The better angels of our nature

We live in polarised times. It leaves no room for middle ground. Either you’re good or bad. There is no room for nuance or discourse. What a pity!

Charles Assisi

[Via pxhere, under CC0 Public Domain]

This dispatch is prompted on the back of multiple questions playing in the back of my mind, conversations with many people and observing the nature of current discourses—which, to put it mildly, is rabid.

  • To eat meat is bad.
  • Aadhaar, a universal identity (UID) being implemented in India, is bad because it is a tool that can be used to infringe upon privacy.
  • All automobiles that run on fossil fuels like petrol and diesel are bad because they contribute to global warming. We must, instead, shift to more contemporary systems like electric vehicles.

And so on and so forth.

There seems to be no middle ground. Just that I may find some perspective, I chanced upon an interesting study posted by my friend Dipayan Baishya on his Twitter handle. Baishya is a member of the senior team at the Future Group headed by Kishore Biyani.

That image offers much food for thought on why the nature of conversations in contemporary discourse is so rabid. Everybody believes they are right and decline to engage with each other. Why does it have to be that way? This is a question I have often asked Arun Maira, former chairman of BCG India and member of the erstwhile Planning Commission. I often turn to him for advice when conflicted. And I felt compelled to ask this of him again last week.

As always, his answers (or pointers to where the answers may lie) were thoughtful ones. Allow me to paraphrase some takeaways around what I picked up after listening to him—all of which I will place in the public domain at some point. There are, he said, three kinds of questions, of which two dominate the current narrative and perhaps explain many conflicts in our discourses.

  • The first masquerades as a question, but is actually an opinion. We are witnesses to this on prime-time television every evening where the star anchor is judge, jury and executioner. The nature of the “discourse”, if you may want to call it that, goes like this: “I think Pakistan must be bombed (or some such thing). What do you think?”

“Experts” from inconsequential “think-tanks” echo the anchor’s views. Guests who disagree are outshouted and the number of tweets on social media around the theme is the barometer by which the popularity of this farce is measured.

  • The second kind of so-called “question” is one that contains a lot of information embedded in it—usually as facts bolstered with numbers for credibility. There can be no answers possible here. Because it is not a “question” in the first instance. You can only agree with the facts by adding some trivia to it. Or you may disagree with the evidence. To that end, though, you must either provide more information or evidence to the contrary—or outshout the opponent. If there is a consensus on the facts, the outcome is an agreement. Else, a debate and common ground is impossible to find.
  • So where do questions exist in our current narratives? And assuming they exist, do any inquires follow those questions? Do all questions have to be based on numbers and facts? Is it possible to follow a hunch? Why is it we insist that when asked a question, we think it incumbent the answers be known? Is it possible we lack the humility to admit “I don’t know”? Why, for instance, does a child have grace and innocence to ask wide-eyed questions that insist on a thoughtful response? By way of example, last night, my little girl who is in Senior KG asked me why I insist she brush her teeth in the morning and at night. I explained as simply as I could. After listening to me, she extrapolated that it may be a good idea to brush her teeth thrice then—after she gets back from school as well. Logically, she was right. But I had to think up some interesting way to tell that inquisitive mind what excessive brushing could do to her enamel. Who knows what questions that may trigger in her mind?

In her own way, she was testing the limits of my knowledge. She often does that. I’m learning the hard and gentle way that I am better off acknowledging gracefully to her I don’t know all that answers. And that we may have a lot more fun in mutually exploring where pointers to the answer may lie.

After thinking about it for a while and poring over my bookmarks, I revisited The Rational Optimist, a blog maintained by one of my favourite science writers Matt Ridley. One of his posts on meat consumption is something that has me deeply conflicted.

How does my stated abhorrence of violence fit in with my dietary preference for meat over all other forms of food? Ridley makes an interesting observation. That I need not feel conflicted. And that how I feel may just be a part of evolution. “….the trend of history is clear, that one day in the future people may well look back on the rearing of animals for slaughter as barbaric. The number of animals killed for food each year—about 60 billion chickens, 1.5 billion pigs, a billion sheep and goats and 300 million cows—continues to rise.

“Yet perhaps the early signs of (Steven) Pinker’s coming change are already there: rising vegetarianism, growing disapproval of factory farming, boycotts of foie gras, opposition to hunting, more emphasis on the ethical treatment of farm animals. History has a way of driving these trends inexorably forwards, without anybody being in charge of them.”

When I think about it, Ridley has a point. There was a time when I used to crave my visits to Europe just so I may get the perfect foie gras. A decade down the line though and on the back of much understanding on what it takes create the perfect foie gras, I cannot bring myself to consume it. I had never imagined this day would come.

This raises another issue. Technology is hurtling at an unforeseen pace. Researchers are working to create synthetic meat. Can synthetic meat be considered as “living creatures”? It is grown in a petri dish and comprises the same tissues as other “living creatures”, but when cut and diced, will it feel anguish and pain? How will we know? Is synthetic meat vegetarian? Or does it violate the spiritual principles as espoused over the millennia?

Intriguingly, in Ridley’s research, when this question is asked of those who are now avowed vegetarians, they are open to consuming synthetic meat. The ones who are conflicted are meat eaters like me. Quite honestly, I don’t know what to make of it. That said, I continue to eat meat. And to console my conflicted soul, I often take refuge in the profile of what a meat eating Indian looks like as described by Manas Chakraborty, whom I have always known as the quiet and gentle Manas-da, with a sense of self-deprecatory humour that is uniquely his.

