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.

This change, the dissolution of fixed points, could have been an occasion for creative self-reflection. But it has instead produced intellectual closure and emotional crudity. This is so for three reasons. First, there is the rank instrumentalism of the larger culture. In a world of fast dissolving authority, the sense that money becomes the sole arbiter of value is palpable. And this set us up for a double disappointment. On the one hand, instrumentalism justified cutting corners in almost all institutions; on the other hand, it only deepened the crisis of legitimacy.

Second, there is the profound mediatisation of life. India seems a hyper case of Marshall Mcluhan's warning that "all media exists to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values". This may be exaggerated. Much goes on that is still solid and real. But the media do two things. 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. Finally, there is the ruling classes' profound loss of innocence. All ruling classes are, in some structural sense, complicit and derive various ways of disguising this. One way is to affirm virtue as a recompense for privilege. We may be privileged, the argument goes, but we are good. We are the fountainhead of what is progressive, enlightened. But this self-legitimisation, however plausible it may have been, is now laughable. Corruption was always there, but its systematic character now makes everyone look like they have feet of clay. It was one thing for an elite to say it was fighting for public good against private interest, freedom against orthodoxy, civility against violence. It is another thing when its own private interest stands in the way of good, when instead of freedom what it licenses are new exercises of power, and instead of civility, generates a violence of its own.

There is a resulting disorientation, where plausible human sentiment now has a menacingly self-fulfilling quality. There is now the cult of suspicion, where everything seems tainted. But the cult of suspicion has weakened our grip on reality because, in part, it is driven by a desire to reassert our own innocence; we reclaim our sense of virtue by making others an object of suspicion. There is now the cult of hyper partisanship, where no issue can be taken on its own terms. Partisanship performs the same function of affirming innocence in the face of reality. We must be virtuous because we are with the right party or with the right cause. There is a cult of shrillness, again to affirm innocence. In a society where visibility matters, I assert my innocence not by being exemplary, but by being shrill. There is much to get angry about and condemn. But we see its need in a mood of triumphalism rather than as occasioning sadness. There is the excessive fascination with hypocrisy, which as Judith Shklar had pointed out, is a "splendid weapon of psychic warfare, but not a principle of governance". There is a cult of distrust. Again, distrust 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. This is not a discourse coming to terms with reality, it is grasping for auguries of innocence.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'

express@expressindia.com

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