One of the biggest problems with public opinion today is that it’s lazy and easy to manipulate. Give people a story that easily fits in with the dominant narrative and you can be sure they will buy into it, however stupid the story may be, or oversimplified. The search is always on for that option which is intellectually least stimulating.
That’s precisely why we take so many of our cues from television and social media, neither of which is known for the sophistication of ideas they put out, or its analysis. Both deliver you instant news. But, more dangerously, both feed you instant analysis, instant opinions. And the truth, as we all know, rarely lies in such easy constructs. As all those who admire Sherlock will advise you, the most obvious interpretation of an event is the least likely to be correct. That’s why Sherlock always asked Watson for what he thought about a case so that he could reject that very option and look in the opposite direction. For truth always hides in the most unlikely of places. Only the truly adventurous can locate it.
The problem is we are always in a hurry to nail the criminal, not scrutinize the crime with abundant caution and care. While looking for quick closures, we end up with cases that cannot be eventually defended in a court of law. That’s why Salman goes scot free after so many years of litigation and Hassan Ali’s tax liability, after a decade of investigations and 14 rejected bail pleas, is found to be only Rs 3 crore by the Income Tax Tribunal, not Rs 37,000 crore as originally assessed. Meanwhile, the media has already tried and hung these guys. Both have been in prison, Salman for a short spell and Ali (a sick man) for years.
Like instant news and instant opinions, we now desire instant justice. So we have begun to think and argue like a lynch mob and spurn any opinion that does not feed our need for blood. We have de-intellectualised the process of problem solving because we see it as an unnecessary and complex burden. What we want to do is quickly feed those who we think are guilty to the hungry lions and watch the gory spectacle play out on our daily news bulletins.
Those who live off fame are the real soft targets. The media finds it easy to build stories around them, often based on scarce facts. And people at large love to see reputations besmirched. The industry of scandal is growing faster than the actual media business. There must be many debtors who owe the banks more money than Mallya and are far less likely to repay them but they manage to stay out of the news because their anonymity protects them. No one is looking for facts today. Everyone is hunting down targets. I will be very curious to see how many people are successfully prosecuted among the 500 in the Panama Papers. The fault is not theirs. Every Indian who has a foreign account in a tax shelter is not necessarily sitting on a stash of black money. He could be simply going about doing his business with all procedures in place. It is we who have already (and lazily) pre-judged them.
We need to stop hunting down easy headlines. Instant justice may be a good idea but if we keep chasing it all the time, we will only allow others to play with our minds, manipulate us. We must be better informed. And that can only happen when we stop judging people without finding out, as we once did, more about them. That’s news.
The rest? Scandal hunting.
( Modified on Pritish Nandy).