Beware of the Avalanche of Stupidity Threatening to Bury Us All

From the prime minister down, lies, fakery and bogus claims are growing at an alarming rate, and what is more, are believed.

Listen to this article:

This article must begin with a note of sincere thanks to the Press Information Bureau (PIB) of the Government of India. It so happened that in the last week of December, I tweeted, “Mass stupidity is never a natural disaster, it is always a project of politics of a certain kind.”

And on January 11, PIB provided confirmation for the above observation. In a tweet accompanying a flier of something called ‘samachar’, released as part of ongoing celebration of Amrit Mahotsav, the PIB claimed, “There has been great participation of the common man in freedom movement. But many of them have been forgotten. With the purpose to shift the spotlight on these anonymous freedom fighters, Amrit Mahotsav celebrations have been started.”

So, here is such a long overdue course correction of history, as part of which one side of the flier has almost nothing except a larger than life image of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi (maybe he played the role of a freedom fighter as well, besides the many other roles claimed by him) along with the solemn proclamation, “towards a golden era”. The words inscribed on the facing side of the flier inform the reader of many noble and benign gestures of the current government. Very reassuringly, an indication of the nature of the knowledge to be imparted in the ensuing golden era is also given. We are informed that “The Bhakti movement heralded the freedom struggle in India. During the bhakti yuga the saints and mahants from every part of this country whether it is swami Vivekanand, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Raman Maharshi were concerned about its spiritual consciousness. It served as the precursor of the revolt of 1857.”

One could argue that the intention here is to underline the role of the Bhakti movement in the making of ‘spiritual consciousness’, leading to yearning for freedom. But what except ignorance adorned with arrogance (sheer stupidity in other words) can explain describing historical figures born in 1863 (Vivekanand) or 1895 (Raman Maharshi) as the precursors of the ‘revolt of 1857’? Chaitanya Mahaprabhu surely came before 1857, but he came a bit too early, i.e. 1486-1534. Also interesting is the fact that contrary to Hindutva icon V.D. Savarkar’s description (“the first war of independence”) the word ‘revolt’ is used to describe the events of 1857, perhaps due to the fact that after all, the ‘revolt’ was formally led by the last of the Mughals who were responsible for enslaving India in the Hindutva imagination.

Also read: How Gujarat 2002 Turned India Into a Nation of Pathological Liars

The ahistorical statement that the Bhakti movement of the 15th-16th centuries heralded the freedom struggle is understandable here. After all, to see pre-British India as being under the ‘foreign rule’ of Muslims is the core of the Hindutva belief system. And, in matters of ‘faith and belief’, why should one bother about insignificant details like the fact that not only Akbar’s, but even Aurangzeb’s army was commandeered by Rajput Hindus.

The Bhakti movement in early modern India indeed represented a kind of ‘freedom struggle’ but of a different kind. Its more influential voices like Namdev, Akka Mahadevi, Kabir, Dadu and Mirabai sought freedom not from ‘Muslim’ rule but from the caste and patriarchal oppression and from the bigotry of all kinds – Hindu and Muslim. Being born of Muslim parents did not come in the way of Kabir and Dadu earning the reverence of a lot of Hindus across castes and classes.

History is targeted by Hindutva and other similar political ventures, because they need to project their present politics as a ‘moral’ obligation to rectify so-called historical wrongs. Of course, in history writing, there are contesting interpretations of any given fact or information; academic debates and controversies about such interpretations and perspectives enrich the discipline and hence are always welcome. But, even in this post-truth era of alternative facts, there is hardly any alternative to some facts. You can certainly debate Vivekanand’s contribution and ideas, but cannot credit him for inspiring the participants in an event which was over before he was born. But, as this flier indicates, you can surely do so as a means of measuring the success of your stupidity manufacturing programme. We have already been treated with many pearls of historical wisdom from the supreme leader himself. In an election year, the university of Takshashila was shifted to Bihar and the valiant Biharis were cheered for defeating Alexander the invader.

