Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Opinion is the lowest form of knowledge

If this passes muster, all I have on offer is an argument on why I have no opinion about the demonetization issue

I found myself on sticky ground last week. Soon after the Narendra Modi-led government announced that 86% of all Indian currency (by value) will be illegal tender, I was invited to be part of a panel discussion. I was asked to opine on what I thought of the decision.

The problem was—and continues to be—is that I do not have one. I am too far removed from the powers that be and am unqualified to offer any opinion on what can only be described as a black swan event—unprecedented in contemporary Indian history. The world is looking at how things will unfold with much interest. The outcomes will be subject to much scrutiny in the months and years to come.

Much water has passed under the bridge since the day it was announced. I don’t know what lies ahead. But this much every Indian will concede. We now know what “demonetization" means.

Had it not been for this, the all of us would have been swamped by news of Donald Trump taking over as president of the US, the most powerful office in the world—again a black swan event. The foremost political pundits in the world hadn’t imagined a day when Trump would come to occupy White House. But allow me to keep Trump outside the scope of this dispatch.

There are more pressing matters at home. Like a cash crunch every place. ATMs have run dry and pretty much everybody is operating on IOU notes. And if reports are to be believed, more pain is on the anvil. Then there are conspiracy theories of all kinds doing the rounds.

That is why it is with much consternation and amusement that I am listening in to all quarters—the right wing, the left wing, the centre, right of centre, left of centre and every place else. Because, as it turns out, everybody has an opinion. And in no place are these opinions more amplified than on social media.

While there is a no denying a lot of good that has emerged out of social media, I have in the past vocalized why I think what I think about social media. The sum and substance of my arguments about social media platforms have veered on the extreme. I have tempered down since then. I no longer argue that everyone get off Facebook. In fact, I have gotten back to it. But I refuse to post anything personal on it. Not for anything else, but because I am still uncomfortable with its privacy policies.

Originally intended to be a benign platform for friends and family to stay connected on, it has morphed into an entity that shapes public opinions, is a threat to established media, and commands valuations in multiples of billions of dollars. I intend to watch what shape and form this beast takes. I have ranted as well about the degeneration of Twitter and the intrusiveness of WhatsApp.

But this much I continue to stand by—most social media conversations resemble echo chambers where biases are reinforced. Minus the diversity and sanity an editor brings to the table, it is easy to find voices that reinforce what we believe in. Why?

By way of example, consider demonetization and the nature of the current discourse. I don’t want to be a part of it. Like I have articulated upfront, I do not have an opinion. The issue is complex. That is why I want to hear voices of people who have been vetted and put through the wringer by tough editors.

Whether or not I agree with them or not is another matter altogether. The editor’s job is to ensure I have access to plurality and diversity. On social media platforms, though, no editors exist. Everybody has an opinion. Some of which are certainly interesting to listen in to. 

That said, the larger narrative on these platforms sound eerie: “You are either with us, or against us." This is a narrative that has existed since Biblical times—but got into popular lexicon when George W. Bush, the president of the US made this dramatic statement after the terror attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in September 2001. It left the rest of the world with no alternative, but to take sides.

Extrapolated into contemporary discourse, it compels you to subscribe to one of two schools of thought:

1. Demonetization is for the greater common good and everybody ought to accept some temporary pain.

2. Demonetization is a disaster because it was not thought through and the worst-hit is the common man.

But both arguments are thought-terminating clichés. In other words, these are pliant answers to a complex question that discourages any meaningful dialogue and are designed to create a rift—much like patriotism. If seen as questioning the actions of our military forces, you are labelled a “traitor".

But what if your only motive is to seek answers to questions on whether the outcomes of a certain action are in the larger and longer-term interests? What if you haven’t made your mind up? What if you only want to listen in to all sides? What if you do not have an opinion? What could possibly be wrong with that?

My experience over the past few weeks suggests it puts people in a tight spot. In an earlier dispatch, I had alluded to a course I enrolled for. Called Theory U, it insists we discard all existing methodologies of learning. This is because all of what we learn is anchored in the past. What, instead, if we were to let go and begin by connecting with the moment we are in?

