Arundhati Roy, Bibek Debroy and a theory of stupidity

Stupid people are dangerous
Arundhati Roy, Bibek Debroy and a theory of stupidity
Arundhati Roy, Bibek Debroy and a theory of stupidity
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Two important people said one important thing this week, or atleast so I think.  Returning her 1989 National Award for Best Screenplay, celebrated author and activist Arundhati Roy said her decision had nothing to do with party politics as she had turned down a Sahitya Akademi award in 2005 when the Congress government was in power.  « I believe what artists and intellectuals are doing right now is unprecedented, and does not have a historical parallel » she wrote in the Indian Express referring to many known and some lesser known artists and writers, among others, returning national awards to a government that did not give them these awards. Read her blog here.

Roy’s history is a little inaccurate. The Emergency was by far free speech’s darkest hour in India but that’s not the point of this post. She is a writer par excellence who has spoken out and written on many issues about Dalits and minorities in India – these issues must be addressed posthaste. However, something else Roy wrote, struck me as most important.  « If we do not have the right to speak freely, we will turn into a society that suffers from intellectual malnutrition, a nation of fools. Across the subcontinent, it has been a race to the bottom – one that the New India has enthusiastically joined. Here too now, censorship has been outsourced to the mob, » she wrote. Hold this thought for a moment.

In an interview to the Times of India (TOI), noted economist, scholar and member of the Niti Ayog Bibek Debroy said « …intolerance has always existed and we will be stupid if we haven’t recognized it. » Among the known examples he cited was the omerta over a book called « Heart of India » written by the journalist Alexander Campbell. « A patronising book for that day and time, but it is still banned in India because it says frivolous things about Jawaharlal Nehru, socialism in India and the Planning Commission, » said Debroy. His response to another question by TOI has been reproduced verbatim in this post to illustrate how other mobs in India have been operating for years.

Q. How did you view the Rajiv Gandhi Institute, which you once headed, holding this conference on the issue of intolerance ?

A. I was there for eight years and during that period, we consciously distanced ourselves from the

Congress. In 2002, I decided to do a conference on what India was supposed to be, what its society will be like, what the idea of India would be. I invited Seshadri Chari who was the editor of Organiser (the magazine is the official publication of the the Hindu nationalist organisaion RSS). Several people from the Left also came. On the day of the seminar, a paper front-paged a report ‘Congress think tank invited editor of Organiser’. I get a phone call from 10 Janpath. Not Mrs. Gandhi. « Madam has asked me to speak to you. Please withdraw this invitation to Seshadri Chari. » I said I have issued the invitation and if Madam wants to talk to me, let her talk to me. Ten minutes later the phone rings again. « Will you please give in writing what Seshadri Chari is going to speak’ ? I said I was not going to do that. « Madam wants to see it ». Debroy soon found doors and windows closing on him. No names were taken, everything was expected to be understood and gnomes got to work. Read his TOI interview here.

The preceding paras have a common thread – that of the havoc that can be wreaked by stupidity. Italian economist and historian Carlo Maria Cipolla has written about the dangers of working with stupid people. I will come to that shortly. Stupid pursuits, stupid ambitions and stupid search for crumbs that fall off from the high tables of a few loyalists, devotees and vassals are the mainstay of corrupt and slothful leadership. Roy feels stifled by a New India mob that is cruel. Debroy’s story is that of other mobs in India that have stifled all narrative and intellectual brilliance at the altar of  mediocrity. And what is that? It is one that has ensured paeans to a family over decades, actively participating in cover-ups, historical distortion, usurpation of democratic discourse and sidelining of dissent. Sixty years of gnawing at the rim has now caused the bottom to fall out of these constructions.

Narendra Modi too has to distance himself from stupid people in his party and beyond. It is one thing to have meddled with history, like the Congress party had done. It is quite another to meddle with science, technology and medicine. The stupidity of suggesting that stem-cell transplants originated in India is ridiculously irresponsible and dangerous. I am a beneficiary of that science and technology developed in the west. To suggest that the same was achieved by sitting in a barrel of ghee for two years is plain stupid. The reason we no longer have institutions of international repute – whatever be the knowledge generation - is because the Congress party, which governed the country for over five decades took to celebrating mediocrity as the only means of surivival for one family. Thousands of roads and airports, libraries, hospitals and research centres are named after the Nehru-Gandhi family in the world’s largest democracy. If that is not stupid, what is?

The rush to the bottom that Roy mentions started decades ago. Its effects were felt across India’s political, economic and social spectrum resulting in an omerta that silenced people within the Congress and outside. Being supplicant was feted and standing tall, especially intellectually, was cut at the roots. Many who have survived under the Congress culture are men and women of straw, file-carriers and time-passers. Those raising their voices on the other side are dismissed as intolerant because tolerance has also been defined by pliant courtiers.

Generations of Congress workers and people have waited in queues heading into a wall. For years they have had to put up with their future Prime Ministerial candidate,  who by no stretch of imagination can be called intelligent. He has difficulties aligning a few sentences without faltering. If this is the best the party that led India for 60 years can prooduce, it’s a reflection of deep destruction. The courtiers in the Congress party are cunning, but they are also stupid, as stupid as those in the BJP who try and justify lynch-mobs because of an imaginary cow as Roy succintly summed up that situation.  

Now back to Cipolla (1922 – 2000) who has a theory on stupidity. His most popular work is a collection of two essays called Allegro ma non tropo (Happy but not too much) and another one on the spice trade and demographics. Allegro ma non troppo is an enquiry into human stupidity which Cipolla calls The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. Stupid people, writes Cipolla, not only destory themselves, but also everything around them and they can come from all backgrounds including very educated ones. Those pretending to enable a civilisation or safeguard a political dynasty may wish to read this.

Cipolla divides people into four categories. The first category comprises saints who spend an entire lifetime helping others. Next come bandits whose intentions need no explanation. Egalitarians make the third lot who help society and themselves. The stupid person brings up the rear. According to Cipolla, a stupid person is the most dangerous because s/he destroys everything and everybody without realising it – a capacity that even frightens organised crime and military-industrial intelligence.

The reasons why we must fear stupid people according to Cipolla are the following :

·       Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

·       The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person including high education.

·       A stupid person is one who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while deriving no lasting gain and possibly incurring heavy damages.

·       Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances, to deal with and/or associate with stupid people, always turns out to be a costly mistake.

All human beings are capable of making stupid decisions, but to dig in and ignore democratic challenge is to be stupid. There is nothing called right-wing reason or left-wing reason. There is nothing called right-wing respect for diversity and left-wing respect for diversity. There is nothing called right-wing stupidity or left-wing stupidity. There is reason and respect for diversity and then there is stupidity.

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