Why Conversations Matter

By | October 14, 2018

Last week we had a parliamentary debate at our academy, LBSNAA. The motion of the debate was: Right to equality implies preferential treatment for the disadvantaged. It was a highly combustible topic, yet brilliantly argued by both sides based on logic, reason and evidence, and never ad-hominem. To watch the teams not pull any punches and mock, denigrate and rip apart the other team’s arguments was absolute fun. As the debate grew on, I wasn’t so much interested in guessing which team was going to win, because the discussion in itself was more enjoyable. What held my attention was something more fundamental: the power of conversations.

A parliamentary debate at the House of Commons, London

Let me ask you a question. When was the last time you were compelled to change your mind about a topic? If you are unable to recollect, then probably you are not being challenged enough by contrarian views. If you do recollect, think about what exactly made you change. I’d guess it to be one of these: a movie, a book, an article, a speech, a debate or a casual conversation with a friend. Words and conversations have the power to change our world-view. It is our course-correcting mechanism that helps us constantly align with what’s true and not what’s popular.

This is why it pains me to see even reasonable, educated people calling for the restriction of speech based on flimsy reasons. Two recent examples come to mind. Recently, for the New Yorker magazine ideas festival, its editor in chief David Remnick had invited Steve Bannon (one of the most influential conservative thinkers in the US) for an interview. The reaction from the Left was immediate and vicious. The Twitter mob came howling, New Yorker’s own staff criticised the decision, and other reputed invitees began to drop out in protest against Bannon’s invitation. The backlash forced New Yorker to chicken out and rescind their invitation.

And thus, a wonderful opportunity to combat Bannon and to expose the shallowness of his views had given way to moral panic and political correctness. An influential person like Steve Bannon, who has a massive reach and influence, is exactly the kind of person you’d want to challenge in public and destroy his dangerous arguments for others to see. But when you ban him or disinvite him, you make him a martyr, embolden his followers and legitimise his views. Those on the fence will be drawn to him because they see people like Bannon as the only alternative to stifling political correctness.

Last year, James Damore an ex-Google employee was fired for circulating an internal memo criticising the company’s diversity programme. In the memo, Damore cited a number of studies relating to the differences between men and women to argue that Google’s diversity programme is destined to fail. Google claimed the content of the memo “advanced harmful gender stereotypes at the workplace”, when in fact, most of what he said in the memo was scientifically accurate. Of course, the company had the right to fire him. But what message does it send when a reputed company like Google fires an employee for publishing a factually accurate article just because it hurt some ideological sentiments?

If we don’t provide space for speech that tramples on our carefully constructed world-view, how do we ever come out of our bubble? In fact, if history taught us anything, it’s that our most sacred beliefs can turn out to be most embarrassing for our descendants.

Consider medieval Europe, a society that was steeped in crime and cruelty. Back then, the state and its people were convinced that the only way to combat crime is to inflict a punishment so egregious and repugnant that the perpetrators would have strong deterrence. People and governments took great pleasure in torture, mutilation and witch-burning. For all kinds of crime, the punishment meted out was brutal. It was legal to amputate ears, noses, hands, tongues, and gouge eyes of the accused. Boiling and burning a living body, disembowelment and impalement of the head on a spike were commonplace. This logic of strong deterrence sounds intuitive to our primitive brains, doesn’t it?

In 1764, Cesare Beccaria, a social scientist from Italy, wrote a seminal book titled On Crimes and Punishments challenging this popular opinion. He made a simple yet powerful argument: if the punishment for all the crimes— from a petty theft to a gruesome murder— is of the same degree, then the perpetrator would be incentivised to commit a crime that’s more grave. He advocated for punishment in proportion to the crime.

Unsurprisingly, Beccaria’s essay was met with ferocious opposition. It was burned and banned in many places. He was disparaged for his ignorant views, while others even rooted for burning him at the stake. Yet decades later, his work influenced Thomas Jefferson and Jeremy Bentham, convincing them of the irrationality and barbarity of their criminal justice system. Slowly and subsequently, Beccaria’s logic was widely accepted, giving birth to the cardinal principle of our current criminal justice system: punishment must fit the crime and that only the worst crimes deserve the worst punishment. Today, we abhor barbaric practices such as torture and impalement, but back then it was the norm. Today, we take this dictum of punishment must fit the crime for granted, but back then, his speech was seen as offensive and worthy of banning.

