The cult of distrust

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.

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