The cult of distrust

Elites assert innocence not by being exemplary, but by being shrill.

Robert Harris's wonderful novel, An Officer and a Spy, on the Dreyfus affair in France, has an extraordinary sentence that captures the collective sentiment at the time: "It is beyond even hypocrisy, it is beyond even lying : it has become a psychosis." It is not much of a stretch to think that this sentence describes what so much of India's public discourse feels like at the moment: a kind of psychosis with a self-fulfilling logic of its own. The psychosis that Harris describes was rather clear: it was the determination of a large number of Frenchmen to continue to believe in the treasonous guilt of Dreyfus, even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, simply because he was Jewish. It was as if collective consciousness had become unhinged from reality, driven by what it wanted to believe rather than what the case was.

The psychosis of our elites is more elusive. It does not confine itself to a single object but expresses itself in a constellation of elements. It is primarily a ruling class losing its grip on reality, with little capacity to distinguish the important from the trivial, with little capacity for making fine moral distinctions, and now locked in a self-confirming cycle of suspicion, recrimination and self-loathing. It is a form of malaise where we are so out of sorts that it is becoming harder to assess the reality we face. The bombastic dogmatism of public argument can barely disguise the sense of vertigo that lies beneath.

How do we explain this condition? To a certain extent, this is inevitable in a society undergoing vast changes. In a variety of spheres, the old order cannot continue on the conventions that sustained it for so long. In politics, a deep passion for elections and democracy remains one encouraging trend. But whether representative government is capable of measuring up to the changing demands of the time remains an open question. The state has still not adjusted to the profound shifts in power taking place in society and therefore constantly exposes its own limitations. The economic future, which after decades of stagnation, had begun to look rosy, suddenly seems a lot more uncertain. The changes in society are even more profound on a number of levels. 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.

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