Monday, April 22, 2019

Fact check, maybe?

The world has changed over the last 5 years. The world today feels more polarized and divided, than it has in recent history. There are deep-seated divisions in our society, which come to the fore every day in the form of resentment, biases, abuse and hatred.

But in the race to form, express and defend opinions, we have forgotten the importance of something integral that helps us form opinions: Facts.


"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."         -Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Facts do not belong to a political party, a social position, a religious group or a country. Facts are universal, substantiated, proven with evidence, and grounded in truth. Quite simply, facts are the truth.

We do not have to agree on our beliefs and opinions, but we must ascribe to the same facts. Facts form one of the tentpoles of a society. While our scientific and industrial prowess separates us from other living organisms, our disdain for antithetical facts tears apart millennia of progress.

Facts that do not conform to our opinions may be uncomfortable, and our immediate instinct often is to defend our opinions, but that doesn't turn facts into fable.

The world has changed over the last 5 years. Social media has given all of us a voice to share and connect, but also given the worst elements among us a platform to showcase their anger. In times of fake news, it is all the more important that facts take precedence. While there is enough information to suit any line opinion one may have, sorting fact from fiction sometimes feels like looking for a needle in a haystack. But isn't that also why we must?

Taking claims put forth by politicians with a grain of salt, becomes even more important in a polarizing atmosphere that seeks to divide to earn votes. It is easy to believe lies, which is why, 'A lie will go round the world while truth is putting its boots on.' (C. H. Spurgeon, not Mark Twain or Winston Churchill. Fact check.)

Speaking truth to power remains one of the most important adages of a citizenry that desires to keep their democratic governments in check. And truth must be rooted in facts, always.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Opinions Matter.

I have strong opinions. But I also have weak opinions, and at times, no opinion. These opinions have defined actions I have taken at different times of life. Some pleasant, some terrible. The beauty, though, of these actions has been that they have been mine and I have lived with them, learnt from them and course-corrected. I have abandoned beliefs I have held for decades within minutes, and I have been reaffirmed of my opinions despite days of disagreements.

Our lives may be the results of our actions, but our actions are certainly a result of our opinions. These opinions stem from a variety of places. They include things we have learnt while growing up, things we fear, things we have read, things we have heard, things we have endorsed to fit in, and things that we adopt to rebel. More often than not, these things are fleeting, but the opinions that form from them, are not.

What bothers me the most, though, is the reluctance we tend to have to listen to conflicting or contradictory opinions. This reluctance stems in multiple forms and has detrimental effects not just to relationships but also to the individuals involved in the conversations. The suppressed opinions force people to follow the herd instead of taking the time to think and form their own opinions.

And it is important to understand where we all come from. After all, these opinions that we have have influenced not just our actions but our life. These opinions have indirectly shaped who we are, and having someone question the very basis of our lives certainly isn't a pleasant prospect. Lesser so when that person plays a significant role in your life. But isn't that also the very reason we should pause and listen?

The way I see it, shared opinions are but a gateway to another person's thought process. Someone sharing their opinions allows us to step into their shoes and look at the world from their eyes. An opinion is but an opportunity for initiating a dialog within ourselves. And rejecting an opinion without fully considering it is us blatantly stealing that precious opportunity from ourselves.

This conversation began as a previous post that talks about the importance of identifying who we are, and that individuality is simply a reflection of opinions we have at that given time. This fluid nature of individuality thus screams why we should be more receptive to objecting opinions, not less.

I have strong opinions. We all do. That is the beauty and curse, of this ever-connected world of ours. The internet that connects us to the rest of the world can also push us down an echo chamber of affirmative opinions. Self-gratification through likes is easy; letting skeptics put you through the paces in the comments on your strongest beliefs is not.

If we refuse to form and change our opinions, aren't we just a species of sheep?

Friday, December 1, 2017

Individuality.

Until a couple of years ago, my short temper was one of my biggest regrets and an understood weakness. A lot of times when I got angry over a difference of opinion, my mother would share with me a metaphor: "When the 5 fingers on our hands are different, why do we expect others in the world to be just like us?" That, or the daily recitation of the Indian National Pledge in school that reminded me how India's diversity is its strength and pride, instilled in me the value of every person's individuality, and the respect for the same.