Am I overreacting to an inadvertent mistake? I fervently wish it were so. But alas, that is not the case, and the ‘effect’ is not confined to history alone. Recall the supreme leader’s ‘brainwave’ that military radars of the enemy country wouldn’t be able to locate our fighter planes on a cloudy night and its enthusiastic approval from his admirers, even though the experts insisted that ‘radars are meant to see through the clouds’. Recall also the  claim that the BJP, in alliance with Jats, has been fighting the Mughals for the last 650 years

The people in high offices projecting cow urine as an antidote to COVID-19; urine drinking parties were organised and televised during first wave of COVID-19. Also remember the star-anchors on TV assuring you that cows exhale oxygen and the new currency notes carry the micro-chips to detect black money. There are literally innumerable instances of such ‘brilliance’ coming out of a certain political persuasion, and even these look quite benign as compared to the avalanche of stupidity from WhatsApp university.

The invasion of aliens still remains science fiction, but the whole world is already faced with an ‘invasion of idiots’ courtesy social media. As Umberto Eco once put it, there is a strange ‘equalisation’ of competence. Only some years ago, we saw the ‘hard working wisdom’ of a WWE champion in defence of ‘notebandi’, who clearly was more knowledgeable than many learned economists.

And, not surprisingly at all, we have just witnessed the spectacle of SEBI being run in consultation with a mysterious yogi from the Himalayas

This kind of stupidity is very different from ignorance; while the latter is usually confined to one sphere – and someone very knowledgeable in one area could be utterly ignorant of the other – the former indicates a general deficiency in cognitive capability. The word ‘stupid’ can also be used lovingly without carrying any such serious connotations of cognitive deficiency. Also, during an informal or even formal conversation, in the heat of moment, I can describe my interlocutor as stupid, and vice versa.

The problem is that instead of attempts to cure it, stupidity is systematically sought to be projected as a virtue, as a part of the positivity package. People are egged on to cancel basic curiosity and critical thinking in the name of faith in the leader and ‘positive thinking’. Adam Mackay’s apocalyptic film Don’t Look Up sums up the problem poignantly. The comet ‘Dibiasky’ (named after the astronomy student who first spotted it) is heading fast towards planet Earth and its hit is sure to end it all. But the POTUS is obsessed with the idea of turning the ‘crisis into opportunity’ (aapda mein awasar), as suggested by her billionaire funder, and with the help of the entire establishment is able to trap people into her rhetoric of ‘don’t look up’ – with predictable results.

Also read: Modi May Be a Master Storyteller But the Spell From His Yarns Is Going to Wear Thin

Some years ago, this plot would seem only fantastical, if exciting. But after the ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign under President Donald Trump, does it seem that far from the probable?

Hence, it will be disastrous to dismiss the avalanche of such stupidity as inconsequential. History provides enough caution against such an approach.

The Austrian author Robert Musil, in his celebrated lecture ‘On Stupidity’ (delivered during the ‘amrit kaal’ of Nazi ascendancy in 1937), distinguishes between ‘honourable’ (that is normal, curable cognition deficiency) and ‘intelligent’ stupidity. He means that those intelligent people who manufacture the mass stupidity in the service of a political programme are aware of the stupidity of their propaganda and are spreading it in a conspiratorial manner. Something needs be added here in order to better understand the phenomenon. A film director making his hero alone bash up dozens of goons is intelligent enough to know the impossibility of such heroism. In our times, many actually do believe in the core of their belief, even if not in all the details they peddle out. The belief gives them deadly courage of conviction along with patient cunning. Let me explain this with an example.

Just two years after Musil’s lecture, in 1939, a book titled We or Our Nationhood Defined was published in India containing fulsome praise of Adolf Hitler’s handling of the ‘Jew problem’ and asking Hindus to learn from him. For a long period, it was known to be the foundational text for ‘Guruji’ M.S. Golwalkar’s ideas. It was only seven decades later, in 2006, that the RSS officially disowned the book, claiming that “the book carried not his own views but was an abridged version of G.D. Savarkar’s Rashtra Mimansa”.

