Mar 5, 2013

"Louder" dialogue: Right foot forward

Here's a line of thought that advocates a greater focus on internal dialogue and external covert ops, along with a drastic reduction of external dialogue, diplomacy, and "cultural exchange" with any nation or party that misuses protocols and engages in a one-pointed agenda of hate.

Sometime during my 11th or 12th grade, a young man walked into class and said he was our new physics teacher - a male teacher at an all boys school where most staff members are female. In our small world, some of us in the backbenches thought it was in the same category as being a male nurse. It was a class in which the backbenches were extraordinarily eager to participate: We would keep interjecting, "Lowda sir! Sir, lowda please!" while pretending that we were straining to hear him. Lowda is Hindi slang for 'dick', or 'dick off', pronounced a bit like English "louder". He became a target because we thought: (a) There was something odd and out-of-place, (b) We could take liberties that we couldn't take with other teachers just because we had a common gender,  (c) But we still had to treat him like a teacher because of rules and the risk of punishment. In this game, plausible deniability is the best policy.

It is said that the human subconscious is more vulnerable to insanity than the animal kingdom because we evolved the faculty of speech, and especially because of homonymic words in human speech (homonym: a word with more than one distinct meaning). Add to that a multilingual society with an alien "elite" language transplanted across cultures, and it makes it all the more fun.

But insanity is after all just the final limiting condition of a long process, when a lie or a misunderstood idea has been consciously practiced over and over against all reason, with such unrelenting stubbornness that it finally finds its hiding place in the subconscious.

Fortunately, even backbenchers know when a joke ceases to be funny. But in the merciless world of politics, a deadly combination of dissimulation and crushing ridicule of the other would be too good to let go, decency be damned. Is one man's terrorist really another man's freedom fighter? Is the white man's burden the heavy loot from India or the setting up of convent schools over the rubble of its society? Does "jihad" mean holy war, interfaith diplomacy or inner struggle? Or all three (while "terrorists have no religion")? Does "secularism" and "communalism" in Hindu India mean exactly the same thing as it does in a Western society re-negotiating its relationship with Christian authority?

Generalizing from the case above, the requirements are that the unfortunate target is: (a) A person, party or nation that oddly sets itself up (or has been set up) for ridicule by its non-traditional methods of conducting policy or expressing its purpose, (b) Participates in creating some cultural commonality and familiarity that invites contempt - by allowing for a certain leeway in etiquette that can be used to subvert the intent of dialogue, and (c) And yet expects to be taken seriously and holds out the threat of punishment.

In the Logic of the Nyaya-sutras, Gautama says that there are 3 well-known types of argumentative dialogue:
प्रमाणतर्क्कसाधनोपालम्भस्सिद्धान्तविरुद्धः पञ्चावयवोपपन्नः पक्षप्रतिपक्षपरिग्रहो "वादः" ॥१.२.१॥ 
"Discussion (vaada) is the adoption of one of two opposing sides. What is adopted is analysed in the form of five members, and defended by the aid of any of the means of right knowledge, while its opposite is assailed by confutation, without deviation from the established tenets."
To put it simply: A "discussion" is an honest effort to understand and arrive at a truer conclusion - either from the winning side, or a newly created understanding of the subject after listening to both sides. That's what classroom discussions should be trying to do. That's what history-writers, scientists, religions and philosophers should be trying to do. That's what the media should be trying to do in a national discourse. That could also be what international discourse and relations could do.

What is significant is that partisanship is not derided here. Anyone can have their point of view to begin with. But the discussion is carried forward on sound principles of logic and a love of truth, not hatred or prejudice.

