CONFORMITY IS A necessary condition for societies. Without a degree of agreement, whether by force or consensus, no organisation can function. It is therefore impossible to have a society where everyone is a sceptic. That is also why scepticism matters. Conformism has all manners of viciousness built into it. Everyone is not equally endowed with intelligence or strength or ruthlessness or personalities that arouse admiration and subservience. Those who have these abilities lead and, given enough incentive, ambition and circumstance, they or their ideas can become monopolies. Ask any North Korean. Or, there is the tyranny of the majority, who pick apart dissenters while exiling them into social media purgatory. The sceptic—the one who suspects everything—is the speed breaker to absolutism and groupthink.
Some sceptics are born. It is the way they are wired. The overwhelming members of this group are, however, made. They might also change colour depending on the flavour of the time. A Bolshevik in the time of the Tsars is a sceptic about all prevailing political systems. When he takes over the Soviet Union, every other political system that questions him (and ends up in the gulag) is a sceptic. Everyone is at many points in their life a sceptic. But they, like animals driven by instinct, are not conscious of it. They are chasing the domination of their beliefs. They do not doubt because it is a virtue to doubt. They are in the game. The sceptic is not. He is suspicious of belonging. His disdain is neither temporary nor satiated when proven right or diluted when shown to be wrong. It is an itch he has to scratch because he knows all human knowledge and certainties, even his own, are usually half-truths or full-wrongs.
My scepticism has little to do with the original drive. It was by conformation to the environment I grew up in. My father, a writer and a popular columnist in Malayalam, was something of an original (maybe, I am wrong because who does not mythify his parent). He never saw a popular perception that wasn’t an opportunity for debunking. In the 1970s and 1980s when socialism was the only politically correct view to hold, he was among the few in India of those times to be unabashedly for free enterprise, in between starting an organisation to promote privatisation that predictably never really took off. He had worked as a journalist in Hong Kong in the late 1960s, and so perhaps was much more aware of what was happening in the world of capitalism that India took such pleasure in turning its poverty-stricken nose at. But it was not in the public arena alone that he was a contrarian. At school, in my little calendar that students must fill, in the column for the profession of father, he wrote “unemployed” even though I could see a small business running right in one of the rooms of the house. It was contempt for the school wanting to know the profession of parents. When a famous Sri Lankan rationalist once offered a reward for anyone proving the existence of God, my father, no believer, publicly announced he would take on the challenge and then diverted the issue to how the rationalist would be able to pay the reward given the regulations over the transfer of foreign currency.
I grew up knowing that most things the world considers serious are unimportant. They are all fodder to be picked apart, and only those who don’t fall into the trap of ideologies can do it. Conviction over remote political and social ideas is an overrated virtue. It is a worldview designed to create phoneys and every time there is a Twitter trend, you can see it.
Not that I did not bend with the popular wind but they were all a series of confirmations on the vacuity or self-deception of ideologies. When I was in my first-year college, for example, the agitation against the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations began and some senior students took me along from class to class collecting money for the protests. I knew nothing about caste or reservations. It felt important to be doing something along with a lot of others. That is, I believe, all there is to most people who take part in movements. Except that they choose a better company, and so the bug sometimes sticks on. I knew by the end of the day that the collected money would end nowhere near its promised ends. Everything that sways popular opinion is fodder for scams or the brokering of power.
I am grateful for the experience because even to follow those with integrity is a thankless errand. Because 99 per cent of followers get no reward but share the risks. I know people from villages near Palakkad who went all the way to Delhi at their own expense to campaign for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the promise of an anti-corruption revolution it was going to herald. Those for whom they toiled went on to make a career. But these men today are exactly where they were, just older, and the party and its leaders have reverted to the political condition of power for power’s sake. You would be lucky to hear AAP talk about corruption now. That is not a departure but the inevitable end of idealism. The only true political worker is the one who is in it for his pound of flesh. The idealists are tenants.
What is the primary characteristic of the sceptic? To thrust the onus of convincing him onto the world. He is not beholden to believe in anything or anybody. The majority opinion is meaningless. The views of experts are meaningless. They must take the trouble to talk to you in the language you understand, and not in the jargon they use. The sceptic is perfectly at ease being agnostic about climate change even if Greta Thunberg is promising the end of the world. To ask him to suffer the public transport of Mumbai instead of his car for predictions that can only be tested after his death is, to him, just like religion.
