I’m going to start this article with a controversial statement: Neutrality, of any kind, is overrated. It does not exist, and anybody claiming to maintain equipoise in all matters of importance, is either outright lying, or a character straight out of Christian Bale’s Equilibrium. Since we barely see any Gun-Kata in any real life, the personal feeling of this author veers more to the first possibility. This article will try and argue why sensible public discourse should not include neutrality as a standard, and at the same time point out how that is not necessarily a deal-breaker when it comes to having healthy debates.
The formation of opinions:
To think that humans form opinions in a vacuum is largely false. Ultimately, your opinion towards any particular issue is largely a product of the circumstances of your birth and your family, your education, your access to information, your exposure to science and religion, your economic and social circumstances; and many more such parameters. Indeed, the variables are so large that it’s largely impossible to predict how a person turns out, and why they have a certain opinion on something in that particular manner. To thus claim that one can some how put aside their entire life experiences while making statements on the human condition, is either being incredibly naive or supremely hypocritical. It is absolutely hysterical, at least to this author, when some opinion makers (especially in India) are related to people in Govt., were part of the youth wing of a particular political party, or downright members in that party; and still take the sanctimonious stand that they are somehow ‘neutral’ and can make an unbiased opinion.
Neutrality vs. Objectivity:
Does the lack of neutrality mean the end of sensible political discourse? No, absolutely not. Whilst neutrality is indeed overrated, objectivity is not. Despite being synonymous for all practical purposes, there is a subtle difference between the two words. Objectivity is based on the express premise that one’s decision/opinion is expressly based on empirical evidence. Indeed, this is the fundamental premise that all credible natural scientists work with. They might have personal feelings about how a certain phenomenon works, but unless there’s statistically significant evidence to back this claim, they refrain from making statements in support of this claim, at least in public. This night vs. day, black vs. white distinction is however easier said than done when it comes to the social sciences. Unlike the natural sciences which is based purely on empirical evidence, making statements on the human condition is also based to a large extent on one’s personal feelings and prejudices, and in most cases is very subjective in its interpretation. This is fundamentally the reason why one has left and right-leaning economists and historians, both in the mainstream, and no particular group is discredited for simply leaning towards one side or the other. Additionally, unlike the natural sciences, qualifications and training is not necessarily asked of someone who wishes to comment on the human condition as it affects most of us on a direct, personal level on a very realistic time-scale, and thus everyone has an opinion on it, however crude or sophisticated.
Improving the standard of public discourse:
The quality of public discourse in general should be judged on the quality of the arguments made and not the inherent biases of the author. This can however only be done, if one makes these biases explicitly clear right when the opinion-piece begins, so that the reader or the viewer approaches the piece with a dose of healthy skepticism. This is a much better alternative to simply feigning equipoise when none exists. Interestingly, one profession has been doing this for centuries now, and democratic societies have largely accepted this without questioning it too much. The legal profession works with the intrinsic assumption that lawyers are biased towards their client (State or individual/corporation), and neutrality is not a metric that they are judged upon while they make their arguments. Ultimately, the final judgement (assuming the judge is not biased, and the judicial process follows the rules and so on), is based solely on the evidence at hand, and the strength of one’s narrative which the lawyer puts up, that wins the case for their client.The best way to have healthy public discourses would be to hold our journalists and opinion-makers to a similar standard. Instead of expecting them to be neutral when it comes to expressing their opinion, they should be asked to be transparent with respect to any biases, prejudices, conflicts of interest (not simply of the monetary kind) that could potentially influence and shape their opinion. While expecting the Indian media to have the same levels of transparency as in many Western countries is probably out of the question, explicit declarations such as these from journalists should be the norm rather than the exception. This will ensure that public discourse will be spent more on discussing the strength of the arguments made rather than one’s motives, as the average reader/viewer’s skepticism radar is on full-alert. Interestingly, there is at least one state where one can study the influence of having skewed, yet multi-polar narratives. Tamil Nadu is one of the few states in India where almost all political parties have mainstream TV channels and newspapers, that serve as quasi-official mouthpieces of their respective political parties. The average citizen doesn’t bother with the question of neutrality as it simply does not exist. This strange setup however ensures that people get multiple perspectives to the same issue and are then left to their own devices to come to their own conclusions. Indeed, anecdotal evidence of this author suggests, that people in Tamil Nadu have some of the strongest political acumen in India, and is reflected in the fact that it’s probably the only place where a few roadside tea-shops have signs explicitly stating that the discussion of politics is simply not allowed, lest it clogs the benches for a long at the very least, or it leads to fistfights at its worst. This author is of course not suggesting that all media houses have to be owned by political parties, but if they indeed do have some connections, they must come clean, especially if the connection is familial.
To wrap it with a bow:
At the end of the day it’s absolutely fine to be biased towards a political party or ideology, so long as it’s not blatantly bellicose, and exists with the express purpose of causing pain and suffering to a section of people. You are not neutral, neither am I, nor is anyone else. If a platform is explicitly stating their political leaning, judge their opinions on the strength of their arguments. Despite the arguments in this article if you would still like to believe that someone can be absolutely mathematical and detached when commenting on social issues, I would like to meet them. They are probably proponents of Gun-Kata, and I think I could use a few lessons.