Debates and the public

Friday, 20 December 2013 - 9:38am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Mindless arguments in electronic media miss the original purpose behind the art of dialogue.

There is a surfeit of public ‘debates’ on TV today, especially with the election season on now.

Every channel seems to believe that it is enough to get a representation of people from different parties for these debates. Unfortunately, these debates have become mindless reassertions of party positions. In some cases, these debates are watched more as a comedy theatrical performance than as a serious debate.

But what constitutes a serious debate? It might be of interest to note that the classification of debates is among the first tasks of ancient philosophy. Every Indian philosophical system began with an emphasis on debates. There were many types of debates discussed in these systems; common among them was the classification into debates that are used to learn, teach and communicate, and those that are primarily used to demolish an opponent’s argument and sometimes the opponent also!  Early Greek philosophy also begins with similar classifications of debates.

There is something special about the idea of debate itself. First of all, debates allow the possibility of imagining a public where one can discuss an idea from different perspectives. Along with debate, we need the capacity for independent thinking. When these two operate together, there is a genuine possibility of a public debate and ‘social thinking’.  As much as voting, we can perhaps call these characteristics the fundamentals of democracy.

The public space is an ‘open’ space in the best sense of the term. It is one which is sensitive to the beliefs and opinions of others. The idea of public space (or ‘public sphere’ as conceptualized by the German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas) needs the presence of many public institutions, which allow, both formally and informally, as in clubs and coffee houses, a space for dialogue and disagreement which can be negotiated through reason. The TV debates today do not seem to be contributing to any meaningful public space of ideas and opinions.  

While many philosophers have used reason as a primary category of modernity and the public sphere, I would like to emphasise on empathy in the context of the public space. It is far easier to use ‘reason’ than to have empathy in reacting and responding to others, particularly those who have opinions which are different from ours. Watching the public debates on our TV channels should make us wary of the use to which reason and arguments are put since arguments seem to be used only for making points and not for thinking about the ethical consequences of those points.

The best sense of the public is actually to be found in our public broadcast systems. While private TV channels have literally drowned out the voice of Doordarshan (DD), they do not have the public consciousness of the latter. While criticisms of DD abound, some of them justified, we should not forget that DD functions in the true spirit of the public, namely, generating space and time for many alternative expressions.

There are some obvious differences between DD and the private channels. Using the problematic claim that viewers’ interests dictate programming, programmes on classical  or folk music and dance are not available on these private channels. There are no meaningful talk shows on topics that are of great interest to a variety of people. Private TV has become a continuous, mindless (re)production of puerile ‘entertainment’. It is only DD that silently and steadfastly continues to show programmes from around the country, programmes that include representations of different forms ranging from folk music, classical music, ghazals, poetry reading and so on. Once, in one of the channels of DD, I was delighted to stumble upon a wonderful production of Chandralekha’s Lilavati, which I later learnt was the only copy of that choreography.

What is true for private TV channels is also true for private radio stations. The FM radio stations primarily play film songs throughout the day. In this area of Mangalore and Udupi, this means that one can only listen to Kannada and Hindi film songs, with an excessive emphasis on new film songs.  These songs are played without mentioning who the singers are, who the composer was and so on. Not only is this a violation of basic norms of acknowledgement, but it is also a practice that one would not see in the public sphere, as best embodied by the many stations of All India Radio.

With all their faults, particularly in production values, Doordarshan and All India Radio embody the best notion of the public. True, they may not be as flashy or loud as private TV and radio channels but they capture the spirit of the ordinary public in their openness to a variety of different art forms and expressions independent of whether ‘people’ are ‘interested’ in them or not. They do not shout nor do they act as if the world is going to end in the next five minutes.

Really, being a part of the public is like this: having to put up with different ‘speeds’ of its people, some who walk slow and some who perpetually rush, some who think carefully and slowly as against some who think like they calculate, some who shout out their opinions without having thought of the ramifications and some who are more subdued and want to find space for different voices to be heard together. This is really the public space, a space not just for reason or articulation, a space not defined by how loud we are, but defined by empathy towards others who are unlike us and who differ from our beliefs. It is a space for shared thinking. This is the space we need for our political debates and for political action.

The author is director of the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University

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