It is no coincidence that I am in journalism. There are not many professions where scepticism is an advantage. You cannot be a banker and be a loud fount of doubt about the banking industry. Sooner or later, you will get fired. Journalism or the creative professions, give a wider berth to sceptics. You will find a lot of them ghettoised here but only up to the point of functionality. There is a fine line between deviants of value and outright rebels. As there is between a sceptic and a conspiracy theorist. And it is for the sceptic himself to walk that line in order to negotiate the world. Covid is a good instance of it. There is a lot in the response to the pandemic that I think is the perfect example of a mind-dead herd mentality. Believe the expert is supposed to be the only option when no one knows anything. But neither will most of the experts because scientific certainty is an incremental process. The most touted expert in the world today is Anthony Fauci, who is leading the US’ strategy on Covid. He made his reputation in the 1980s when the AIDS pandemic began. But in the beginning, Fauci actually said—and there is a video floating around of a television interview—that HIV spreads through ordinary contact at home, and not just sexual contact and sharing of needles. HIV does not spread through close contact, as we now know. But imagine the damage to the HIV patient and his family who would have ostracised him if they believed in Fauci. What should Fauci have done? Just not spoken until the science was certain. But experts cannot hold themselves back with half-opinions even while they ask ordinary people to. Last year, Fauci said masks were not necessary. That to him was the good lie because he wanted masks to be available for healthcare workers. But it was still a lie because he believed at the time that masks worked. I continue to remain ambivalent.
The sceptic lives in a world where the state is getting bigger and venal. At the other end, political correctness has become weaponised. Different forms of such extremism will keep recurring as waves of a pandemic
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It is good to be sceptical of experts because their motivations and fallibility are just as ordinary as you and I. Take how earlier the scientific community, media and social media companies got together to shut down anyone talking about the theory that the virus was manmade in a laboratory in Wuhan. Now, it has become mainstream and joined the ideas that are acceptable to consider. No one gets ridiculed for saying it. If masks prevent transmission, why do we see wave after wave? The blame is always put on the individual, the accusation being that no one followed the mandate. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have happened. The sceptic refuses to own that blame because there is no evidence of that either.
I wear masks. I have taken two doses of the vaccine. I do so for many reasons other than faith. I took the vaccine knowing well that this was new technology not tested adequately enough. And some of that suspicion has been justified given how poorly vaccines have done in stopping transmission. But one reason to follow the herd this time was to take a probabilistic view—how much harm can there be versus the good, even if very little, that it does. I differ from the anti-vaxxers who think that the possibility of long-term side effects, of which no one has a clue, outweighs the present benefits. But that is the worst-case scenario and if you live by such a yardstick, you might as well stop crossing any street for fear of being run over by a car. The second reason to take the vaccine is simply that while governments say that it is voluntary, there is gradual coercion by making the unvaccinated an outcaste denied the privilege of being in public spaces like malls or airports. Such a tactic is morally and legally dishonest but it would eventually force everyone to do it, and one might as well accept the inevitable.
To be a sceptic is not to be courageous. Both are admirable virtues, but they are different ones. To survive with dignity, pragmatism is necessary. Especially in the latest metamorphosis of social media, where being cancelled is a sword over every head. What must be said must still be said, but words must be chosen cautiously in the public square. It is perhaps an unprincipled way of being, but blame it too on the environment one exists in. Yet another disease the sceptic must guard against is slipping into the inviting arms of conspiracy theories. There is really no formula for how to do this because the territories can overlap. One just has to keep common sense grounded.
If something is too bizarre to be true, then usually it is. There are still those who think that the Chinese deliberately leaked the virus into the world and that seems like an idiotic thing for anyone to do. An accident on the other hand, especially when there is a laboratory doing research on coronaviruses right there in Wuhan, seems eminently within the bounds of reason.
Conspiracy theorists are sceptics and occasionally even strike the truth, but they have no filter or depth.
The sceptic lives in a world where the state is getting bigger and venal. At the other end, political correctness has become weaponised. Taboos on thought are celebrated as when the MeToo wave happened, anyone rooting for due process or the idea of innocence until proven guilty was deemed an enabler of sexual harassment. Different forms of such extremism will keep recurring like waves of a pandemic. With Covid, for instance, anyone arguing against vaccination sees his Twitter and Facebook posts carrying disclaimers, or outrightly blocked. From the state to corporations that own our lives, all are forcing a black-and-white version of the world onto us. I prefer colour as much as possible.