In letting go of our past, we let go of all biases and prejudices. Engagement begins by listening deeply to all of what is going on around us. It then frees us up to imagine what possibilities can exist in the future. When looked at from a philosophical prism, it is both Buddhist and Socratic. Buddhist because you live in the moment and let go of all else. Socratic because you question and test every assumption. On paper, the course sounds easy. In practice, it is incredibly tough for various reasons.

1. I figured we aren’t used to listening—or at least I am not, particularly when the person I am listening to has something to say I don’t agree with. My instinct is to butt in and argue. But Theory U insists I shut up and listen. If I don’t, how am I to understand that there exists a world that is different from the one I live in? And that there are people unlike me who live there? If I don’t listen to their voices, I will once again be part of the echo chamber that now exemplifies all that is wrong with the social media.

2. Often, when listening in to people I agree with, they expect me to commiserate—much like I expect of them. But is it necessarily the right thing to do? Because the world I haven’t seen and disagree with may contain some grains of truth that I am yet to come to terms with.

3. Then, there is a practical problem implicit to deep listening. People are used to me being a certain way. I am perceived as a problem solver. But, Theory U insists, how am I to provide a cohesive answer until I have heard all sides? So, you turn your default mode to first listen, before you engage.

When no response is forthcoming from somebody who has always been a solution provider, you stand the risk of coming across as someone who is either not listening or somebody who has disengaged. It leaves the speaker unnerved and feeling distanced. I haven’t wrapped my head around how to get around that. I’m hoping my course mates will see me through that.

That said—and on the issue of demonetization, certainly—I would love to know what is it the prime minister has in mind. For all his bravado, there is no taking away from that the voices against him are getting louder. For instance, that the move was hasty; that it was unplanned; that the economy is unprepared; that this was aimed at crippling opposition parties in the forthcoming assembly elections; that it has alienated his traditional voter base; and so on and so forth.

On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that one of the savviest politicians India has witnessed in recent times may not have foreseen this. And that resentment will come not just from rivals, but from within as well.

Just for the heck of it, I posted a 24-hour long poll on my personal Twitter handle to gauge public sentiment. With 192 responses, the answer was skewed against the government. 106 people voted against the move and 86 in favour. But then, my question was designed to skew people’s minds. I manipulated public opinion. 

I could have manipulated opinion in any which way I chose to. What if I had framed it differently?

What, for instance, if I had asked: “If our armymen can spend years in the harshest of terrains like Siachen protecting our borders, can’t we gulp a few weeks of pain?" I am pretty damn sure the final answer would have been dramatically different by an overwhelming margin. To that extent, it is easy to manipulate our minds and opinions.

Allow me, therefore, to end this dispatch by quoting ad verbatim, from a commencement speech by William (Bill) Bullard, a former English teacher and photographer of considerable repute.

Legend has it, the speech did not go down well with the authorities because he spoke bluntly to them on what he thought of opinions and what they ought to unlearn from school. I could not independently verify the assertion that it did not go down well with the school or find the full text online. What I could manage to extract is reproduced below.

On the importance of opinion: Opinion is the lowest form of human knowledge; it requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge, according to George Eliot, is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound, purpose-larger-than-the-self kind of understanding...

On the importance of solving given problems: Schools teach us to be clever, great problem solvers, but not to include ourselves in the problem that’s being solved. This is a great delusion. It makes us arrogant and complacent and teaches us to look at the world as a problem outside of us. As in Oedipus, public problems—the plague on Thebes or our own pestilences, war or global warming—are private problems. The plague is only lifted when each person sees his responsibility not in analysing the problem, not in solving the riddle, but in changing our actions to address a public need. Oedipus destroyed the two things that had deceived him—his eyes and his power—and in so doing saved his city.

On the importance of earning the approval of others: Schools teach students to seek the approval of their teachers. Indeed, for all of our differences, this is one area that parents and teachers share; we are wired or we are hired to believe in you, to approve you, to prevent or mitigate the experiences of disappointment… Try to correct this in two ways.

First, seek people, work for people who don’t have to like you, people who can easily disapprove of you, people that you can’t easily please. Their scepticism or indifference will define you.

Second, if you don’t do so already, begin working for yourself, and let the teachers be damned. But they won’t be—they will just be all the more approving because that kind of integrity can only command respect. After all, most of the work we devise is devised for students who are not working for themselves, so those that do surpass our expectations and teach us things that we have never thought of.

Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

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