But if any of the above prostitute themselves to politics and partisanship, then one of the following ensues:
यथोक्तोपपन्नश्छलजातानिग्रहस्थानसाधनोपालम्भो "जल्पः" ॥१.२.२॥ 
"Wrangling (jalpa), which aims at gaining victory, is the defence or attack of a proposition in the manner aforesaid by quibbles, futilities, and other processes which deserve rebuke."
Zhou Enlai's cocky assertion that "diplomacy is war by other means" is the most honest description of a dishonest mentality, spoken by one who oversaw the transition from communism to ethnic nationalism - one visceral movement to another.
स्वप्रतिपक्षस्थापनाहीनो "वितण्डा" ॥१.२.३॥ 
"Cavil (vitanda) is a kind of wrangling which consists in mere attacks on the opposite side."
Clausewitz's well-known quote "war is merely the continuation of policy by other means" appropriately comes from the colonial age in Europe - a Europe that hadn't been so successful with the religious Crusades in an earlier time. Historical background plays a big part in the dialectic quality of the thought process (ref. earlier blogpost - Psychohistory vs. Dumb Dialectics).

What is fascinating is that wranglers and practitioners of cavil are often the ones quickest to disavow or rebuke partisanship in all its forms, raising cries of "communalism", "religious fanaticism", "social inequality", "reason versus faith" and a host of false dichotomies.

Its not that visceral, detrimental partisanship doesn't exist. Its just that its possible for someone to have a partisan view as an aesthetic rather than a visceral propensity. And there lies the rub. In casting suspicion and following it up with wrangling and cavil, one can reduce an aesthetic proposition to a visceral threat. That's an important datum for "strategists" right there.

In fact, it seems to be a rather popular tactic. In India's national discourse, Modi is basically subjected to a one-point cavil response to almost anything his supporters have to offer. (See this video of the English media's latest feeding frenzy.)

But it is best seen applied in international relations, whether it is the Indian subcontinent or any other theater of international affairs. Vajpayee was riding the peace bus to Lahore amid much fanfare, while Musharraf's "mujahideen" were creeping up on Kargil. A "war of a thousand cuts" using "non-state actors" is waged while also cultivating "track II diplomacy". Cultural exchange is used by the guests and their internal hosts to shape India's national discourse, rather than the other way round.

"Citizen diplomacy" is fruitful only if the agents of dialogue are reasonably in sync with their nation's purpose and philosophy. Such individuals from both sides can use the informality and good intentions to create a genuine dialogue and enhance mutual understanding. If India had genuine representatives, I would be all in favour of track II diplomacy and cultural exchange. But an octogenarian Wagah Candle Holder pining for his ancestral aangan in Lahore and trying to keep alive his dhimmi-schooled father's Urdu may not be India's best foot forward. 

Nor, in my view, is a "secularist" who is unwilling to acknowledge the depth and real context of India's civilization as a valid (and valuable) starting point in modern times, much less take pride in it. What is he willing to fight and die for? - That question undergirds his qualification to dialogue on behalf of the nation, rather than merely his "pacifist" unwillingness to fight. Or worse. (See this interesting speech by M.J. Akbar on the Idea of India.) 

This is all the more important because this generation of warfare has stepped out of the conventional framework of Westphalian states, and its driving force goes beyond a primitive nationalism and even political-economic ideology. In this scenario, there are "countries" today that are not really nation-states in the proper sense of the term, they are sly foxes in the garb of law abiding nation-states. Their behaviour confuses naive observers, who call them "failed states" that are not quite failing. But the fact is that they were never meant to be successful as nation-states. Their success lies in something else, something much larger. Taking advantage of the protocols of being called a nation-state and especially a failing one that cannot control "non state actors" is part of that larger war, specifically its diplomatic aspect.

When this is the big picture, a nation that is in a make-believe delusion that the context is about nation-states is decidedly out-of-place and a naive oddity, setting itself up for others to play games with it. Therefore, those Indian commentators that try to distract the nation by calling a strangely idiotic "pride" to the fact that India is not considered as "failed" a state as some others are deluding the people. Knowingly or unknowingly, they are a direct hazard to the future crystallization of India's national purpose, much less ideal representatives in dialogue with others.

As long as India cannot put its "right" foot forward, its probably better to keep transactions limited to covert ops where required, as punishment for specific actions or to cultivate certain trends. At the same time, the need of the hour is for a vigorous discussion (not wrangling, not cavil) within India, to clarify and then solidify the idea of India going forward. As actions speak louder than words, this combination of internal dialogue and hard external ops will make for a "louder" dialogue, decency be damned.

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