My good friend CJ is a contrarian. Being contrarian perhaps explains why we are friends in the first place. My conversations with CJ usually give me a different perspective. Today we were on the phone and we ended up talking about my favourite Indian politician, Shri Narendra Modi. Narendrabhai, I told CJ, is the only principled Indian political leader of any standing in Indian politics.
CJ’s replied, “You may be right, if one were to judge him by what they say about him.”
“If by ‘they’ you mean the popular English press in India, I don’t think they say much that is complimentary about Narendrabhai. Usually it is innuendoes and unsupported assertions of guilt,” I said.
“Yes, I mean them. Their opposition to Modi adds credibility to the claim that Modi is seriously competent and good. It is what separates Modi from the crooked and the corrupt in India politics. When a confederacy of dunces consistently gets on someone’s case, it usually is a sign that the person is doing something good and the whole rotten applecart is in danger of being knocked over,” said CJ.
“They are not all dunces, though. Sometimes, not too frequently though,” I said, “Sometimes reasonable people write what appear to be balanced and insightful articles about Modi.”
I pointed him to Ashok Malik’s article in The Asian Age, “The Modi Business.”
“Malik is a clever man. It’s an interesting piece,” agreed CJ. “It appears to be balanced but uses a very clever device to damn him while appearing to be balanced.”
“Go on. I am listening,” I said.
“Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Someone asks you, ‘Spell yoke, as in to hitch two things.’ You reply, ‘y-o-k-e.’ Then he says, ‘Spell folk, as in people.’ You reply, ‘f-o-l-k.’ Then he says, ‘Spell the white of an egg.’ And you say, ‘y-o-l-k.’ He then points out, ‘You idiot, that’s the yellow of an egg, not the white.’ That’s cute, isn’t it?” said CJ.
“Yes. So?” I asked.
“It’s a neat little trick that uses a cognitive failing of the human mind. Our minds can be primed to go along a familiar route. We fill in details that are missing and assume things that are not necessarily true. It has survival value and usually serves us well. We don’t examine all the evidence carefully because it is cognitively costly. But sometimes that failing can be used deliberately to misdirect and mislead.
“Juxtapose two cases, however tenuously related they may be, and some of the features of one case can bleed into the other. Use the same brush for two different colors and you cannot avoid mixing them up on the canvass.
“Malik starts off with the case of an American politician who was rabidly segregationist. George Wallace (1919-1998) was well-known for his loathsome racist views, and his utterances and actions are in the public record. Later he had a change of heart and disavowed his earlier convictions. So the facts are that, one, the US south was segregated into two distinct social groups, the whites and the non-whites; two, Wallace was a controversial and charismatic politician; three, Wallace was a racist who had a change of heart; four, Wallace became a successful politician.
“George Wallace is naturally enough an unknown person to most Indian readers. So all this is new information to them. Novelty leads to cognitive load but also makes the person more suggestible. So the reader is sensitized and open to hearing more about evil minded racists who have had a change of heart.
“Malik follows up the Wallace case with Narendra Modi’s case. Why do that? Clearly to draw a parallel. The facts are, one, the conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims in India; two, Modi is a controversial and charismatic politician; three, . . . Well, actually that’s the missing part. Fact three in Wallace’s case was a racist’s change of heart. No evidence is presented about Modi being a racist or harbouring any ill-will towards any group of people. No evidence is presented that Modi had a change of heart. Instead, the reader is relied upon to fill in the gaps.
“The post-Godhra riots in which both Hindus and Muslims were killed have become, through repeated assertion, associated in the popular mind with Modi. The media has broadly followed the agenda set by the Congress and asserted on flimsy grounds that Modi is somehow responsible for the riots and that he masterminded the horror because he bears ill will towards Muslims. If you accept that lie about Modi, then it gives rise to two disjoint possibilities — either he has a change of heart and repents for his sins, or he continues to be a bad guy. There is no third possibility: that Modi never had any animosity towards Muslims and therefore does not have to have a change of heart on that matter.
“But first presenting the story about the racist Wallace who did have a change of heart and then following it up with Modi’s case makes you wonder. The technique is effective and therefore often used. Truth though innuendos and assertions. Opinions expressed repeatedly morph into “facts” in the average mind. Assert something without proof, and repeat the assertion often enough that it spread through contagion and becomes general knowledge. Then rely on that general knowledge to provide the fillers needed for making one’s case.
“Malik correctly reports that Wallace had a change of heart. And then the attention shifts to Modi, the SIT, and Modi’s detractors. Modi may be undergoing a convenient change of heart. Or maybe he’s not. Or maybe Modi is just too clever. Maybe this or maybe that. All that is up for grabs. But by introducing Wallace, Malik essentially poisons the well and whatever you draw from it, you cannot get away from the suspicion that Modi hostile toward Muslims, maybe perhaps something like Wallace was toward blacks,” CJ said.
“I was puzzled why Malik had to drag in Wallace at the start of the piece,” I said.
“Innuendos and unsupported assertion works wonders in the popular mind,” CJ said. “And it works all the time. It is used to dress up charlatans as paragons of virtue, and it is used to needlessly demonize perfectly ordinary people. Mother Teresa was demonstrably a terrible person but got painted as a saint. Modi gets the exact opposite treatment. The media has its own agenda and people are generally too busy or too lazy to think a bit about what’s being reported.”
“You know, CJ,” I said, “I came across an interesting example of a politician showing up the bias of a media person. It was a Barney Frank interview, the US Congressman. Here’s how it goes:
Interviewer: You’ve long argued for the decriminalization of marijuana. Do you smoke weed?
Barney Frank: No.
Interviewer: Why not?
Barney Frank: Why do you ask a question, then act surprised when I give an answer? Do you think I lie to people?
Interviewer: I thought you might explain why you support decriminalizing it but don’t smoke it.
Barney Frank: Do you think I’ve ever had an abortion?
“That’s a nice example of how with just a few words, Frank exposed the interviewer’s illogic and bias,” I said.
“Reading about Narendra Modi in the popular English media brings to mind Thomas Jefferson’s words, although he was talking about Christian religion-inspired cruelty. He said it makes one half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. In India, it should be said that this distinction cannot be made since broadly the English media and its consumers are guilty of foolishness and hypocrisy simultaneously,” CJ said.
“Alright, CJ. Good talking to you. Now I should let you go since I have stuff to write. I am writing a long series on why stealing lies at the foundation of India’s failure to develop. You should read it.”
“OK, will do. Bye,” said CJ and thus ended our conversation.