For quite a while now, I have seen people (and Indians in particular) struggle with their identities. Especially since a single opinion you have can come to define your identity among a group of people. Support a particular political outfit, and you get branded with a name that is supposed to be an insult. Support a particular idea, and the you will be labelled with an associated leader and interrogated about their mistakes. A lot of these thoughts plague me with quite a few questions:
  • Is one opinion enough to identify an individual?
  • Why is one peculiar, unusual, unpopular, radical, conflicting opinion you have enough to worship, demonize, abuse or insult someone?
  • Why are others' choices of political leadership made abuses to ridicule them by?
  • Why is anyone's liberalism so hurtful to a left / right-wing follower, that he / she feels the need to insult them and their opinions? And vice versa?
  • Why has the conversation drifted from merits and demerits of an issue, to deriding people at a personal level?
  • Why shouldn't one voice their opinion for something that doesn't affect them, even if they think it is unfair?
It is ironic how even as the most diverse country in the world, in recent times, some of us have wanted to singularize a plural voice. One religion, one language, one diet, one belief system. Instead, why can't we celebrate our individuality, and in turn, our diversity? I would rather have one country that embraces every person for their individuality!

The most fascinating thing to me about individuality is that it is transient. We rarely ever realize it, but we change from one moment to the next. Our opinions and beliefs are influenced by those around us and the things we read, watch, hear. Some ideas take root and come to define us. Others, we come to hate. The strength of these opinions and beliefs isn't constant, either. Some are powerful, others weak. But the only constant is the sate of flux that empowers us to change our opinions and beliefs.

To illustrate, I spent years worshiping and then randomly announced my belief in atheism, before realizing I align more closely with agnosticism. I was convinced socialism was the right way, before understanding the merits of capitalism and consumerism. I didn't know about the unfair way our society treats women before observing it in public places and listening to first hand accounts from friends and acquaintances. I consider myself a liberal, while strongly voicing my opinions about the associated responsibilities that come with the freedom. I unequivocally support net neutrality, but I also read the other side to understand where they come from. Despite my disagreement with the government, I still believe in the power of democracy. And even though I have been burned a number of times, I choose to believe that people are inherently good at heart.

I choose. I believe. And through each of those choices, I have become who I am today. Each choice that I have made, right or wrong, has shaped me. And the choices you have made, and the beliefs you hold have shaped you. Shouldn't each one of us be proud of that? I also know that I may not hold an opinion I have today tomorrow, and I would rather be judged by my actions of today than yesterday.

You may not agree with me and I may not agree with you. I struggle day-in and day-out to accept opposing opinions about things that I feel strongly about. But, isn't that difference between us the very crux of humanity? The disagreement is exactly what allows for the thought process to never stop and in turn, helping us grow as individuals, through listening, debating, expressing. And as long as that growth in all of us doesn't stop, there is hope. The world is becoming a better place. Slowly, maybe, but surely.

Over the years, I have come to realize that every person, no matter how much they mean to us, how close we are to them, how long they have been with us, or how similar they look, are different. No two people are the same, and in our uniqueness lies the very essence of humanity.

Until next time.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Onward and Forward.

It is amusing to me how more often than not, we are more invested in the future than the present. We keep thinking about the what next, planning ahead, measuring our steps today and working steadily towards that well-defined goal. We carve out a path in our head and we try to stick to it, avoid deviating from it. Eventually, we get there. We achieve what we strove for.

But, somewhere between that journey, there's this sweet spot when all the pieces fall into place and the vision that kept you captivated is within an arm's reach with no hurdle in between. And that is a beautiful feeling. The last few days have been such for me and the goals I had set for myself a couple of years back, now seem right here. It is an understated, subdued emotion of happiness and serenity. The bearing of fruit of months and years of hard-work and systematic, planned efforts, coupled with the excitement of the life that lays ahead.

I keep going back to the past, and realize how it all falls into place, in the end. The sadness of each failure seems unnecessary in hindsight. The apprehension and queasiness after each speed-bump seem naive. And I think of the numerous times I've been at crossroads and each decision I've taken, each choice I've made; and how each one of them has gone on to bring me here today.

The thing about decisions and choices is that they shape us. They shape our whites and blacks and in that process, our greys. They test our abilities to do the obvious thing, or to be creative and find a way out. Throughout, at each step, essentially carving our personality and creating the essence of who we become. It is also what drives us to do things we've never done and go where we've never gone. We don't take the time to feel those changes that have taken place over the months or years. Some for better, some for worse. Some deeply entrenched, some shallow.

And soon, I will be planning ahead of time and thinking about the next big leap that I want to make. I will be imagining the life that I want for myself and draw substantial diagrams of the path to the next milestone I want to scale. As I should and am happy to. But not now, not today. Today is for me. Today is the future I had dreamt of years ago. To admire the success of the time and energy I've spent in getting here. The struggles and the sacrifices, the joys and the achievements. To absorb the gravity of this leap and gently pat myself on the back for a job well done. And, at the end, smile to myself.

