Driving down the moderated way

There’s a really yucky scene in the really yucky movie based on the half-yucky book Atlas Shrugged. A copper-mining tycoon who blew up his own mines says in a conversation with his railroad-tycoon friend, “They say money is the root of all evil. So I wanted to stop being evil.” As a punchline, its self-confidence is baffling – but as a line, it’s pretty much okay because it expresses a valid, if somewhat entitled, sentiment.

Ayn Rand’s book did a fine job of glamourising the temptation to disengage from public life and just do what one felt was right – the same temptation that assails everyone who engages with the people en masse these days. It’s the flavour of the times. But neither the books nor the movies they “inspired” managed to shed the sheen of privilege accompanying these acts, and fairly so. That’s impossible: the only way to effect meaningful change, especially in unequal societies, is to engage with the public. And to engage with the public often means you don enough psychological armour to survive battle with Jean Grey – or be in a position where you’re using your privilege to remain insulated from the backlash.

I confront the same desire on a semi-regular basis, and I’ve written about this on multiple occasions (this is the definitive take). Earlier this week, I experienced it in a slightly different form.

The Indian Science Congress concluded on January 7, after four days of good and bad talks about this or that topic in science. The Wire, with me at the wheel, went straight for the jugular and ran two articles critical of the congress and its organisation. Many commented on Twitter as a result that we might’ve been “too critical” of the event and that it was unfair that we didn’t discuss the positives. So far, so fine: we did go for the jugular, but in our defence (i) limited resources so we went for the most newsworthy items, and (ii) we published some positive stories from the congress syndicated by India Science Wire (and one by the PSA as well). But this isn’t the point.

The point arose when The Print published an article on January 8 that many people called “balanced”. The problem here – as with most of my peeves – is one of labels. The use of the term ‘balanced’ suggests that the collective mind of those readers lying on other parts of the political spectrum than my own (hereafter ‘readers’ or ‘audience’) possesses an implicit threshold for the amount of criticism a piece can carry before it becomes imbalanced, as well as the expectation that criticism must be adjusted against positive takeaways as well. In other words, a piece that’s only critical of an event cannot also be fair, or legitimate.

It bothers me that this particular characterisation itself flies in the face of fairness. Why can’t criticism be judged only on its own merit? I do recognise a need to massage the reader’s beliefs and morals first, and to explicitly acknowledge – even though it’s not really necessary – that I’ve paid attention to all aspects of the event/item before I decided to zero in on the broken parts. At the same time, and as in Atlas Shrugged, doing so hurts. The reception to your article doesn’t change: it’s just criticism about one less thing. And you’re not taken more seriously either, almost as if it’s your duty to pad your arguments up that way.

An obvious question arises here: ‘Why do you care about this section of the audience?’ Because insofar as we’re trying to change something, and the government won’t pay attention – or give that away even if it is – this is the section of the audience that you’re using as a proxy, hoping that if its members receive it well, the establishment that they support will too. Granted, we’re addressing a political group here that has (apparently willingly) ceded a portion of its politics to pseudoscience, majoritarianism and zealotry. But at the same time, your repeated recourse to reason isn’t going to make sense if you don’t assume that the readers you’re appealing to are, in fact, reasonable.

The second problem that arises through all of this is that temptation. Your readers (particularly those whose pro-government views you can’t really discount from your judgment) call the moderate pieces “balanced” and the critical pieces “biased”. However, you don’t want to be known as the biased one! So you get back at the wheel and steer yourself gently in their direction.

This is more than about seeking approval; that’s a personality flaw. Here, it’s more the case of writing for a tough crowd – one that doesn’t believe it’s due as much criticism as it receives, and perceives anything more than the self-prescribed limit to be overkill. But even as you’re driving, you start to wonder if it’s worth it. Because “dig in and engage,” they say. “Get into the sewers and clean it yourself,” they say. What they don’t utter a peep about is that you can clean the place up all you won’t, people aren’t going to stop filling it up with crud again.

As someone once told me, “If the government has decided it wants to do something, you guys,” the science journalists, “can talk about it all you want, I don’t think it’s going to change the government’s mind.” True, but not something you’re prepared to acknowledge often because it grinds against hope and, most importantly, the belief that you’re doing the right thing. Nonetheless, though words haven’t brought themselves to bear on the ‘circumstantial legitimacy of criticism’ question yet, I can hear them tolling on the horizon.

This is all part of the more general, overarching view that echo chambers are not good for you, which is also a very theoretical view. Echo chambers are hard to break out of for two reasons. One is the very well-known fact that we’re all comfortable in the midst of news and opinions that reinforce our beliefs. The second is the less well-known condition where those on the ‘opposite’ side aren’t nice to you at all. It isn’t just a case of the truth being bitter, if at all, but also one of its purveyors being really mean to you. It’s comfy inside and it’s quite terrible outside.