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A culture of distrust : How India’s ruling class feeds on paranoia

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Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s columns often read like graduate school homework. Each missive from the resident guru of the Centre for Policy Research is peppered with sentences that strain the mind. As, for example, his latest column which includes this: “There is a resulting disorientation, where plausible human sentiment now has a menacingly self-fulfilling quality.” It would be easy to just skip the onerous task of making sense of Mr Mehta if it were not for the singular insights which can pierce to the heart of a matter in the space of sentences.

In this week’s installment, “The cult of distrust”, Mehta tackles the pervasive miasma of suspicion (actually, paranoia) that defines public discourse – which he argues is an effect of great societal change: “Basic mores and sensibilities are changing rapidly: new economies of desire are being unleashed in ways we barely fathom, a whole range of social roles, particularly gender roles, are being redefined.

Who or what has authority, who or what is valued is no longer clear.” Add to this the failures of governance and an uncertain economic future, and we have the makings of a full-blown crisis. More to the point, Mehta argues, we have a ruling class that is no longer certain of its position, or how to secure it against the winds of change — producing not self-reflection but “intellectual closure and emotional crudity.” Hence the spectacle that awaits us when we turn on the television each night, or tune into social media. Mehta offers a number of reasons for this intellectual debasement of public discourse, but the most interesting is the second: “the profound mediatisation of life.” In a 24X7 media culture, we consume the world through a media-created filter which distorts and skews reality.

The effects of perceiving reality through such a prism is this: In a supply-driven market like India, the media crowd out nuance and considered judgement. Instead of creating shared meaning, it makes us even less confident that we know what other people really think. Public opinion has become a construct, not a representation of reality. But it has also created a cult of visibility, where being seen everywhere itself becomes a sign of worth. For a ruling class in the throes of self-doubt, visibility becomes an end in itself, that illusory affirmation of authority. And selves constantly shaped by a desire to be visible will come across as the most insincere carriers of any moral position; they will also constantly overreach. Hence the hyperbole that passes for moral argument. Hence the need to substitute vehemence for reasoned opinion. Hence the obsession with details than issues of substance. Hence the need to judge rather than to reflect. Mehta’s observation, in one fell swoop, explains a public discourse that built entirely around excess, be it on the Mumbai gang rape, Snoopgate, Talwars trial, or the Tehelka scandal. The end result is, as Mehta notes, is a kind of ‘psychosis’ created by a “cult of suspicion”.

If everyone and everything is suspect, we “reclaim our sense of virtue by making others an object of suspicion.” The ruling class – including the political, economic and intellectual elite – claim innocence by loudly denouncing others, which in turn intensifies the sense that no one is to be trusted. And if no one can be trusted, there is no legitimate arbiter of truth: [D]istrust here does not perform the function of allowing us to discriminate between worthy and unworthy.

What it allows us to do is hold on to our conception of the truth unchallenged. Since no one is credible, I can hold on to whatever I believe. Our national discourse is becoming fully unhinged from reality, seeking certainty not in truth but opinion. Hence, the psychosis that characterises the rhetoric of politicians, parties and their supporters. The cavalier disregard, even contempt, for facts which are treated like putty to be recast at will. It no longer matters what is, what matters is what we believe — preferably with shrill and definitive conviction.

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