When Words Like "Anti-National" Are Thrown Around

Published: March 02, 2017 12:50 IST
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The acronym wars rage on. Even in the last phases of the UP elections, sharply uncomplimentary as well as hagiographic versions of MODI and KASAB continue to electrify the air. Places where the dead make their tryst with immortality - kabristan (graveyard) and shamshan (cremation grounds) - are no longer uncontested sites of peace. They are battlegrounds.

Now, such uses of language are undoubtedly crude, even cruel. Nevertheless, I want to argue here that they constitute a robust measure of the health of our democracy. They show that no-holds-barred verbal kusti (wrestling) is not just possible but hugely animated in our political akharas (fight spaces). Our leaders, bless their concerted lung-power, have repeatedly demonstrated their enormous confidence in the right to unbridled freedom of expression - and this is just as it should be.

However, the proposition that the same freedom of expression that politicians take for granted also extends to every common citizen of this country is more doubtful. Let's begin with a 'tale of two democracies' - the world's very largest.

During the 2016 American elections, the US press energetically produced a whole new set of terms to describe campaign goings-on. These items included the noun "surrogate", the verb "double-down", the adjective "fake" for news and so forth. Each of these words implied that qualities as basic to the human psyche as "truth" and "trust" were being fought over in these ferocious "post-modern" elections. Fact checking was the order of the day. Nothing was allowed to pass by a vigilant media - and this again is as it should be - but does it mean we have indeed entered that "post-truth" world where no touchstone certainties exist any more?

This is as much a moral question for us in India as the US. How do we manage to re-calibrate trust in others' truths in large and plural democracies such as own?  

In a recent interview to NDTV, Amartya Sen partly answered this question by quoting Clement Attlee, who declared that, "Democracy means government by discussion". Okay, so we must settle orthogonal views of 'the truth' by discussion which is, of course, a classic liberal position - and again, just as it should be.

However, what Sen did not give us is the second, wryly ironic, part of the Attlee witticism: "...but it is only effective if you can stop people talking."

Oops. Clearly, government by silence is about as impossible as requesting the animal now elevated to most favoured status in the UP elections, not to bray. Talking is what human collectives are all about. It is at the heart of every sort of political rhetoric. And this brings us straight back to the US where Steve Bannon, Chief White House Strategist, recently urged an increasing restive media to "just shut up and listen for a while". 

So let's take Mr. Bannon at his word and listen to him awhile; he is widely known as "Trump's Brain", after all. At the largest meeting of Conservatives (CPAC) in Maryland last week, Mr. Bannon maintained that his aim was to "deconstruct" government. Hardly a word President Trump, whose appeal is that he speaks the common man's language with adjectives like "bad", "sad" and "tremendous" forming an impressive part of his linguistic arsenal, would have used. No, this was a word the French philosopher Jacques Derrida made famous in postmodernist doctrine as a tool to analyze hidden patterns in discourse. It was slyly relevant to all that earnest discussion of living in a "post-truth" world.

Most important to notice here, though, is the prefix 'de-' - as in 'demonetize'. De- is a tiny morpheme, a half-word we barely notice. It slips below verbal radars but it can completely gut a word, making it mean the exact opposite of a respected concept such as 'to construct'. Construction is a good thing (as any builder such as Mr. Trump will tell you), just as it is to 'constructively criticize'. But to 'deconstruct'? This sets up a quite different train of thought. In this case, Mr. Bannon was apparently using it to suggest the actual dismantling of long established structures of government - which scared some people. 

Much the same sort of analysis holds for the anti- in 'anti-national', one of our own favorite terms of opprobrium. This is a prefix to be handled with extreme care. 

Consider again the cautionary tale of the US elections. Inscribed in the American public mind today are a slew of memorable, if often very contentious slogans, such as "We will build a wall" (to keep Mexicans out); "The Muslim ban" (to keep out possible 'Islamic' terrorists); and "Lock her up!" (to hold Hillary Clinton in prison for her alleged misdeeds). Together, these simple phrases have contributed to bringing out a deep-seated xenophobia, a fear of 'the other' that may just have influenced an American who yelled "get out of my country!" as he shot an innocent young Indian to death in Kansas City. 

Was this American a nationalist? Absolutely not, because no matter how much you love your country, you cannot go on the rampage, troll and abuse, on account of your love. For this is the exact point at which love paradoxically turns into hate - an unreasoning fear of those we perceive as different from us. 

President Trump has recognized this painful fact in specifically mentioning the Kansas City tragedy in his important first joint address to both houses of the US Legislature, saying that he 'condemned' the 'hate' that led to the crime. This is a small but critical start to perhaps reversing the chauvinism that characterized his electoral strategy in wooing middle America. White, middle-aged and hurt by job losses - and face loss - over decades this segment of the US unequivocally voted, as we now know, for Trump. They wanted 'change'; they wanted an 'outsider' - no matter how putatively unsuitable - to take charge of the destiny of the US. They voted for difference. 

Was this not the richest of ironies - voters who wanted the world kept out casting their vote for the rankest 'outsider'? 

Throughout his campaign, the Trump team also invented numerous catchy epithets to take down his gob-smacked opponents, ranging from "crooked Hillary" to "little Marco Rubio" to "lying Ted Cruz". It didn't matter in the least bit whether these tags were 'true'. They stuck in the public mind like chewing gum between the teeth, influencing voter taste and action.

"Words matter", as a wiser and older George W. Bush has advised President Trump. Yes, they do - here in India as much as in the US. Remember "Pappu" and "Feku"? Such labels stick. However, they are not half as problematic as invisible half-words and powerfully emotive discourse.  

US democrats, complacently in charge of the citadels of liberal power for ages were outsmarted because they forgot this. They entirely underestimated the deep desire for change, the longing for belonging that is always at the heart of messages like "Taking our county back" and "Making America great again". Such sentiments are immune to 'rational' questions like: But do you not believe your country has been yours for at least the past two hundred years? Nor are most Americans open to any naive 'outsider' observation that the one belief fervently shared by both left-wing liberals and diehard conservatives is that theirs is the "greatest country on earth'. Ipso facto, it is already great. 

Xenophobia, though, is not about reason; it is about emotion. There is no denying, for instance, that accusations in our own country about x or y "indulging in anti-national activities" are highly emotive, as are assertions that any threat to "unity and integrity" of India "will not be tolerated". Thus, we must first begin by acknowledging the power of this sentiment; second, to sustain a meaningful dialogue, we must respond with narratives that are just as emotionally irrefutable. To end, then, some heartening examples: 

The young American, Ian Grillot, who was seriously injured trying to protect Mr. Kuchibhotla said that he acted because, in the end, we are human first and our instinct is to protect each other; the professors in the current DU imbroglio sought to protect the intellectual rights of students; the poet Devi Prasad Mishra, who took on a bus-conductor for halting a public service to urinate on the street, acted to protect a civic space; Gurmeher Kaur, right or wrong, had the conviction and courage to openly speak her mind on a legitimate social media platform. All this happened in the space of a week. Then there was Nirbhaya - and so many, many others. Each has emerged as a liminal folk-hero, an urban legend, because the media has brought to light for us the admirably humane impulses they displayed alongside those superbly inventive speeches by our political leaders. These citizens have spoken out; they have acted against the odds. If our netas have the humility to learn from them, then the 'unity and integrity' of our vast, dissonant democracy is certainly in no graver danger than that of the United States of America.

(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books and is one of India's best known contemporary poets.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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