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In conversation with Dr Meera Ashar
What would you do if you were told that there was a course about bullshit at the School of Culture, History & Language? Like most, you’d probably react with disbelief and amusement—after all, who would actually teach something of that nature?
Meet Dr Meera Ashar, a historian of ideas. Her interests lie at the intersection of history, political theory and literary studies, and her work questions categories and conceptual frameworks with which we seek to make sense of human societies, both past and present. According to Dr Ashar, she was drawn to studying India because she found a lot of writing on India, especially on everyday phenomena, rather opaque.
We recently spoke to Dr Ashar about one of her most unique courses, ASIA6272: Truth and Falsity in Indian History and Politics, which stemmed from a mild annoyance with the amount of bullshit—and Meera use this as a technical term—that circulates in our understanding of human societies.
“I started with studying the contemporary and found that many clues to understanding some of the current questions lay in the past. Also, there was less bullshit in debates in the 18th and 19th centuries—not because they were better or brighter than contemporary interlocutors but because they were genuinely trying to understand and explain things. Which is also why I love teaching— it is a space where we can freely reflect on questions of research without worrying about hurting the sentiments of fellow academics or toeing the line on what will get published. It is a space of pure knowledge and very often in reflecting with students one ends up saying: but the Emperor has no clothes on! I immensely enjoy those ‘aha’ moments we share in the classroom.” — Dr Meera Ashar
Q. What’s the story behind the genesis of this course?
A. This course was designed in 2013 and pre-empted the centrality of the debates on fake news, misinformation and falsity in contemporary politics as levels of bullshit, or bakwaas, if you want the Hindi term, in contemporary debates in and on politics and society increased steadily.
So, what do we mean by bullshit, exactly? I use the term in a similar context as does Harry Frankfurt in his influential essay, On Bullshit, which states that the thing about the ‘bullshitter’ is that he does not value truth, unlike the liar who may not like the truth and so tries to change it or conceal it. The ‘bullshitter’ simply has no regard for the truth, he is not trying to get to it, and he is quite indifferent to it.
Q. What does it mean to “seek the truth”?
A. Here is where the second motivation for the course lies—that truth is sadly reduced to fact. Following from this, the motivation for much knowledge enterprise—the fact that once incorrect information is replaced by factually correct material—we will have arrived at the truth; ignorance will be dispelled, and the light of truth will shine on. Not only is this incorrect, but more importantly, terribly boring!
When we actually look at particular phenomena, like stereotypes, for example, we find that this does not hold true. The assumption is that you hold a stereotype (negative or positive) about X, and once you get to know more about X you will change your mind. I elaborate with a globally popular stereotype: All Muslims are terrorists. We know in India that this (or versions of this) are often chanted by the Hindu right or their supporters. How do we understand and address such stereotypes that cause deep socio-political problems?
One assumption is that the Hindu right and their supporters don’t really know Muslims, and once we show them how nice or ’normal’ or similar to them the Muslims are, these stereotypes will begin to breakdown. But we find that people who hold these stereotypes may often have friends or neighbours who are Muslims and when asked: ‘Do you think your friend is also a terrorist?’ the response often is: ‘No, I don't mean him, I mean a typical Muslim or Muslims in general.’
Similar patterns can be observed in other domains, which make it incredibly difficult to tackle ‘fake news’ or posts and stories that circulate on Facebook® or on WhatsApp™ groups. The herculean task we see ahead of ourselves of correcting all incorrect information is doomed from the start.
Q. Can you share any other instances to elaborate the ideas of truth?
A. In opposition to the idea of truth as fact, an equally banal assertion is made that all truth is relative and, in a sense, the pursuit of truth is itself a problem because there are multiple truths and each one has their own truth. Now this is not just dangerous, but also an unproductive way of going about things. We want to have a dialogue, and we should be able to explain and understand things rather than sit back and say, well, I guess this is their truth. Here’s an interesting anecdote to explain my point. When travelling in India, waiting for a bus or train, you ask a local passenger when the next train or bus will arrive. They will more often than not tell you, ‘oh, it will be here soon’, or ‘it will arrive in a few minutes’, etc. No train arrives for the next few hours and your fellow passenger likely knows this. So is he lying? We cannot really find a motivation for the lie, so it is tempting to say: he believes the train will arrive soon. This is his truth.’
Q. So what might be the rationale for this ‘lie’, then?
A. Perhaps a better approach would be to look a bit deeper, and we realise that he finds it offensive to disappoint a visitor and this is his way of offering comfort. Once you recognise this cultural pattern, so many things that appeared to be casual lies are put in a different perspective. It also helps you deal a little better with the frustrating Indian bureaucracy next time they tell you, ‘Yes, this form will surely be signed tomorrow’!
Q. What’s your take on the perceptions around beef in India?
A. One of the topics in the course, which I revise annually, is on beef bans in particular, and banning things more generally. This year, in reading debates on beef bans and cow protection, we examined the idea of vegetarianism in India. The terms used, in themselves, speak volumes—veg (vegetarian) and non-veg. Everything other than vegetarian food is just non-(vegetarian) food. So for a vegetarian, this is just not food. And the explanation for why people are vegetarian may simply be that they do not see meat as food. So for those who don’t eat beef, the reason may simply be that they do not see it as food. Like people who don’t eat snails or dogs, while others do.
Some of the more popular explanations that invoke religion and caste, or the inherent non-violence of Indians or their living in harmony with animals offer good stories—stories with more gravitas if you like, but they do not bear out when we see that many devout Hindus are meat eaters, many who don’t see themselves as religious are vegetarian, and many are fairly cruel to animals and humans alike! This would also explain why you will rarely find Indian vegetarians in vegan restaurants, where soy products are disguised as meat!
Whether it’s Indian politics or just universal facets of truth, bias and falsity, Dr Ashar’s perspectives certainly bring forth some very interesting food for thought. We look forward to hearing more from Dr Ashar and her students on the thought-provoking themes that are thrown open for debate and discussion as part of the wide and versatile banner that CHL offers—now including a course on bullshit.
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