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Different Lenses for different folks: How our biases determine what we see

Monday, 9 June 2014 - 6:57pm IST | Agency: dna

A Muslim friend wrote this morning to ask my opinion on the murder of a young man in Pune. I shared with her my consistent opinion on such matters-that it was an outrageous act and that the perpetrators should be dealt with severely. There should be zero tolerance for bad behaviour, irrespective of the religion, ethnicity or gender of the perpetrator or victim.

Then I moved on to other things and told her about my anguish over the series of rapes in Uttar Pradesh and the increasing evidence of political rapes in West Bengal.

However, when I sat to reflect on our conversation later, I realized how different our concerns were. I was obsessing over the rapes and she was thinking about the incident in Pune. I also realized that while I may have answered her stated question, I had perhaps not addressed the underlying fear implied in that question. 

My friend is an educated, rational, relatively pro-Modi person. Yet, she went out of her way and sought me out on this particular issue. Clearly something had worried her. Perhaps the narrative that BJP was anti-minorities, which has been painstakingly built by some quarters, had taken hold unconsciously? Perhaps she was looking for some reassurance that her world was still safe? I don’t know the answers, for in my haste to share my own concerns, I had failed to probe deeper.

I have always believed that if a fear exists, irrespective of the cause, it needs to be addressed at some point of time. Ignoring, minimizing or dismissing the fear is not going to help anyone. So I write this article for my friend, and all others who may have similar misgivings. Please note that I am not speaking for any political party. Nor do I presume to speak as a Hindu representative, for my religion is far too diverse. I share my view with my compatriots as an Indian.

Understanding how we think:

In order to deconstruct any emotion or strong feelings, we have to understand our thought process. We need to realize that our thoughts govern our feelings and subsequent actions. By changing the framework of thinking , we can change our feelings. For instance, if we think that rape is an unacceptable crime, we will be angry about every rape and will respond by demanding action. However, if we think that it can be justified under certain circumstances, our feelings and response will vary accordingly.

Similarly, if we think that that our ethnicity makes us vulnerable to violence, we will feel fearful and insecure. We might then respond by banding together with other people of the same community, irrespective of other differences, and push back. Conversely, if we think violence and intolerance is a rising trend in general, we will not feel targeted in isolation and our reaction will be different. 

Most of us tend to believe that our thoughts and opinions are based on a rational interpretation of facts. In reality, we often seek and interpret information that conforms to our preconceived notions or hypothesis. We actively search for examples that support our view and block evidence to the contrary. This kind of selective thinking is known as “confirmation bias”. Even the most rational among us fall prey to it at some point of time. An important aspect of confirmation bias is that once an idea has taken hold, it often persists long after there is compelling evidence to contrary.

Challenging thoughts with evidence:

At this point, some of you might be wondering why I am talking about about confirmation bias when the original discussion was about the reaction to a murder? Well, let me now go back to the Pune case and illustrate how confirmation biases works. 

We know that there is a group of people who are averse to Modi and the Sangh Parivar. This group feared that Modi’s ascension would lead to the suppression of minorities, among other things. Therefore, out of the many stories reported daily, they latched on to this particular case, as it seemed to validate their view. They implied that the Sangh Parivar was responsible. They also suggested it was somehow Modi’s fault and he should answer for it.

However, dispassionate analysis would show that all groups calling themselves Hindu organizations are not a part of the Sangh. The crime was committed by a bunch of delinquent goons who need to be treated as such.

It does not seem to matter to those demanding a personal statement that Prime Minister Modi had nothing to do with the case. Maharashtra, where this incident occurred, is not a BJP ruled state and day-to-day law and order is a state subject; the central government can only intervene in times of extreme crisis. As a person on social media explained - imagine if exactly the same case had occurred a month ago in Surat. Who would you have sought answers from: Narendra Modi or Manmohan Singh? Food for thought, isn’t it?

The interesting thing is that the same group that demands a statement from the Prime Minister has systematically glossed over many pieces of information that did not fit their narrative. For instance, in Kerala, a radical Muslim group chopped off a Christian professor’s hand for alleged “blasphemy” in 20104.  Far from protecting him, his university hounded him and his wife was driven to committed suicide. There is no outrage over the plight of the family.

The same state saw a series of political murders in recent years. This includes the murder of Vinod Kumar, a 28-year-old BJP in December 2013. Kerala is a Congress ruled state and the case has been forgotten.

In the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, many BJP leaders have been killed over the past year and the state general secretary V. Ramesh was viscously hacked to death. AIADMK is the ruling party in the state. These cases too have been forgotten.

In West Bengal, RSS volunteers and BJP workers have been systematically attacked and killed for their political views. West Bengal is a Trinamool Congress ruled state. Most people would not have even heard of these cases. 

Most recently, BJP leader Vijay Pandit was shot dead in Noida10. Uttar Pradesh is a Samajwadi Party ruled state. At least in this instance, the case has been reported more widely, and will hopefully not be forgotten like the others. 

All this data is available to everyone. Yet, it did not seem to register with the aforementioned group. However, it is likely that BJP workers had noted this information and interpreted it as a case of systematic war against their cadres. Hindu activists probably saw it as a conspiracy against Hindus across India. Similarly, my friend specifically zeroed in on the Pune incident, as it seemed to confirm her fears of attacks against minorities. 

Can you see how, from a given pool of information, news can be picked up selectively by different groups and interpreted in different ways? Since we know that our thinking process is not always rational, should we not should seek evidence before taking positions on important issue? Must we not question if our view is coloured by our confirmation bias or if it is supported by facts?

The point of this article is not to minimize the horror of what happened in Pune in any way. It is merely an appeal to all Indians, across religions and ideologies, to question, challenge and reject one-sided narratives. We have to work together to delink politics from socio-religious profiling and stereotyping. We owe this to ourselves. More importantly, we owe this to the younger generation-our inheritors-who still remain relatively uncontaminated by the old politics of divisiveness.