This is why conversations, including those that we find controversial and repugnant, are important. But what about speech that is deliberately offensive, that which hurts the sentiments of others, you may ask. Danish author Flemming Rose once wrote, “the price we pay for living in a liberal society is that from time to time, we must tolerate speech that we find deeply offensive.” All of us have a right to get offended. But our right to get offended does not give us a right to silence others.

If someone wants to broadcast his racist, sexist, and bigoted views, the solution is not to suppress that speech. Let offensive, repugnant ideas and their illogical proponents come out in public. Let such people destroy their reputations and make a fool out of themselves in full public glare. Sunlight is always the best disinfectant.

If you don’t agree with an idea, then you must use the same public platform as an opportunity to expose them. But instead of conversing, if you ban or make an idea taboo to discuss, it only emboldens them and reflects on your inability to come up with a counter-argument that’s more compelling.

Before you accuse me of being a free speech fundamentalist, I’ll concede that speech cannot be unfettered all the time, and in some exceptional cases, it needs to be excised. I’ve always wondered how to discern dangerous speech until I found this fantastic graphic.

Limits to free speech

In the graphic, the position of the legal line may be arguable, but not the moral line. It’s amazing to me that most of our controversies surround speech that criticises an idea— either a religion or a nation or a political ideology. But we must clearly distinguish the fact that if you criticise an idea, you are not attacking the believers of that idea. If you criticise smoking, it doesn’t mean you hate smokers. Mocking a faith doesn’t mean you hate the adherents of that faith. We must always be mindful that no idea is sacrosanct, no belief beyond criticism and no individual above ridicule.

The exceptions to speech are those that incite violence or present a threat of imminent violence. To prevent governments from misusing it, each of these exceptions must be legally circumscribed and individually justified.

A society that has no place for conversations or debates is a place ripe for violence, coercion and intimidation that force others into believing in a dogma, faith or a revelation. Throughout history, political and religious zealots used these methods to silence its detractors. If history teaches us any lesson, it’s that our loyalty should not be to an idea or a belief, but to evidence and reason.

As a society, we are in never-ending pursuit of truth. It’s a case of presentism that makes us believe that what we hold sacred now will always remain so. But what we take for granted today, may turn out to be utterly false in the future. We constantly calibrate and course-correct our direction in the light of new evidence. And the only way in which we can discover that evidence and truth it is through conversations and civil debate. Thus for a society to progress, free speech is fundamental.

In the debate we had at the academy, the team that opposed the motion won. They argued, rationally and passionately, that the disadvantaged deserve no special treatment and that a government must strive to empower all citizens equally.

If you are enraged at their argument or upset at how could they have won the debate, remember that it is through conversation and debate that you argue, challenge, and dislodge them off their position, and it is your right to free speech that allows you to do so. We must always remind ourselves that criticism is not persecution, argument is not assault, and words are not violence. Let speech be free and may conversations flourish.

44 thoughts on “Why Conversations Matter

  1. Vivek Samuel

    Sir, loved your article thoroughly.. However, I must contend that there is a difference between criticism and mocking.. You don’t mock, no matter what, and you don’t stop criticising no matter what.. Mocking is inherently negative, however, criticism is inherently positive.. While criticism is born out of correction/love for the person, mocking invariably is born out of hate.. Therefore, your line of argument which says, “mocking a faith doesn’t mean you hate the adherents of the faith” stands on shaky grounds.. I would appreciate if you could use another word instead of “mocking” to substantiate your point unequivocally.. I got your point, though!! All the best sir.. Best wishes!!

    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      The problem with restricting mocking, but agreeing to criticism is there’s no definite line separating them. What is criticism to you might be mockery for some, and that’s all the stick an authority needs to clamp down on free speech. As I mentioned, the price we pay for living in a liberal democracy is we must put up with speech we find unacceptable.

      And sometimes to put across a point, the best way is humor, which inherently involves mocking an idea. One vivid example that comes to my mind is that of a clever Obituary published in Times of India on the eve of Emergency in 1975. It was witty, funny and mocks the govt decision to curtail political rights. I am sure it had more effect than many of the 5000 word Op-Eds published against the govt.

