a job. But then the guy who owned the pump wouldn’t let him work there because “how can I let you work in my pump, my mother used to work on your farm once upon a time and your father was so kind to her, I cannot allow this".

So Hamza fed your father appams with honey so that he looked healthy during job interviews. Of course, none of this makes economic sense. Why should one give people free appams and honey? But one does. And remembering this will perhaps make us more empathetic.

Ah yes, economics. That is perhaps the third problem. There are few exponents with greater devotion in models and theories and textbooks than an engineer with an MBA and several copies of The Black Swan.

Because how can something be good if the Sensex is going down? How can the poor be miserable if bond prices are going up? What is this crying and tears and melodrama? Have you not read Hayek?

Combine this complete certainty in the seemingly empirical with utter disregard for the humanities and the value of asking people not only what they feel but why they feel that way, and you have a potent antidote for empathy.

This is not a manifesto for the revival of communism, the debunking of economics or the exaltation of the humanities. Not at all. But it is a claim for the value of empathy. For the value of listening to people, especially people who are not like us. And listening to them not as data points but as human beings. And being open to the idea that there may be people out there who disagree with us for reasonable reasons. And knowing that listening is not agreeing.

Empathy is both easy and hard. It is easy because often you just have to shut up and listen. It is hard because you often hear things you wish you didn’t have to.

But it is worth giving a shot. Except if you are an insufferable WhatsApp group. I had empathy for you. But now I am using it elsewhere.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.

Comments are welcome at

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Updated: 10 Dec 2016, 11:23 PM IST
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