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India Sucks At Nuanced Debate And It's Our Most Dangerous Problem

Whether it's demonetisation or Jallikattu or whatever tears us apart next, here are six things we’ve got to stop doing when a fraught topic comes along.

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For anyone expecting yet another think piece on Jallikattu, I’m happy to disappoint you.

This isn’t an elaborate deconstruction of the issue for a simple reason: I’m a privileged, urban, middle class techie.

Beyond the once-a-year trip to my father’s native village in Tirunelveli, I have zero emotional attachment with rural life or the remotest appreciation for its cultural milieu and traditions.

Having watched Rajini’s Murattu Kaalai doesn’t count, unfortunately.

I am, however, like millions of others, constantly bombarded with information and opinions from all sides, from dubious WhatsApp forwards about PETA secretly being in the Jersey cow import-export business, to clueless Delhi and Mumbai-based media outlets that paint the tradition like it was a combination of Sati, child marriage and genital mutilation, except involving bulls.


It would be simple for me to sit on the fence and say something like, “Both sides of the argument have merit,” and go back to watching videos of cats enacting scenes from Star Wars. But that’s just plain laziness.

So let me come right out and tell you what my position is.

I think the ban on Jallikattu is wrong and must be overturned. I also think that organisers of these events must work with animal rights activists and local (not South Block) authorities to put in place regulation that will penalise the kinds of abusive behaviour that was alleged by these activists in the first place.

There. I said it.

Now, perhaps you expect me to cherry-pick evidence that supports my viewpoint, and lay out a winning case in front of you, the jury.

I’m going to disappoint you again.

My position on Jallikattu is not important at all.

I arrived at my viewpoint through the very same tortuous, half-baked information strewn route that all of you did.


I’m far more interested in how we collectively inform ourselves when it comes taking positions on contentious issues.

I’m interested in the design of the discourse and, right now, we really suck at it.

Not just in the case of Jallikattu — we sucked at it when it came to demonetisation, and every other fraught topic ever since social media became mainstream.

There are six things we all do when faced with a nuanced, polarising, contentious news debate.

Raise your hand if any of these statements apply to you. And then reconsider.

Let’s perhaps begin with how we process news.

All news, as Nate Silver said rather presciently, is the organised collection and dissemination of rare events.

For example: what would you report on? That most Jallikattu events are largely injury and death-free? Or on the one instance where chillies, lime juice, and alcohol were involved?


We should be aware that there is an implicit rare-event bias in all news.

No single piece of news is worth outraging about at all because it is likely a product of bias, ignorance and an exaggeration of the trivial.

This is not a call to ignore all news, just a request to adjust the mental weightage knob for any single source of it.

Read widely, with lots of pinches of iodised salt.


Once we have received the news, we quickly take a side.

After being misinformed in the first place, we now take that misinformation, add our confirmation biases, and grab the pitchforks to battle for the stance we’ve decided to take.

Why do we do this? Why isn't it okay to confess to a perennial state of partial ignorance?

It’s much harder to wear armour and grab weapons if you aren’t really sure that your stance is the right one. That's why.

But having taken a position, there is an all-too-human need to defend it, even if further information should, as one Thomas Bayes suggested, change your mind.

But the dictum “one must defend one's beliefs, changing one’s mind is hypocritical” is quite possibly the most senseless bit of advice ever.


Changing one's mind should be celebrated as a virtue, not decried.

This is why further factual information will almost always either be ignored or discredited and, regularly, this is when fake facts crop up to support whatever side you happen to be on.

The viscerally irrational reaction to PETA is a good example of this.

For instance, the fact that they only went after Jallikattu while ignoring every other example of animal cruelty is patently wrong.

If anything, they’ve been annoyingly consistent about their extreme positions — they oppose every single form of animal exploitation, including meat eating or dairy farming (which makes the whole Jersey cow conspiracy rather silly).

But the fact that this happens to be one court case where they seem to have been on the winning side gives us the illusion that they have some special dislike for rural Tamil Nadu. They don't.

And then, there is the distorting lens of privilege that makes a lot of us urban citizens fundamentally unable to understand how rural life works.

To believe that defenders of Jallikattu are all barbaric folk who want to cruelly hurt their own livestock is astoundingly ridiculous and patronising.

Just because you have a kitchen garden and eat organic food doesn’t mean that you understand the lives and traditions of rural India.

If we lived in a world where lab-grown meat and synthetically produced milk were a reality, the moral dilemma around animal exploitation would be essentially different. But we aren’t, so it helps to recognise that absolutist moral codes don’t really work.

In addition to this, we then go in search of whatabouts – that most fundamental particle of the political discourse cosmos.

To illustrate, here are some examples of first-rate whataboutery:

If we are protesting against Jallikattu, what about the anti-dowry law? Oh yeah, what about horse racing? I see, what about Bakr-id then? You also eat sweet pongal, but what about the cow's consent to be milked? What about Sati and untouchability? Jallikattu is not OK, but what about castration of bulls? And pet dogs, while we are at it?

The problem with whataboutery is that, like Hydrogen, it’s everywhere.

The moment we spring whatabouts on each other, we become blind to the fact that many of them might well be false equivalences.

And if you can’t spot the false equivalences here, I recommend a trip to the Total Perspective Vortex.

All whatabouts cancel each other. We should just ignore them.

A bull is like a woman and Jallikattu is therefore rape.

I didn’t make that up. Someone actually brought this up on an English language TV debate.

Analogies tend to work like astrology. The moment one or two things are serendipitously accurate or similar, we begin to trust all the rest of the bullshit.

Analogies are like an advanced form of whataboutery, which by itself is an analogy. So you see how self-referentially stupid they are.

According to physician and psychologist Edward De Bono, there is a fundamental problem with debates – a debate participant first and foremost wants to win. That can never ever be good for learning.

And when you combine all of our cognitive biases, put eight people on TV, highlight their opposing views and expect them to come to a consensus about an already-fraught debate, it’s pretty much antim sanskaar for the topic.

For instance, one of the debates reduced the Jallikattu issue to the headline “Tamil pride vs. animal rights,” as if both were mutually exclusive concepts.

A debate, by its very design, aims to pit extremist views in a cage match.

Even if the person supporting Jallikattu wants to say “look, we understand animal rights too” or if the rights activist wants to say “look, we understand the importance of traditional customs,” they will not do so because any form of drift towards a sensible compromise defeats the very purpose of the debate – to win.

De Bono suggests an alternative design.

Would it perhaps be better if we invite both sides to present their case for one side of the issue and then ask both of them present the case against it? It has the immediate benefit of cancelling out the biggest problem of the debate format: the inability of either side to empathise with the other.

What if animal rights activists were asked to argue their case assuming that Jallikattu will happen?

What if, instead, animal rights activists were asked to argue their case assuming that Jallikattu will happen?

It’s far more likely that we’d get more airtime for suggestions that involve regulation, not bans.

Similarly, if Jallikattu supporters were to momentarily suspend notions of identity and pride and only consider animal rights, it’s likely that the fact that none of the bull owners want to see their animals get dangerously hurt would come to the forefront.

So here’s the thing: given our misinformation-saturated media landscape, a radically networked society, the increasing ease of spreading fake news, our cognitive biases, and the urban-rural divide, it’s easy for any of us to take that long and winding path to any conclusion, in support or against any issue.

So all I ask for is some benefit of doubt and the grace to accept that someone who disagrees with us just took a slightly different turn along the way.







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