      You can read more about it here: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/When-a-smartly-worded-obit-exposed-the-death-of-democracy/articleshow/47823701.cms

      Even the famous tale of ‘Emperor Has No Clothes’ conveys its message, widely and powerfully, through mockery of King’s authority.
      Link to the story: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Emperor%27s_New_Clothes#Plot

      1. Vivek Samuel

        Thanks for your reply sir. Although I got the spirit of the matter you’re trying to convey, my contention was with the definition of the terms used (semantics) coz, mocking is targeted at the person, however, criticisms are always targeted at the philosophy.. For example, I respect the homosexuals for their decision to be that way, but I don’t subscribe to that idea of living. I can use humour or direct messaging to convey my point.. Now this isn’t mocking, coz my messaging would target the philosophy of homosexuality rather than homosexuals. And using humour doesn’t mean you’re mocking either! People, however, in being naive, may misconstrue criticism to be mocking, which is an altogether different matter.. I think we should agree to disagree on this semantic!! 🙂 🙂

        Best wishes Sir!

  2. Rahul Bagwe

    Wow.. you have written it so well. Absolutely riveting and I completely agree with you. Kindly give some tips on improving writing skills I admire the way you write.

    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      Thank you Rahul. As I mentioned before, reading non-fiction really helps in polishing writing skill. Apart from it, I really enjoy the Economist and the New Yorker magazine’s writing style and try to learn from them.

      Also you can keep a journal and write at least 200 words a day. It helps you consistently refine and improve.

  3. Vertika

    Yet another excellent article!
    I couldn’t help but agree with you when you have said that “no idea is sacrosanct”.
    I also believe that we understand our ideas and ourselves more when we discuss it with a dissenter. It opens up our mind and provides a new perspective.
    Looking forward to reading more from you.

  4. Navrose Kaur

    A well balanced take on the issue of free speech, sir.I too subscribe to the same view and this article reminds me of Dan Brown’s Origin which I read recently.The gist is how concepts that are ground breaking or unconventional are usually supressed for the fear of them not conforming to the existing societal standards..discussion and debate needs to be encouraged even for ideas or views that might appear to be unconventional.

  5. Abhinav Singh

    Sir if u you had written it containing Problems in our Indian society & scenario It would’ve been much easier to understand for me & people who follow you, there is no Indian perspective, otherwise the way you have written attributes the excellence you have achieved in writing but not able to connect me fully to realize the real life implications in our society… too intellectual & westernized but great Idea though.. Sir you are an ideal for millions of youths like me your ideas must really connect to us especially about the problems in our Country.

    1. Vivek Samuel

      I think, this article was quite relatable, regardless of once nationality.. A civil servant must have a global outlook while serving local problems.. The essence of the article is “freedom and speech and expression and the way one ought to express that speech”. Discuss, debate, deliberate and dissent are the pillars of democracy and I think sir has thoroughly dealt with these in the Indian context, quoting foreign authors.. I think you’re being too naive to say good writing or intellectual writing is a western concept. The Late AnnaDurai, the former TN politician, was a master orator and writer in both English and Tamil.. So, it would be incorrect to suggest that Anudeep sir is just showing-off his writing skills.. Moreover, this is a personal blog and nobody would want to read a blog with no flavour! Everybody has a style and that’s the uniqueness they carry with themselves.. I guess, you totally missed the point here!

  6. L

    Sir, there is a podcast,
    It goes by the name of Freakonomics

    Recently indra nooyi shared her ideas and experiences of her life as a CEO in a corporate world.
    It was about glass ceiling an glass cliff.

    His memo might contain some truth, and i agree with you that he should have not been fired, but that specific podcast is lays down a strong foundation that industries indeed have bias against women.
    And its mostly due to gender stereotyping indeed.

    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      Thanks for the suggestion, will listen to the podcast.

