"Bullshit" baffles brains
Rhetoric has always subjugated reason, more so today. It is evident that populations around the world are willing to be persuaded with the passion of promise than with the possibility of performance. We are swayed by the powerful oration of ambitions, howsoever, remote their chance of fulfilment in the long run or the short term. Trump will 'make America great again' and 'America First' won the hearts of native whites and they duly obliged by installing him as their President. Rhetoric or strategic substance, and the answer could well make the difference between a world war and continuing state of unstable peace. Iran's Ayatollahs fulminate against the US of A too, more like the jilted lover demanding their size of the global pound of flesh for having once been willing and compliant instruments of the American influence in the region.
Rhetoric or strategic substance, and the answer could well make the difference between a world war and continuing state of unstable peace.
An interesting exchange is attributed to Einstein and Chaplin. Einstein to Chaplin: "What I most admire about your art… is that you don't say a word and the world understands you..!" And Chaplin responded: "Your glory is even greater. The whole world admires you, even though they don't understand a word of what you say!" We have since graduated to a state, where everyone is saying something, but nobody understands anymore. The bombast, the noise coupled with a pleasing catchphrase is moving people's sentiments in politics, in religion and even in forming social biases. The loudest voice carries the day drowning out reason.
The Argumentative Indian, not to be left behind, has fixed his discourse in trivialities. A silly person's morning slumber is disturbed by the Azaan over a loud speaker, and this makes for a prolonged debate over the propriety of religion inspired alarms for the habitual late risers. The content of the for and against arguments was about the right to sleep versus the right to awaken the ignorant, both of which have inherent logic on their side. It gained national attention for all the principal actors, an end in itself for most participants. The nationalist versus all others rhetoric, too, is constantly exciting passions, and nobody wants to be seen as siding with the others lest they are held to ridicule and get branded for not having a patriotic bone in their body. So respect the national flag, the anthem, the cow, the soldier and all those who wear the uniform in the national cause, revere our mythology and its tales including the claim to scientific discoveries of our ancestors. The population is thus always struggling between the memories of the past and the expectation of tomorrow, a predicament so aptly described by the British philosopher, Alan Watts. The present, evidently a state where all action needs to be embedded for any future good to happen, is missing from our concerns altogether. So we are sold on hope as a public policy of governments.
It was Plato, as per Professor Tushar Irani of the Wesleyan University, who said, "we ought to be suspicious of persuasive speakers and the appeal to emotions". Professor Irani rightly says that philosophers have a problem with rhetoric, as philosophy is a "truth directed" activity while "rhetoric" is uninterested in a reasoned argument, concerned as it is with only "persuasion". The New York Times opinion piece speaks of the "Trumpian language as a thing unto itself: some manner of sophistry peppered with superlatives…. It's a jumble of incomplete thoughts stitched together with arrogance and ignorance". In our midst, the dialogues are replete with emotion, even though spoken from academic or political platforms. We have had plastic surgery in Vedic times, we also flew planes called Udan Khatolas, and our mathematical geniuses invented the vital basis of all calculus: Shunya, the modern zero. Ever since that moment, science or even scientific temper has been abandoned by the wayside. It looks like that our post-truth existence began thousands of years ago.
Post-truth, indeed it seems like, is what dominates the current political and cultural conversations as well. Facts are up for dispute, even if they are represented through camera actions or eyewitness accounts. "Getting misquoted" is the default excuse of political personalities when caught making incendiary calls to cause havoc amongst minority community members or gender insults. Invoke religion or caste for votes but disown such appeals when their rhetoric is exposed. Show your real nationalistic fervour by wanting a war with Pakistan, especially if it is "aar ya paar".
To all of us, we will do well to remember Clint Eastwood in the movie, The Good, the Bad, the Ugly. "Shoot if you have to shoot, don't talk" is a crisp truism for all the persuasive leaders and generals who come across our television screens screaming eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. The Athenians lost the Peloponnesian War famously because they talked all the time while the Spartans fought. We need to get real. Our leaders have to bear the responsibility for the future and need to fight for the powerless. As an apt Americanism would scream, "Stop bullshitting and get on with it".
(The writer is former Director, Indian Habitat Centre. Views are personal.)