The reason of this distancing was the embarrassment caused by the author’s praise of the Nazis in view of the RSS’s fulsome endorsement of the practices adopted by Israel. The courage of owning up to one’s leader’s views gave way to political expediency and manipulative cunning. Be that as it may, one is concerned here with something else, the core of which has not been disowned. Confronted with the inconvenient fact of B.G. Tilak believing in the ‘Arctic home of the Vedas’; i.e the Aryans being the ‘outsiders’ in the land of Bharatvarsha, the author found himself in a quandary. He obviously was not in possession of scholarly integrity (like Tilak) to uphold one’s academically arrived at conclusion even if it is not fully in tune with one’s political position; nor did he have the academic competence to challenge that conclusion, moreover, It would have been blasphemous to describe Tilak as ‘anti-Hindu’. So, Golwalkar (or G.D. Savarkar) came up with the most ingenious solution – “The Arctic those days was where Bharat is now, we did not come from the arctic, it moved away from us.”

This example helps us grasp the dynamics of relations between the manufacture, circulation and consumption of stupidity. Even the most ludicrous proposition is welcome in the service of a core belief i.e., Aryans being indigenous to Bharat, which is hardly tenable. Musil’s idea of intelligent conspiracy does not capture the psychological complexity of firm belief in something quite irrational and improbable. The author of We or Our Nationhood Defined was fully convinced of the moral ‘truth-value’ of his project and hence could offer things like historical and scientific veracity as sacrificial lambs at the altar of the ‘truth’ of political Hindutva.

The vilification of rationality and intellectualism (recall the phrase ‘intellectual terrorism’) is a prerequisite to ensure successful circulation and willing consumption by the targeted audience of this project. That is why not only in Hindutva, but in every totalitarian discourse, sentiment and emotion are privileged over rational argument; subjective “experience” is privileged over objective evidence. A general acceptance of stupidity as a virtue is a must for the success of such projects.

Bhartihari, the great grammarian and the outstanding poet, has put his nightmarish desperation with stubborn stupidity in a telling verse – ‘it is easy to deal with an ignorant person, much easier with a knowledgeable one but what to talk of mere mortals even lord Brahma himself cannot deal with someone with a whiff of information, yet arrogantly proud of his ignorance.’

In everyday life, this kind of stubborn stupidity would be looked down upon, but in totalitarian discourse, it would be celebrated as courage of conviction, necessary to protect the project from its enemies. That is why there is a systematic and constant attempt to transform not only some individuals, but the whole community into a version of Bhartihari’s nightmare.

This nightmare is sought to be normalised through constant fear . The idea is to make people believe that ‘the leader is right, future is bright’; you only have to follow the ‘don’t look up’ command. All the sufferings caused by economic disasters like demonetisation, political disasters like the long-term subversion of institutional arrangements and social disasters like creating perpetual hate and distrust are in the nation’s interest. In this era of social media and WhatsApp gyan, the manufacturers of such stupidity can be more confident than ever that many, even most, will be willing participants in their own destruction if the mechanisms of manufacturing large-scale stupidity function nicely.

Ignorance per se is not a great problem; it can be taken care of by some effort. The problem lies in its proud and arrogant celebration. The true social, cultural and political leaders in any society at any point of time fight against such a celebration of ignorance. The Indian national movement was particularly blessed in this regard. Its leaders, instead of boasting of their own ‘hard work’ and castigating the intellectuals as ‘anti-nationals’, respectfully interacted with writers, philosophers, scientists, etc. They tried to inculcate a rational spirit and humane disposition amongst people. Seeing ignorance as individual limitation as well as a social challenge, they fought against it.

Things have changed a lot now. Sections of the mass media deliberately participate in the celebration and mass production of arrogant and aggressive ignorance i.e. stupidity, and social media contributes its lot by giving unprecedented traction to its varied expressions along with self-righteous expressions of aggression.

For human civilisation, this global avalanche of stupidity is as alarming as global warming. And ours is particularly frightening.

Purushottam Agrawal is a writer, academic and political commentator.