  7. AnannyaN

    Sir, now that you mention it, I’m really eager to know with what points the winning team counteracted the motion. Kindly spare a few minutes from your busy schedule to enlighten me. Thank you. 🙂

    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      Briefly, they argued that:

      1. Govt has moral obligation to empower everyone
      2. Treating the disadvantaged as special is patronizing and against the dignity of the individual
      3. It’s not a good strategy to give special treatment, because it is often seen as a ‘perennial crutch’ which hinders them from achieving their true potential as a person
      4. Such Govt’s policies, across the world, have not always yielded the desired outcomes.
      5. Even if govt gives out special privileges for the disadvantaged, they must be limited in scope and time.
      6. Instead of this, govt must strive to provide affordable quality health care, good education and fulfill basic needs of everyone for the betterment of society.

      They substantiated the above arguments through data, logic and examples.

  8. Lakshmi Gayathri

    That’s a wonderful post! Just curious about the whole discussion though. Would have been great if u added a few points from the debate.Points that got u thinking/those which made u go wow.

  9. Parul Singh

    Good evening Sir, Congratulations for the achievement and hats off to your hard work that you have put in to achieve the desired vision. Your simplicity is so transparent that every youth could connect with you so easily. We all are having the same qualities the only thing is to get aware of it and take the right decisions . Trust me when I say this Sir that you are giving us all a hope to do better in life. Thanks for showing the real you. All the best!

  10. Pooja Nayak

    Wow! There were so many wow moments in the article. Like,

    no idea is sacrosanct, no belief beyond criticism and no individual above ridicule.

    criticism is not persecution, argument is not assault, and words are not violence.

    Beyond beautifully crafted sentences, your passionate description for making your point is impressive. Who cannot like this!!

    It was a rich reading experience, thank youvery much.

    Your fan.

  11. Anonymous

    The second last line is so apt. Very well put Anudeep Sir ! enjoyed reading the article. 🙂

    1. vikrammehra

      It’s beautifully written…

      Anudeep sir, I am very novice in expressing my thoughts and in giving them the form of words and shape them in beautiful and meaningful article.

      Just a quick question if you wouldn’t mind answering…….Did you finish the whole write-up in one sitting???

      1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

        Umm, no. I usually write a rough draft and then sharpen it. I finished writing this article in 3 sittings and took me around 4 hours.

  12. Anonymous

    very well constructed and organised ur views with substantiate Sir… looking forward for More Bullet type Articles ..

  13. Anonymous

    That’s a wonderful article!

    Your passionate description makes fascinating and lively as if penned by a renowned author.

    Thank u for sharing such a great experience and educating us..☺️

  14. Ambar

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading your article sir ! I follow your blog regularly and look forward to reading more articles in the future. On second thoughts i think you will become a best selling author one day!

  15. Anonymous

    Anudeep sir

    My opinion is that .. The disadvantaged ( for ex. Extremely poor ) should be first empowered with few basic advantages ( free education, mid day meal ) and then treat them equally at par with others

    Without proving advantages. Chances are that the disadvantaged always stay at disadvantage .. !

  16. Diksha triTriv

    Your article is fascinating ,moreover I must say that presentation of any topic in this beautiful manner is more important than that only to write Indian issues ,issues may be of any sort ,but it’s presentation is more important ,and you did it in a wonderful manner sir , I also have many ideas, topics to discuss but how to start from basics ,I don’t know ?
    How to present particular topic so that everybody could understand and relate . Also I am weak at English spoken ,writing ?.
    I am working on it though .

  17. Abhijit Mode

    Sir, Thank you so much for your guidance.. Your articles and test paper copies helped many aspirants like me for Mains 2018…
    Its a request to share your views (and notes, if available) regarding the interview preparation to guide us on a right path to follow…

  18. manoharreddymadaka

    It was an enriching experience to read your article sir.can you please suggest some non fiction books to read?will give a look at those and read If I love them.Thank you

  19. Anonymous

    Brother …”Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs”.

  20. Rose Topon

    A beautifully crafted and enlightening article.

    Constructive conversations stregthen, broaden and challenge perceptions and beliefs.

    Always look forward to more posts.

    – A regular follower of your blog.

  21. Deepthi Damaraju

    Sir , I’d like to know your take on trolling and meme making on political figures and institutions in the name of right to free expression and creativity? Is it healthy for a society to undermine an authority in liberal democracy? Doesn’t the right to live in dignity of one individual guaranteed by the constitution of India contravene the right to freedom of expression, if offensive?

    P.S Such a thought provoking and lucid write up! I love how you back your statements through relevant examples 🙂


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