Ravikiran Rao has commented on my post on the rhetoric of some right wing bloggers. He cites one of my old posts, in which I approvingly quoted some impolite stuff; in sum, his question to me is "if you want politeness in debate, why don't you practice what you preach?". Here is my response.
First things first: while I am all for politeness (why, some of my best friends are extremely polite ;-), my post was primarily on something else: fairness in debate. Impolite words such as 'idiot' cannot be, and should not be, put in the same moral bin as 'subversive' and 'antinationalist' (which, by the way, do not even sound impolite! they actually make the speaker sound erudite...), which are far more hurtful to the concept and content of the debate. Now, there is a huge difference between advocating politeness and advocating fairness, and I take full responsibility for not making this difference clear and explicit in my post.
Let me describe an incident from real life. A well known academic (let us call him Prof. X), then working in a US university, proposed about a dozen years ago a controversial plan for introducing an innovation in higher education in India. It was widely discussed and debated in the Indian press. I think it is fair to say that the opponents of his plan outnumbered its supporters.
Well, Prof. X visited several institutions in India to address the academic community about his proposal. At one such gathering, after he made his speech and asked for questions and comments from the audience, an impeccably dressed, suave-looking gentleman went upto the stage, and said something like this [I am paraphrasing here]: "Yeah, we bloody well know the kind of problems we have with our system, and we don't need any NRI bast...s to come and tell us what we should do". The audience let out a collective gasp, the discussion that followed after this outburst became desultory, the opponents of Prof. X's plan felt compelled to tone down their rhetoric even on points that they felt passionate about. All in all, the 'debate' was a disaster, and everyone was on the losing side that day.
It is this chilling effect of certain words that I was talking about in my post. I will request you to think carefully, not just about the incident recounted above, but also about which of the two words had the chilling effect on the debate there: the normal, every-day term "NRI" or the impolite word "bast...s".
In the political/ideological realm, there are many words available to the left to muzzle their opponents: US stooge, Bush's lackey, on the CIA payroll, etc. In my opinion, the words 'subversive', 'antinationalist' and 'denigrator of Indian culture' used by some Indian right wing bloggers belong to the same category, and they are just barely below the ultimate weapon: 'unpatriotic'.
Irrespective of who uses them, all these words have the same effect in the debate, and that is to unfairly handicap the opponent by indicating (sometimes using code words) to the audience that the opponent's loyalty lies elsewhere, to unfairly deny the opponent the legitimacy to present his/her argument, and to unfairly imply that his/her argument should not be given the same weight and consideration as yours. In short, these words un-level the playing field, and that is unfair.
I know now from Ravi's post that I was unsuccessful in conveying this idea. As I said, the blame for this lies entirely with me, and I should thank him for providing me an opportunity to clarify my position.
What about impolite terms such as 'idiot' (congenital, resident or otherwise)? Frankly, I don't care. I mean, I wouldn't care if someone calls me that (heck, some of you are probably doing it right now! ;-). We have too many articles (even in mainstream media) where we see things like "it is foolish (naive, idiotic, lunatic) to assume that ...", "only a fool (idiot, lunatic ..) would say that ...", etc; these words have become just too commonplace. And, I have, in my own blog, accused others of stupid tricks, and crappy interviews. To me, they convey the writer's strong disagreement, disapproval, and yes, disgust. Nothing more.
If I didn't think 'idiot' is inappropriate in debate, why did I include it in my post? Please read my post again; it has a progression (a regression, actually) of words, starting with a mild word (moron, which is struck out), going through 'resident idiot', culminating in 'antinationalist' and 'subversive', and finally hinting at the ultimate weapon: patriotism. (the progression, however, is not linear, since I put in an aside about Indian Express, etc.) I now realize that it is the inclusion of 'resident idiot' in this progression that has led to the impression that I was arguing for politeness, rather than fairness, in my post.
Update : Got carried away with bold fonts at some places in the original version; just changed some of them back to normal fonts.