As India hits the election cycle, we are bound to hear about how polarised the electorate has become over the past decade or so. Blame will be ascribed to all sorts of things – the anonymity of social media, the reach of technology, the politics and psychology of fear. Yet in some ways, it is difficult not to see the present situation as the inevitable outcome of Progressive politics.
To briefly put that in context, Progressive politics in this case refers to the postmodernist strand of belief that traditions are invented, nations are dangerous make-believe, and that we are all free-defining minorities of the individual. By tearing away at the common fabric of society, conversations between opposite views are made impossible as there are no mutually understood and shared values.
Aristotle argued that any communication intended to persuade must have three characteristics: logos, the logic and reasoning of the argument, ethos, the character, credibility, and trustworthiness of the communicator, and pathos, the emotional element. The final element was achieved via eikṓs arguments, or what Anaximenes described as proofs derived from the audience themselves; they held for the most part but were not quantifiably true. Essentially, such arguments were supported by the audience’s ability to relate, their knowledge, experience, emotional predispositions, and behavioural habits.
Such rhetorical technique was common among the Ancient Greeks, even in serious circumstances such as legal settings. By appealing to common sense and shared values, Gorgias’ Defence of Palamedes and Antiphon’s On the Murder of Herodes, for example, try to create common ground and sway opinions. The speaker creates a bond with the audience with what philosopher Christopher Tindale called a shared cognitive environment. It is only with an interlocutor who is credible and defines the world as you do that the logic finally starts to matter.
This is not just some idle speculation of the Ancient Greeks – arguing from common ground remains an important part of rhetorical theory to this day. Recent evidence from neurology further suggests that there is just cause for this: since the mid-1990s, Portuguese neurologist Antonio Damasio has argued that emotions and feelings play a vital role in our ability to reason well. While the possibility of pure rationality has been a matter of fierce philosophical debate, Damasio brings laboratory evidence to suggest that people with impaired emotions suffer from cognitive disabilities and poor decision-making too. In fact, the scientist goes as far as to say that music, art, religion, science, technology, economics, politics, justice, or moral philosophy would not be possible without feelings.
Returning to the present quagmire of political discussion, it seems improbable that people with strongly opposing views could sustain a useful conversation for any length of time unless there is a belief that both are working towards the same destination. An enthusiast of a Savarkarite idea of India, for example, would discover little in common with someone who believes in the Gandhian mould even though they both have an idea of India; they might both see each other as staunch enemies of the national project. Both sides not only believe that they will lose a central component of their ethical structure but also suspect that the other is indifferent to the importance attached to this value. Any disagreement on superficial issues like Article 370, the Citizenship Registry, or Sabarimala is bound to remain pointless until the philosophical differences underpinning those differences are resolved and some common ground is achieved. It is only when both sides realise some shared values and develop some sort of bond or affinity that they will become more receptive of each other’s concerns.
The same is true with Brexit, Trumpistan, or any other polarised climate. Valid or not, Brexiteers fear that a lenient immigration policy will result in a flood of people coming in who will change the very icons of Englishness that have lasted for centuries; similarly, Trumpistas are worried that the (in)famous melting pot that is American society will dilute and dissipate the very characteristics of the country created by their founding fathers.
How do we walk back from this cliff? Polarisation will not go away overnight – after all, we did not get here overnight either. Decades of a Progressive agenda that has viciously neglected the concerns of those who disagreed has ultimately resulted in this backlash, and the pendulum is bound to swing back hardest at first. Yet unless there are serious conversations starting from first principles and reaching common ground, the public sphere is only going to get shriller.