Ever since I got back from a Manthan lecture and discussion led by Arun Shourie I’ve been wondering about the nature of participation in such events: they are meant to make us think, open up lines of discussion and explore ideas in a way that they are laid bare, making visible the spaces and interconnections between them and the attitudes they lie/build upon. Mr Shourie, who, I must confess, was one of the heroes of my early journalistic dreams. His front pagers in the Indian Express of the immediate post-Emergency era fuelled my own ambitions and made me feel really proud to be part of a tribe that seemingly was out to catapult the country into a new era of honesty, transparency and fair and clean governance. I was much younger then and could be forgiven for my simple and uncomplicated faith in the power of the press.
Much water has passed under the many bridges that make up our fragile polity and I have revised my ideas somewhat, although I try to keep my ideals burnished and fresh.
But getting back to Mr Shourie and the discussion last night. As always, he was an entertaining speaker, peppering his acerbic comments with smart one-liners and punches aimed at the people we all love to hate (including quite a few that delightfully found their target in the image of Arnab Goswami). He trashed today’s media, hauled the politicians over hot coals, and told us what to do about it all. In “one word” (sic) he said, “you must read”. Go back to the original text, amass your own evidence from the hundreds of documents available in the public domain, and then make up your mind. That should be the stuff on which discourse is built. Not the inane panel discussions on prime time television (“switch it off,” he said) and not the repetitive headlines on our sold out newspapers. The smattering of journalists in the audience took heed, as was evident in some of the questions that emerged after he spoke.
At the end of it all, I realized, there wasn’t much that I had not heard from him in some other form in some other forum. But then, one has to recognize that being a public intellectual is hard work, and it is not always possible to say something new every time, or even to say it in new ways. To give Mr Shourie credit, he did follow his own advice to “be like a crocodile”--once you get something between your jaws, don’t let go. So repetition is good. It’s incumbent on those of us who want to bring about change to be persistent, and not flit from one cause to another like the mainstream media.
What got me thinking really was the Q & A after the talk. As in all such sessions, there were some “real” questions and some that seemed to be more about marking one’s presence in a public space and saying “listen, this is me, and I’m here, take note”. Which takes me to the point I wish to make. Agreed, whenever one communicates, there is an element of performance, of wanting to make one’s presence felt beyond just making a point or contributing to a conversation in some meaningful way. If we get too self conscious about it we end up retreating into total silence, and maybe missing the opportunity to direct discussion in ways it may not have moved. So participation is necessary. But what is (or should be) the nature and content of this participation? How do we decide whether what we have to say is of value in terms of information or perspective? How do we balance out the need to be seen and to be counted (much of the reason we actually do participate in such events) and the weight and value of what we have to say? Many of the questions/comments from the audience were in the nature of affirmations, a sort of “I’m with you, I hear you”. A few really did add a new dimension or raise a genuine doubt or concern that had not been voiced already. And some (more than a few) were more about self-affirmation than about discourse.
How then do we move beyond posturing and really engage in the content and direction of an issue so that it becomes a serious and dispassionate examination of its components? Can this really happen in a space where there is a stage and an audience and all the accouterments for a performance rather than a conversation? How do we remove the elements of staging and make such “events” true opportunities for even and open discussion?
Can meaningful discourse happen in public? How do we create public forums that are less theatrical and more participative?