Friday, November 20, 2009

Our Logic In These Times

By Dharma Adhikari
Are we such a chattering nation that we value noise over sense?

With the current trend in reflexive reporting and a staggering growth in electronic outlets, chatter now comfortably finds its legitimate self in gossip-ridden coverage and chatty broadcast shows, dramatic in form, and emotive in appeal.

For the most part, these media outlets merely reflect our daily mores steeped in ambivalence. Take this: We will meet on Everest. Then this: We may not. And this: But we may still because we kind of think we may since we thought we might as well…

In the Maldives, the Cabinet delivered their promise when they met undersea. The world got what the headlines foreshadowed. It was an integral, well-coordinated message; the symbolic gesture fully converged with the news, pre- and post-event. The media proffered support for politics to meet policy. Some 2,688 km north from Maldives’s shores, we have become a farce, sending conflicting and self-contradictory messages, and in the process, eroding the original coherence and potential impact of the message, and of the symbolic act of meeting on Everest to save the world. Instead of our desire to become saviours, we are now in need of a saving grace.

Why speak out without prudence, if a ministerial juggernaut was not viable for our pristine glaciers? Why let politics blemish our public standing? Perhaps we simply wished to convey to Copenhagen our fragmented image, or wave that tattered pride: We also have Mt. Everest, you know; we could stand for it simply by standing on it!

Now, this may explain the traditional disconnect between Nepal and Mt. Everest (named, after all, after a British surveyor-general). In fact, there are many people on this planet who carry the impression that the august mountain summit is in Tibet or Colorado or Tanzania. When you don’t truly own it, in deeds and not just in words, you owe it to others. Our tourists know better. Too often, we like to go back and forth, vacillating between two enigmas, maybe or may be not. We find comfort in not knowing, in inconsistencies. We cherish uncertainty, for it is our only constant. In our pursuit of reality, imminent both in either/or, or neither/nor, we want to have the cake and eat it too.

We say and un-say, recant and reclaim, and eject and reject. To be or not to be is the same thing. We care less how our frequencies are perceived by the world or even absorbed at all. And this is true irrespective of who is in power at Singhadurbar. It is a narcissistic monologue feeding our innermost instincts to hear ourselves reverberate perpetually.

Of course, a country in a mess, in internal discord, cannot disassociate with a predominantly inward-bound consciousness. But a life of political transition also involves extra-individual pointers—an intersection of an assorted elite in power and the would-be powerful masses with a revolutionary zeal. In our fixation with self-professed specifics and procedures, we have lost sight of the broader picture: there are others talking too.

There is no one voice, although we need to figure out the underlying one for we cannot walk 75 different paths at the same time. Have we lost sight of the ifs, the buts, the whys and why nots, in between our two great enigmas?

The other day I got to hear some of the country’s finest minds discuss “our logic in these times.” A veteran journalist said that none of our leaders is enthusiastic enough to give up his or her preferred position. Statesmanship calls for cogitating over several options, giving up on the ones that don’t work freely, and finally (hopefully) deciding on one. Our leaders enter the field with no principle of accommodation, but only an option—to keep it for themselves, to give up momentarily and then to retake it only for it to be withheld again, and then again reclaimed; ad infinitum.

The latest back and forth: We will close the airport and declare autonomous provinces. No, we take them back. No we don’t. Something like that. The effect: Maybe, or maybe not. Little did we realise how much we lost because of those hasty statements that inundated yet other extensions of our chatter faculties—the Internet, blogs, and twitter accounts. Even the loudest of deeds reported in the media—and they are as loud because they have been reported by the media—has had a comical reverberation.

Another example from the Maoists—September: This national flag is a symbol of feudalism, we will replace it, we will. November: No, this is a symbol of nationalism, here we go; we rally around it as we take to the streets. What is the message here? Is the thesis the anti-thesis?

Are we essentially flawed in logic? Everyday examples are no different (We elect our mirror images). A colleague saw a man on a motorcycle recently, halting in the middle of the street, and shaking hands with a person on a bus nearby, through the window. A passerby asked this man to give him way, only to be reproached: Don’t you see; I am talking to my friend? Another friend cited a pedestrian who showed contempt for traffic laws: If the Western visitors can jump over the street railings, why not us? Banda is banda, for everyone; forget the time-honoured humanitarian laws exempting the sick or elderly or children. In a latest example, Ms. Begam said: Why? The CDO, who reached for my chin, deserved my slaps. These whimsical assertions entertain no alternatives. Yet, you are what you think you are not.

Some have commented freedom has gone loose in Nepal. Words do not have to be matched with consequences any longer. Truth is relative to your toehold; it has nothing to do with the common ground. To see this debasing of liberty, even Milton, the father of free-speech, might have been taken aback.

Often “our logic” is truly “our” logic. We diverge all too often during a deliberation only to follow the crowd at the last moment for no reason other than following the crowd. A lawmaker, who had challenged a bill all along, signed it not too long ago in Parliament, because, as he put it, “everyone signed”. Some others is to be held accountable for your actions. Otherwise it is an issue of context: Remember the Prachanda-gate video—a deliberate, personal lie is merely a fact of political brinkmanship, beyond your control.

In the West, they have a demeaning label for such actions. They call it ‘Hindu logic’ which refers to the way Indians and presumably Nepalis argue. This absurd theory points to nonsensical reasoning. Are we then truly the purveyors of that Hindu logic? Haven’t we been “contaminated” with alternative traditions, as we are profusely exposed to them in schools and colleges and via the mass media?

It should not be that way. Amartya Sen, in his eloquent book, The Argumentative Indian, vindicates the logical standing of ancient sub-continental consciousness, characterised by a tradition of open dialogue and debate. He makes distinction between three types of reasoning that flourished in the region throughout the ages. The first, vaad, is genuine dialogue, emphasising mutual understanding and a convergence of ideas between the opponents. The second, vivaad, is solely an effort to impose one’s point of view over the adversary’s. The third, vitandavaad, goes further; it offers no views of one’s own and merely seeks to trash any alternatives.

It is easy to see our present areas of preoccupation. And for the media, which has internalised ‘objectivity’ as its goal, what better alternative than to disclaim any views of their own and let the drama and conflict unfold?

Let me end this segment with a disclaimer: The first person in this essay is merely an adaptation of the collective refrain so often heard in Nepal. It does not necessarily refer to any homogenous entity.

Adhikari is a co-initiator of Media Foundation, a research and policy institute in Kathmandu (

Published in The Kathmandu Post, Nov 20, 2009.