In the haste to know where we'll be and to achieve more than what we have set our eyes on, we sometimes forget to relish the little joys and the tranquil moments like these. I hope you do not skip this pleasure of the efficacy the next time you're at the point of inflection. Trust me, it is infectious.

Tomorrow, I get going. Onward and forward.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

I Will Be Your Prime Minister, Too!

And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.
It was the morning of 5th November, 2008 when I heard these words from the then President-Elect Barack Obama as a part of his victory speech. This was a proclamation from the man who had just been elected the most powerful man in the world, that he understood the responsibility of the office he was just elected to. They were simple words exhilarating humility and goodwill, at the same time. For the last 8 years, I have had these very lines stuck in the back of my head, and even more piercingly in the last 6-7 months, and specifically in the Indian context.

When we talk about India, we talk about the diversity of the country. 'Unity in diversity' is often the one sentence definition of India cited across the world. It is a society where each person is respected for their individuality as an Indian. It is a society of differences, of acceptance, of respect, and most importantly, of love. But sadly (and disturbingly), in the last few months there's a very strong voice from the extreme right-wing of the country's political class that is harming the social harmony that we, the populous of this country, has consistently taken pride over.

When religion, caste or sexuality is used to seclude and target an individual, it is not just a violation of their fundamental rights, it is also inhumane. The presence of bigots in a society who are the proponents of an extremist ideology, forces those with milder and more amenable opinions to take sides. The atmosphere becomes tense and people fortify themselves in lieu of the impending feuds.

In the last 22 months, slowly but steadily, I have seen the battle lines being drawn. From when your nickname was derived from your name to a time when your political opinions are your salutation. From civility the situation has slowly been turning more and more pertinently hostile. Dissent and disagreement are quickly and dismissively termed as treason.

In all these years, I have never seen people from any section of the society grossly pronounce their superiority and establish their beliefs as decree. I have seen people who listen to opinions and sometimes indulge in a debate. I have seen people criticized, but never belittled, insulted, derided. I have observed the altercations but never seen one that questions the patriotism to the extent of being told to settle in an entirely different country.

The reminder that ours is a democracy becomes extremely relevant in such times. The essence of our democracy runs much deeper than even the diversity which we pride over. Democracy bestows upon us rights, responsibilities and duties. The strength of a democracy arises from the divergent opinions, the distinguishable voices and healthy debates. It is only in a democracy that every citizen, man or woman, Hindu or Muslim, from general or backward classes, rich or poor, is treated alike.

I am a human being first. But, I also am a proud Indian. I am respectful of my roots, and grateful to those that serve in the military and protect our borders. I am a student of science, but being a voting citizen I have an opinion about the kind of governance I want to be subjected to. I am a tax-payer who expects my Government to create and implement laws that would ensure progress. I hope that my country's police force will get to the root of the problems, and that my judiciary will impart quick, fair and unbiased judgments. I yearn for a time when my female friends and sisters can roam around the country with the same level of safety as I often enjoy. I am waiting for a time when reservations will exist for those from the economically backward classes of the society and not the socially backward ones.

But at the same time, I also am a liberal, with no political affiliations or preferences. I am a vegetarian by choice, but I wouldn't mind sharing the table with someone consuming cow or pig meat. I have no religious inclinations and I am still trying to find my balance between agnosticism and deism. I take my freedom of speech and my fundamental rights very seriously. I respect my Supreme Court, but strongly believe it isn't infallible. I want a clean India, regardless of what the Government scheme is called. I care more about the quality of education than the race for marks. I believe that any celebration (religious, political or whimsical) that hinders the normal lives of someone else, is an infringement to fundamental rights.

I take pride in the rich cultural heritage of this country (yes, Mughal history too). I am humbled to be from the land that produced scholars like Aryabhata, Kalidas, Ghalib. I wouldn't shy from calling both Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose, great in the same breath. I very thoroughly support the laws that promise equality for everyone despite their sexual orientation. I understand and can speak various Indian and foreign languages, but prefer communicating in English. I think climate change is real. I am of the strong opinion that social inequality is as big a threat to every nation as terrorism.

And guess what? You don't have to agree with me on everything. That's the beauty of a democracy! It gives you the right to form and have your measured opinions, just as it gives me, and every other person we know. We don't have to like them or believe them to be right. We don't have to agree to appease. We just have to be worthy enough to debate each topic on its own merit, and its merit alone. And that's the very same expectation we should have of our elected representatives and by extension, the Prime Minister.

It is easy to divide a society into pieces and distinguish it. It gets you votes, but it can't get you respect or progress. How much ever further wishful thinking may take us, but 'Sabka saath, sabka vikaas' isn't possible without Narendra Modi humbly asserting to every Indian, no matter their affiliations and opinions, "I will be your Prime Minister, too!"

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