City City Bang Bang, Columns

Death by Criticism

In a world of 24×7 media, in all probability, there would have been no Gandhi. Can you imagine the field day the media would have with all his eccentricities, his contrarian pronouncements, his often enigmatic positions and actions and of course his tendency to experiment with sexuality? It isn’t as if Gandhi did not attract enough critics in his day, indeed his death was through an act of extreme criticism, but Gandhi’s greatness was allowed to rise above the criticism that surrounded him. It took a bullet to bring down Gandhi, but the idea that he represents lives on and has proved surprisingly difficult to dismantle.

The swirling criticism around the Anna Hazare-led movement makes one wonder about the role that criticism plays in our life today. The objections have been so intense and the effort so concerted that it does not feel out of place to ask if there is a deeper intent, a deliberate effort behind all the critiques, objections, characterisations and dirty tricks that the movement is attracting. Nothing is easier in argument than to either characterise the other side with adjectives of your choosing and to inflate a germ of doubt that you can plausibly detect into a full blown epidemic of distrust or try and denigrate the credentials of those one is opposed to and to focus on who they are rather than on the idea that they represent.

The most powerful characteristic of this movement is also the greatest reason for its vulnerability- it lacks an ideological bunker; it does not as yet have a settled worldview and an articulated way of dealing with objections. It is composed of a diverse group of people, loosely connected and of different ideological persuasions and led by a person whose greatest strength is plausibility- he looks the part and feels right for it. Its attraction lies in this rawness, in its bumbling naivete and crude desire for change. It draws people in because it seems unrehearsed and vaguely impractical, and the energy it generates has a primitive quality. Tired of the articulate, weary of the ideologically sophisticated, spent by the incessant name-calling that hides a deeper, intractable complicity between apparently opposed sides (left and right, govt and opposition, the state and its intellectual critics), there is an audience, however middle class, that responds to the idea that this movement seems to espouse.

The trouble is that it runs afoul of every established formation that exists. Political parties have an obvious interest in running this desire for change to ground, but so do others. The protest industry and its supporters see this as a coup from unexpected quarters involving an unworthy constituency- it was all right for Anna Hazare to be using similar strategies when he was working for the rural poor, that was familiar and harmless, largely because it was operated on a small scale and looked appropriately romantic. Now of course, he has catapulted his group into national limelight and a core policy making role, bypassing those who thought they had the exclusive right of speaking for the powerless in the language of protest. For other liberal commentators, the movement is simply not sophisticated enough for it throws up a jumble of ideas that cut across the ideological divisions that have been so neatly carved out. It is an upstart movement that defies categories and shows no respect for settled perspectives formed over decades and hardened into smug little islands of certainty. There was an established world in the world of disaffection, a protocol that everyone followed, and here comes a rag-tag band that brashly bypasses these all.

It seems there is no room today for a new idea that is born in imperfection and that grows into something meaningful. Without the umbrella of a sponsor, and bereft of the protection of someone loud and powerful, it will wither under the combined assault of existing entrenched groups. The scrutiny any new idea is subject to is too intense and such deliberate intent is used to invalidate it, that its ability to survive becomes highly uncertain. In a larger sense, the tendency is to reduce ideas to the people who espouse them and then to reduce these people to their basest motivations. In doing so, we take pride in finding what we already knew- that eventually all new ideas are nothing but old vested interests dressed up seductively and go back to the stability of the status-quo, that wonderfully comforting zone where we know who our friends and enemies are and where no ideas of unknown origin and uncertain lineage come to unsettle us.

The curious part of this is how as our world becomes more imperfect, the quest for an unreasonable kind of perfection grows. It is not enough, for instance that this movement pushes for something that has been in the works for 42 years and is something that most mature democracies have a version of. Nor is it sufficient that all that has been asked for is inclusion in the process of drafting a bill which the legislature is in any case free to reject or modify as it deems fit. What the critics do is to focus on every molecule of the movement- they take apart every constituent fragment and subject it to intense scrutiny. Unless it all works, nothing does, is the implicit argument.

This need for perfection in every atom, this belief that unless every bit of an idea or a person is above reproach, all of it gets invalidated is a curious idea in today’s world where all feet have some clay in them. The current uproar over the new Gandhi biography carries the same hysterical note- how dare someone impute something inappropriate about him? Even retrospectively, we find it difficult to deal with imperfection. In a world full of critics and in an arena dominated by competitive certainties, new ideas don’t have a chance. As wouldn’t Gandhi today.

One Comment

  1. Posted May 17, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Now I feel stupid. That’s crelaed it up for me

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