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A file photo of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput
A file photo of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput

Ordinary people are a lot smarter than made out to be

News hysteria around Rajput’s death is based on a false view of society’s collective intelligence

I hope young Indian celebrities who are considering suicide will drop the idea after watching the ongoing feeding frenzy around the death of Sushant Singh Rajput. I do not have clinching arguments about why those who wish to die must instead live, still I am on the side of life, even if life includes television news.

Over the past few weeks, some actors, professional gossipers and alleged news channels have been trying to frame the actor’s death as murder. They have unearthed black magic, drugs, and even the role of his former girlfriend, actor Rhea Chakraborty, whom they accused of manipulating him in supernatural and scientific ways.

At first glance, it may appear that the Rajput news cycle is further evidence that most of the world is not very smart. After word got out that Chakraborty had said Rajput’s mental illness included claustrophobia, some people circulated images of him in the cockpit of a plane, and of him in a space suit. People also posted news of his visit to Nasa. Not only to suggest he was not claustrophobic. Indians associate even a visit to Nasa as a sign of intelligence, and intelligence in India includes sanity.

News channels that have a reputation of being more sophisticated and are watched by people who eat asparagus, were not above the farce. On one, when Rhea promoted the idea that “Me-Too" allegations against him may have pushed him off the brink, the anchor was not comfortable with this angle and kept steering the conversation towards drugs. One has to marvel at handlers of the “Me-Too" campaign. Several depressed men have killed themselves after stating that false allegations of sexual predation were the reason for their action. But a whole nation in search of a “cause" for an actor’s death is somehow herded by a cosmic hand away from the fact that Rajput was a “Me-Too" accused, and that he had claimed it was a false allegation, and that such an allegation against a suicidal man is deadlier than black magic or professional marginalization.

You may say it is futile to search for sense in most of what the world does. There seems to be civilizational wisdom in the view of the mainstream modern world that this nonsensical cycle of news about Rajput has come about because most humans lack sense, that they are naive, and that the capitalism of the news business is merely serving up a product that has wide acceptance.

This is not true. People are smarter than those whose job it is to predict what people want. The world is smarter than the media.

It may appear that most of the nation has been taken in by news about Rajput, but that is because the garrulous make a disproportionate contribution to the noise. Ordinary people are far more rational and intelligent and even wiser than they are made out to be. They are, of course, entertained by the defamation of a beautiful young woman. But then, people have the capacity to be entertained and simultaneously discard the news.

The abstract fields of media, academics and art constantly make assumptions that the collective intelligence of humanity is very low. For example, we are told that Indians don’t deserve swanky public utilities because they are so poor they will deface or pilfer them; that most people like mindless cinema and dim books, and that without violent cops the whole nation would collapse into barbaric anarchy. Yet, every time Indians were offered a high-quality service, they have respected and cared for it. Like the Delhi Metro system, where Delhi behaves with very different civic values than in the Delhi outside the transit tunnels.

Also, it is India’s vast semi-literate masses that have sustained electoral democracy, simply by going out to vote during the years when the elite longed for “a benign dictator"; and India’s masses, for all their electoral flaws, have constantly improved politics. In fact, if it were not for the outsized influence of India’s middle class over the media, the poor may have improved the quality of politicians even more. And it is the vast masses who quietly bore the brunt of “demonetization" without breaking into riots even when their own money was denied to them for many weeks. And, years later, when covid broke out, they maintained order even as a government made confused and unreasonable demands of them. Also, most third-rate commercial films in all Indian languages have failed miserably. The success of the few hits among them have been analysed poorly. A commercial film succeeds not because of its lack of intelligence, but because of its other qualities.

Even so, I accept that it is naive to be too infatuated by the virtues of crowds. As this column has earlier argued, any idea that overrates human intelligence will fail. In the ongoing media farce around Rajput’s death, there is some complicity of a crowd of ordinary people. But even these large numbers are a small part of the world. Even in these times, the most common attributes of the sane are silence and invisibility.

In any case, it is the sophisticates who taught others the power of ascribing spurious reasons to a suicide when they converted the deaths of farmers and a Dalit student into political movements. The foolishness of the Rajput news cycle that places excessive importance on “the cause" of suicide is no different from frequent claims that Indian farmers could not have died of depression. All too often, what is frivolous and wrong evolves out of what was once serious and wrong.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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