City City Bang Bang, Columns

The burden of independence

Yet another question asked of Mamata Banerjee, yet another person in jail. In the world that she lives in, it would appear that asking a question is not a sign of dissent but of some form of treason. And while she does offer herself up for this criticism on a regular and altogether spectacular basis, she is by no means alone. Increasingly, it is difficult to ask an innocent question; for one can ask a question only if one is implacably located on the other side. The labels for describing the other side vary- in this case the person was without question a Maoist, but there are several others that are equally handy- right-wing fundamentalist, ‘sickular’, member of the ‘paid media’, corporate stooge, neo-liberal, medieval, populist, elitist- the list is a long and illustrious one.

The unfortunate truth is that there is reason for this cynicism. A lot of the opinions that abound in media, both mainstream and social, are rooted in pre-fabricated positions that fly under the flag of one label or another. In addition, over the last few years it has become clear that very few of our certitudes about the independence of the allegedly independent institutions stand up to scrutiny. The Radia tapes, in particular confirmed to our ears what were hitherto only speculative conspiracy theories in our mind. More than anything else, the contamination of media changes everything; our shared sense of reality comes from media. We need to take media for granted, and the inability to do so produces an acute sense of disorientation, a loss of co-ordinates caused by an absence of reliable maps. Today we don’t really know if an opinion expressed is an opinion at all; it might well be a cunningly crafted bit of spin inserted at someone’s behest. We cannot trust a film review, or depend on a food critic to tell us the truth, we read into headlines rather than merely read them, trying to guess what or who is behind these.

The urge to narrativise discrete opinions, to impose on any point of view a larger and coherent set of implied beliefs accelerates the use of labels. If one raises the question of the apathy shown by mainstream media to the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, it cannot be out of anything but an adherence to a particular set of beliefs, if one asks if there is a reason why the workers of Maruti acted the way they did, one clearly has extreme left-wing sympathies. Believers in Hindutva cannot question any action of Modi and feel compelled to justify any action taken by their side; likewise a progressive liberal would find it very difficult to say anything complimentary about Modi, without gulping very hard. Being a liberal no longer means being comfortable with listening to different modes of thought with an open mind without being locked into an automatic view, now it is a name given to an automatic and very elaborate set of beliefs one must adhere to and uphold at all times. As a result, some questions cannot be asked at all, particularly when they involve the touchy issues of the day.

Part of the problem also lies in the nature of labels at our disposal. We are stuck with some tired binaries that we use to sort and categorise our world, binaries that have over the years been systematically robbed of their meaning. The politics of Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalitha do not fit into the Left/right label for instance. The BJP has more in common with the Left than with the Congress, for instance. Anna Hazare, with his peculiar combination of support from middle-class, a sundry assortment of public minded citizens from across the ideological spectrum and a clutch of spiritual gurus, defies easy categorisation. Inarticulate labels blind us to what we see because we do not have the vocabulary to describe it.

Of course, the notion of independence comes under more covert attack too. The dominant structures of the day, and in particular, the market produce common currencies that appear objective and impersonal, but which serve to guide actions invisibly towards a particular end. Television ratings are a great example; the idea that all programming should aim to maximise viewership creates a push towards a particular brand of programming; one that values arrested stimulation over any form of thoughtfulness. Channels lose their sense of agency when confronted by this impassive and seemingly neutral measure and converge to the undifferentiated middle path. The focus on marketability produces a new form of emptiness for consumers are fed what they are deemed to like. Like two mirrors facing each other, the recursive logic of being made to like what one allegedly likes, by giving one no other choices at all, has infinite space but no real depth. The market’s key trick is to make every individual believe in their own independent individuality while making that individuality homogenous.

The trouble with the quest for being independent is that there seems to be no such thing. We are embedded in some structure or other and knowingly or otherwise, are presumed to speak on its behalf. Foreknowledge makes us extrapolate a worldview from a single opinion; we can today categorise something before seeing it. Deeper structures that guide behaviour invisibly make any sense of independence that we might have potentially illusory. The need to escape labels and become more aware of the implicit influences that might lie behind what passes for commonly accepted wisdom, the need to ask uncomfortable and very fundamental questions without rushing to find answers, the need to be lost in some self-doubt and to regain a sense of innocent confusion might well be the starting point for feeling independent again.

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