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Kranti Saran: The shifty strategy

While you can't coerce anyone to recognise your legitimacy to speak out, nobody can deny you the self-recognition of your own legitimacy to speak

eye culture

Kranti Saran 

Kranti Saran

Why did you cry out for the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri but not for the murder of Kashmiri Pandits? Why did you protest the pogrom in Gujarat 2002 but not Delhi 1984? If you've found yourself either voicing these questions or answering them, you're missing the point. Here's why.

Suppose your mother's incompetent surgeon botches her surgery, killing her. You're justifiably aggrieved and claim malpractice. While a surgeon would ordinarily contest a malpractice claim by focussing on who did what and when in the operation theatre (OT), this surgeon contests it on entirely different grounds. This surgeon points the finger back at you: where were you when other patients died in surgery? Why were you silent then? Why are you only protesting now? The surgeon argues that the contrast between your silence then and voluble protests now reveals your protest to be entirely selective and hypocritical, hence illegitimate. The surgeon's argument sounds mad, but what exactly is wrong with it?

In pointing the finger back at you, the surgeon shifts the focus from facts about who did what and when in the OT to facts about your motives and history of protest. But the shift is illegitimate because your motives and history are entirely besides the point. Whether your malpractice claim is motivated by greed or justice, whether your past record of protesting is spotty or sterling is independent of the rightness or wrongness of what happened in the OT. The focus of consideration is, and ought to be, the surgeon's actions that resulted in the death of your mother.

Why does the surgeon opt for the "shifty" strategy at all? The strategy of shifting away from the surgeon's actions to your motives and history is a bad-faith attempt to change the subject. After all, the most convincing way to resist the malpractice claim is to argue about who did what and when in the OT, but it's risky if the facts don't side with the surgeon. The "shifty" strategy insulates the surgeon from the facts, whatever they may be, by shifting the focus away from the surgeon's actions to you. Because you are self-interested and hypocritical, anything you say can be discounted. The strategy is offered in bad faith because the surgeon doesn't actually care about your motives and record: The "shifty" strategy's work is done when you focus on defending your legitimacy rather than talking about what happened in the OT.

It's easy to recognise the absurdity and bad faith of the surgeon's reasoning, yet arguments with the same form have shockingly wide currency in the public square. Just as we have personal grounds for our interest in the well-being of our family members, we have political grounds for our interest in the well-being of our fellow citizens. When they are wronged, we are justified in protesting. Too often, though, we fall prey to "shifty" arguments.

Pick any book ban, assault on a speaker with ink, lynching, riot, assassination, or communal terrorist attack... I could carry on this litany of headline horrors, but just pick one. Your protests will inevitably face the "shifty" strategy: you are a hypocrite and motivated by some petty personal grievance. Why are you only protesting now? Where were you when insert other horror occurred? Why were you silent then? But your motives and history are independent of the rightness or wrongness of who did what and when in the horror at hand. If you defensively trot out your history of protests, if you insist on the purity of your motives, you've played right into the hands of the "shifty" strategy. If you play you're talking about everything but the horror at hand; you can only win by refusing to play.

Refusing to play the "shifty" game doesn't mean surrendering in silence. On the contrary, since the strategy seeks to delegitimise the speaker, the best remedy is more speech - speech that shifts the focus firmly back onto the horror at hand. While you can't coerce anyone to recognise your legitimacy to speak out, nobody can deny you the self-recognition of your own legitimacy to speak. The least we owe the victims of each and every single horror is to keep our focus on them, our fellow citizens, rather than turn our attention to justifying our own motives and history.

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First Published: Fri, November 13 2015. 22:38 IST