Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Lesson from a Facebook debate - Questioning Intentions of the Author

I recently had a small Facebook fist fight with a good friend over the relative merits of an article that was being shared a lot. The article elicited cries of protest from several people who took offense at its free-wheeling and rambunctious dismissal of India's prospects for the future, particularly if seen in the light of the idea of India that was sought after by stalwarts such as Gandhi, Nehru and Patel.

The skirmish started and ended in a couple of hours and when I looked back at it today I realized a simple problem that was at the heart of the debate -  the question over authorial intentions.

It should be simple enough, in hindsight of course. Before that, an overview of the type of arguments offered today is necessitated.

The lowest, the basest of arguments, take place when people just stand by their opinions and tell the opposite side to accept the divinely inherited wisdom they propound. As useless as this description sounds, it's in most vogue on our public fora.

Then, comes the interesting part. Ideally, any debate should be on the arguments of the piece. That's difficult. For that one needs to either have subject expertise or she has to make the effort to individually research the points made and come out with conclusions and rebuttals. It is even more difficult than it sounds.

And then there's the middle rung. The one where you don't consider yourself foolish enough to reiterate your beliefs but you also can't find the time to understand the nuances of the argument. You still dislike the article but you feel you're intellectual (or neutral) enough to not simply say that.

That is the case when a debate is fought over questioning the intention of the author. As was the case in my little battle. If you can't go into the claims of the author, just disparage him by claiming he works against the nation, or that he is part of an elite, or that he is part of a West appeasing cult. There, you say that and you build your case over protecting the honour of your nation. In which case, a randomly lurking lackey will latch onto your topic with relish and fight for honour (never mind the ensuing hilarious implications).

What I missed, however, is the fact that a battle over intentions is also difficult. And well nigh impossible especially when dealing with acclaimed intellectuals. That's because you have no way of judging the intent of an author without knowing her body of work. A brief study tells you about her stature, her consistency (+1) and periodic if any instabilities in sticking to a stance (-2). In my example, the author is universally known as a man who disputes the assumption of western superiority, going on to embellish the stature of Asian statesmen. That implies a fair amount of cognitive dissonance when connected with an appeasement narrative. That is if my friend had that knowledge, obviously. Instead, the claim was coupled with vague assertions of finding weak arguments and not believing in the data shared. Without sharing the weak points and coming out with the right data, of course.

I didn't freely see it then. A debate on intention is not possible without any knowledge of the author's oeuvre. It's like calling Tarantino a racist because he uses the n word a lot. But that was the case in my spat.

Lesson learnt.

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