Even as I write this, the irony is difficult to miss. How much more stupid and hollow can I possibly get? On the one hand, here I am, placing evidence that people with different beliefs don’t talk to each other; wondering about the philosophical nature of what kind of questions ought to be asked; and staring at myself with an accusatory eye for consuming meat and contributing to violence when I profess non-violence as my way of life.

Then on the other hand, I am a petrol head who loves fast cars, feels no guilt at zipping around the city in a turbo-charged car that I own and drive with much pride, and have felt no moral compunctions while at it. Whatever is the matter with me? Ought I not feel guilty? Why haven’t I turned to public transport and alternative fuels? In fact, I have been questioned on this.

I have often thought of making the switch from the so-called petrol guzzler to something that has a lower carbon footprint. That I haven’t done anything about it is another matter altogether. I don’t know why—perhaps it was someplace in between conversing with Maira who urged that we listen to as many voices as we possibly could and reading another post on electric cars by Matt Ridley—I felt compelled to call Adil Jal Darukhanawala. A veteran journalist, automobile historian, accomplished rally driver, and somebody who keeps a hawk’s eye on all technologies in the automotive space, he is an old friend as well.

“How am I supposed to look at the larger picture on where the truth may lie when it comes to automobiles?” I asked him.

Adil made some very interesting arguments that reinforced Ridley’s points and drove home the value of Maira’s advice that we listen to multiple voices whom we may have chosen to shut out because of our biases.

1. Electric cars may sound good on paper. But in a big country like India, as things are, it is not feasible. The blame for this lies at the government’s door. This is because to implement a policy, you need a vision, a plan, and a clear deadline. Minus all these, what we hear is hype to satiate popular public sentiment and gullible clowns like me.

2. “Have you,” Adil asked me, “thought of a few things?” Bharat Stage IV (BS IV) fuel was promised to be made available in 2010; it is still not available nationwide in 2017. Yet the government has gone ahead and made a commitment to transition to BS VI fuel standards by 2020. This means, oil refineries will have to invest Rs 80,000 crore over the next three years. But oil refineries in India are owned by the government and haven’t met any deadline in the past. What evidence is there to suggest they will meet these stiff deadlines? What if this Rs 80,000 crore were invested in building roads instead? Isn’t that the government’s primary role? Why does it have to run fuel refineries?

3. India has gone ahead and made public its intent that only electric cars will be sold in the country by 2030. But there are multiple issues. For instance France, which can fit into a corner of India, has set itself a deadline for 2040. The UK has a deadline for 2050.

Why have they set these distant deadlines? Because it is not just about building electric vehicles. While the technology itself has been around for years, to create the infrastructure to support it—like roads—will take years to build out even as the technology refines itself. And as Ridley has eloquently pointed out, no government would want to lock itself into the wrong technology.

I probed Adil on this. He was on the same page as Ridely. “Electricity is still generated from coal and gas. So, if we get electric cars into India in a big way, all we’re doing is shifting the carbon emission footprint from the city to the countryside. Yes, I know that there is a ‘seemingly’ massive thrust on solar and wind. But this is a fraction of the sheer numbers needed to move the transport infrastructure. And then there is the absolute lack of battery recycling and disposal technology. If this one important detail isn't met from inception, the environmental impact would be larger than that caused by tail pipe emissions and in far lesser time than anything seen earlier.”

4. For good measure, he added some more nuggets: Even as these technologies are evolving, the carbon footprint of automobiles powered by conventional fuels have gone down dramatically. And you need fuel bunks as well at as many places on the roads you build to deliver the fuel before any automobile can run seamlessly on a highway and people come to trust it.

Minus that, we will continue to have pile ups of all kinds, whatever it is we transition to. By way of example, he talks about CNG as the only fuel any public transport vehicle in a city like Mumbai or Delhi can use. It sounds good on paper. But there aren’t enough places to service the number of vehicles on the road. So, at the end of a hard day’s work, the people who drive these vehicles have to line up for hours on end to refuel their tanks. They get no rest. But they have no choice. They’re poor. How do you impute their loss in time into a metric called the GDP?

Adil and I were on the phone and the theme until an airline official came looking frantically. He was the last man to board.

It was late in the night and time to call it a day. I had to get out early. I’d promised an “agent” I’d get to the Regional Transport Office (RTO) early to get a copy of my misplaced driving licence. But because I don’t like to sleep without having read a few pages, I looked up how the Digilocker initiative faring. It is part of IndiaStack and linked to this animal called Aadhaar that has everyone in a frenzy.

Well well! Turns out, the Mumbai RTO is among the agencies that has gone digital. What it means is that if I have a UID, or the much dreaded Aadhaar, I can link it to the Mumbai RTO. If the records match, the agency will issue me a digital copy of my licence. No questions asked, no fees to be paid, no touts to be dealt with, no queues to stand in, no appointments to seek, no printouts to take. And best of all, I store it on any device of my choice.

But if you’ve made up your mind that my privacy is compromised and that Project Aadhaar, UID and IndiaStack are evil entities being deployed for surveillance, I guess there is no conversation we can have or common ground that we can meet on.

I can only hope that may the better angels of our nature prevail and lead us to the path of a sane conversation. That we have a sane tomorrow. For the sake of the generations to come.

(This is a mildly modified version of an article first published in Mint on Sunday)

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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