Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Wheel of Ashoka

Watching "Inshallah Kashmir" the other day, I had an epiphany.

I now understand why we talk past each other on so many things.


All issues worth debating have layers in them. Which layer one chooses to look at frames one's narrative.

There is the human layer. Nothing more personal than raw human emotion.

There is the institutional layer. Nothing more practical than policy prescriptions.

There is the ideas layer. Nothing more inspiring than the force of ideas.

We talk past each other because we talk in different layers.


I've often made larger points using stories of humble people.

Personalizing any issue makes it hard for empathetic people to turn away. The stories of the tortured and the exiled of Kashmir are precisely that. Or those of Indians charred to death in their own homes, by their neighbors in Gujarat. Or the human-level horrors in Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Jaffna, Iraq, Afghanistan, Balochistan, Dharavi, Rwanda, and all manner of other places.

Suffering lives where humans dwell. Their stories tell themselves, often ending without closure.


Then, there are failing Governments, amoral Corporations, and communal identities to talk about.

Talking at this layer moves the conversation away from personal horrors to policy debates. These stories are about institutional interests, goals, capabilities, actions, conflicts, successes, and failures. They lend themselves to analysis and prescription. It feels great to lay out options, debate pros and cons, and make recommendations - even if nothing is ever done about what one suggests. Kashmir, for example, becomes a discussion of Center vs State, Army and AFSPA, Pakistan and jihadis, NHPC and CRPF, etc etc etc

Institutions are actionable. Their stories are mostly academic, but satisfy like comfort food.


Finally, there is the realm of ideas.

Here, we abstract far away from the suffering people or their failing institutions. Our focus is on the eternal story of right versus wrong. There are larger patterns in the ebb and flow of history. These allow us to see the world beyond our own humble existence. Here, Kashmir is not a heaven on earth or hell on people but a battle of big ideas like faith and identity and freedom and modern nationhood.

Ideas are where history is made. Their stories are grand because this is how humans become gods.


We talk past each other because we talk in different layers.

Those without authority talk at the human-layer. Those with authority talk at the institutional-layer. The dispassionate talk at the ideas-layer.

For example, I do not like Narendra Modi and his government in Gujarat. My arguments are almost always about human suffering and failure - Zakia Jafri and Sanjiv Bhatt and Mayaben Kodnani and Narendra Modi. His supporters talk about institutional success. Look at Gujarat, look at its governance, look we have data and upward pointing GDP charts. We end up talking past each other.

Happens in every situation. I can write the foregoing paragraph for Kashmir or Salman Rushdie without any effort.

The arguments are all fine - it's just that we aren't engaging at the same layer. Parallel polemics don't a debate make.


In my humble view, we should really talk at the layer of ideas. That's what history remembers.

There was a lot of human suffering and institutional failure in Ashoka slaughtering Kalinga. Today, his Chakra is India's national emblem. Not to diminish anyone' suffering, but we don't remember the names of those who died at his sword. We remember his embrace of Buddhism as a consequence. In the end, this big idea is all that mattered.

I believe that some ideas are better than others and, in time, they always prevail.

In my eyes, there are no better political ideas than secular democracy and free markets. All other ideas have had their moment in the sun, and they have always come up short. Always.

Regardless of how I feel at the human and institutional levels, ultimately the only question that really matters for me is this: 

Will my argument advance secular democracy and free markets or set these winning ideas back?

You don't have to agree with the ideas I favor but surely you can see this is an extremely clarifying way to think. It cuts through the heart-rending emotion of human suffering and the never-ending boasts of human institutions. It makes the complex simple.

I think we can make great headway if we all talked at this level.


Vishal Kataria said...

WOW! This article itself is in the layer of ideas.

Great analysis which we all should implement. But knowing how we humans are, few are able to get past the human layer.

As Martin Luther King said "Look at humans as a set of emotions and mould your message accordingly to reach out to them."

FV said...

Wonderfully stated, but a few points. Don't the layers overlap? Should we see each in isolation? The human tragedy is often an 'institutional' one, prompted by ideas or sorted by ideas.

You refer to ideas as "dispassionate". Then such history that they make, and indeed ideas do, would by default be abstract. The abstract has the luxury of being mercenary. Ergo, the human layer can be covered up.

If only raw emotions were ideas.

Primary_red said...

Thank you, Vishal and FV

To FV's observation, indeed all realities are complex and multi-layered. It's just that we all pick and choose which layer we amplify in making our arguments. This way, we find the layer that best makes our case but weaken the debate in the bargain.

Agree that ideas can be abstract in description - but their impact is very concrete. I think we should look to debate ideas, build strong institutions to give them life, and then monitor and manage the human implications of these.


Nilim Dutta said...

There is no denying that ultimately, all great battles are won in the realm of ideas. There is also no denying that secular democracy is one such idea. For it to prevail, and succeed, however, that layer of idea has to organically merge into the human and institutional, because it will ultimately be humans who shall adopt, put to use and celebrate it. We all know what stands in the way of the layer of this winning idea permeating into the layer of humans, things like denial of justice, things like absence of fairness in treatment of Kashmiris. To make the winning ideas acceptable, we have to first reaffirm that essential elements of secular democracy, elements like justice, equality of opportunities, etc exists for the Kashmiris too. If we succeed in persuading them to realize that this indeed is true, I have no doubt, whatsoever, that what is winning for all, shall be looked upon as winning by them as well and adopt it on their own.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that ideas overlap most of the times, I believe optimistically that ideas do not contradict each other always. The interests of a people and an institution, at some point are the same. I think that layer, is what made the history the way it existed; the most convenient combination of ideas.

Also history, as it is written, is written in that form with a purpose. And every purpose is definitely biased and dependent to some extent by an idea.

@Vishal- honestly, I think the human layer is the only practical one, because obviously, it works!

roger said...

When you say "In my eyes, there are no better political ideas than secular democracy and free markets. All other ideas have had their moment in the sun, and they have always come up short. Always." But what is the time span of your Always ? Miniscule, even if you consider human history on earth. I am not contesting the idea of secular democracy or free markets per se but the finality of your tone and attitude that nothing better can ever exist in future.

Meenakshi said...

One has to read the article to understand, since it is written within layers...

Anonymous said...

Culture shift is needed for people to be open to power of ideas....When the pressure to perform and moral thinking is missing, Humans will choose the no brain solution and the quick money. It becomes the norm and gets accepted.

So yes first Ideas have to make the culture shift happen, then Secularism and Free Markets will work with responsible Regulation, or else it will be crony Capitalism and exploitation of resources....


@ameinzahid said...

I would like to draw parallels of Narendra Modi & his Gujarat model of development with Genghis Khan & his model of meritocracy and arguably a very successful one.

Genghis Khan know for his genocides and wiping out populations was also know for his "religious tolerance" and his administration skills. He invited discussions of religious scholars to learn from them.
Ironic indeed.

Btw, You guys have seen too much of the movie "Inception"!! :p Layers within layers within layers and....