The nation no longer shares a common story. That’s scary.
Dickens could not have imagined how accurately he would be describing the world more than a hundred and fifty years later. For today we do live in a world where it is at once the best of times and the worst of times, where vaccines work and don’t work, millions of Covid deaths happened and didn’t happen, the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum and it’s Tejo Mahalaya, and on and on.
India’s ruling regime recently came up with the outline for a new school syllabus that won’t have chapters on Mughal courts, the Non-Aligned Movement, Faiz’s poetry, democracy and diversity. It’s natural for different political and ideological interest groups to read and interpret different facets of history and even the present differently. But India now appears to embody two different realities of completely different information sources and belief systems.
A troubling reminder was the recent spate of violence around Ramnavmi and how it was documented by social, digital, and print media. The more pro-establishment voices portrayed it as an attack by Muslim stonepelters on peaceful Hindu processions and the other side called it an attack by majority Hindu factions on local Muslim populations.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the New York University, talks about how modern nation states and democracies are bound together through just three major forces – social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories.
A nation, after all, is but a collection of people who believe that they have a common story that ties them into a common people. As Benedict Anderson writes in Imagined Communities, “What binds us diverse people into common idea of a nation is an imagined fraternal comradeship. This common fraternity is founded upon the idea of a common narrative of history with common heroes and villains.”
So what happens to a nation state when there is no common story?
Nation of (mis)-information
Walter Cronkite, the great American newsman, said, “It is not the reporter's job to be a patriot or to presume to determine where patriotism lies. His job is to relate the facts.” But in today’s media ecosystem, which relies heavily on click-based engagement, much like social media, it pays to be viral. The key to virality is being liked by the largest number of people and, therefore, aiming for the lowest common denominator of human emotions. So most media houses have taken to what can only be termed as replicating virality for television, and it pays to go viral. Arnab Goswami said a few years ago, “I don't believe in this fake objectivity. I'm an Indian and I will be on the side of India.”
In a recent speech, former US president Barack Obama said, “For more and more of us, search and social media platforms aren’t just our window into the internet. They serve as our primary source of news and information. No one tells us that the window is blurred, subject to unseen distortions, and subtle manipulations.”
According to a Reuters global survey, 82% Indians rely on online and social media for all of their news. And what they see as news is determined by specific choices made by Big Tech platforms using fine-tuned algorithms. With limited tools to parse what is true and what is not it is natural they often fall prey to information that feels right but is perhaps not founded in truth.
The information we consume determines our worldview and when that information is marinated in alternate facts that push us towards a specific way of looking at the world, a world where we can see ourselves and our kind as the just and the righteous, it isn’t difficult to buy into that worldview especially when there is no competing narrative that comes up on the feed. And that is where our worlds diverge.
But why do we consume the information we consume?
Our just world
“Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia,” Joseph Heller writes in Catch 22. “There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for.”
But the reality is that the Englishman, and the American and Russian and everyone feels that the nation is worth dying for because to them it is not just another nation and another just tribe, it is an extension of our identity.
At the root of this emotional reaction is our desire to nest our existence in a just world. A world where everything that goes into forming our identity comes from an unadulterated sense of justice and righteousness. Where we, our fathers and forefathers and the land of our people is laminated in goodness. This is known as the just world hypothesis. According to the just world hypothesis, people have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable and just place, where people get what they deserve.
Social psychologist Melvin Lerner argues that this has significant social implications. It’s because of this idea that we blame victims for crimes committed against them, or feel that people in poverty are suffering the consequences of their choices, or oppose welfare schemes for those we consider as the “other”.
So, when we read about the Taj Mahal being a temple and not a tomb, it feels nice. It seems to fit in just world that was explained to us, the world that makes sense, where the Hindu was the meek and always just victim and the invading Muslim a barbarian. Or when Audrey Truschke explains the life and policies of Aurangzeb in a way that does not confirm with that view, no matter how well researched, the immediate visceral reaction is to discard it.
We inherit a just world and then all through our life we try to find reasons that help us prove it right. Then on social media we find many more who have inherited the same just world as us, who agree with and confirm us further and then the algorithms do their job of cementing our worldview. Soon enough our world contains information that is also our cheerleader.
An examined life
Adopting any ideology as de facto truth is not a voluntary act, it’s a process dictated by a million things that create our life and social circumstances. People adopt ideologies unknowingly all the time – unquestioned, mild allegiance to religion, to traditional values, to unquestioned notions of patriotism. Just world hypothesis removes from us our abilities to have healthy skepticism. That belief in the justness of our world makes us forward that one news article or share that one tweet based on one untested belief. One alt-fact, a half-truth can soon multiply into a news shared by thousands and then millions. Most of us don’t do it necessarily out of any psychopathic cruelty, but an innocent belief in the righteousness of our kind.
There is a certain joy in learning ideas that move us, pleasure in finding causes that are much bigger than ourselves and provide us better tools to understand the world around us. That is to say there's meaning in the never-ending work of developing a coherent worldview. Adopting an ideology, inherited through secondhand sources like family or religious structures and having it reaffirmed via social media short-circuits that effort, providing pleasure and meaning with an unwarranted (and unquestioned) degree of certainty. There is a strong intellectual resemblance between unquestioned beliefs, the unexamined assumptions which allow a man to ship millions of people to extermination camps and unquestioned beliefs we all operate on an everyday basis.
No person thinks of themselves as evil. But then no one believes that their window to the world is blurred, or distorted, or subtly manipulated either. The scariest part is that the just world idea is also the most natural way that people adopt to look at the world for it is easy to believe in and like. Our collective challenge in the age of information polyopoly, therefore, is to be mindful of the extreme power that our sense of duty, righteous indignation or thoughtlessness can have. Until then, as Dickens said, “In seasons of pestilence, some of us will have a secret attraction to the disease – a terrible passing inclination to die of it.”