Power of respect and productive criticism
Dr P R Datta
I know that I am not alone in being aghast at some of the scenes that have emerged on television over the last few weeks with the state election in West Bengal. Politics is not in my domain, and I do not follow any political debates. However, many of my work colleagues and social associates have their vested interest in some form or shape in India, particularly West Bengal. They talked about politics, mono-culturalism, multi-culturalism, secularism and political dynamism in West Bengal. I am not a political critic. But as a member of the public, I have a social duty to raise my voice against any social odds.
I am always sceptical about politics, not because it is terrible but because political culture works in many parts of the world. Anyone entering the political arena needs to be ready for the dangers that wait. For the word ‘arena’ is just right; in many respects, the world they enter has echoes of the gladiatorial arenas of Ancient Rome. Politics has always been a dirty business, not because politicians are necessarily dishonest people, but because power by its very nature is a magnet for some who see opportunities for wealth. Many politicians are people of principle and conviction, but others have less lofty motives and have no concern for those whose careers they damage and destruction along the way. Instead of wanting to serve the public or the nation, they are self-serving and self-obsessed.
I have been watching several TV programmes and news, talk shows and political debates in recent weeks. To my surprise, I am amazed to see some of the discussions by intellectuals, mainly academics, doctors, politicians, political analysts, and legislators. The ways they debate, use inappropriate words, abusive attitude, rude outburst and swearing exchanges, shouting each other’s, not allowing others to discuss and try to lead the discussion is entirely awful. The exact parallel can be drawn concerning Bangladesh, particularly in media appearance and communicating and expressing our views on others. A recent Bangladeshi TV channel’s Talk show has grabbed my attention. A prominent Bangladeshi TV channel was airing this talk show in which a senior Govt. official and legislator, who is also a prominent businessman, talked very rudely with intimidating and abusive manner. At one point, he made unacceptable comments to the anchor and calling him “stupid”. Such mean behaviour is utterly inappropriate. Such patterns of behaviour are not an example of a one-off incident. Instead, this becomes the norms, habits and routines of conducting one’s behaviour. I have often witnessed when our so-called civil society members or politicians express their opinions or points of view, they only try to defend their opinions without appropriate justification and do not want to follow other’s thoughts. People can easily understand their dismissive treatment through disinterested mood or insidious nonverbal behaviour by raising eyebrows or making gestures. To demonise others or opponents by making insensitive jokes or taunting others, patronising behaviour or showing arrogancy becomes part and parcel of our culture of debate or making criticism. Making negative comments about others or colleagues and undermines others are just as new normal.
The malicious and spiteful personal attacks in public space or national platforms are not acceptable by any measures and are likely to get worse in the coming weeks and speak volumes of how corrosive and hateful parts of our society have become. It seems that rather than respecting the fact that others hold a different opinion, it is now acceptable to set about savaging them. What message does this send out to the young? The very people who purport to be champions of free speech and liberal values seem to imbibe a poison that is eating away at the fabric of society. Such behaviour and attitudes need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. We need a more enlightened society, one that endeavours to lift people rather than generalising and label them.
We all have the right to express our opinion as it is well protected and respected in many developed societies. I firmly believe that everyone’s personal views should be respected and should not be threatened. However, we should realise that there is a clear distinction between what we say and how we say, our conduct, not the content. Our behaviour should be in line with societal moral, rules and parameters. If our freedom of expression or activities causes severe disorder, violence and goes against societal values, creates disharmony, this will be seen as a misuse of liberty, unlawful. Our freedom of expression can be challenged and restricted by the authorities. We all have the right to speak. However, if we enjoy the essence of human rights, we must also take responsibilities for human wrongs. This is when we get moral justice. Free debate, good actions, convincing arguments are essential to counter hatred, prejudices, and inequality in society.
The recent events in West Bengal, India, are a great reminder of our moral and societal obligation. Whatever happened to social distancing? Those who claim to care about the public suffering from COVID-19 are now out behaviour thorough irresponsibly, potentially endangering lives. What we are witnessing is not a legitimate victory parade; it is verging on anarchy. Unsavoury elements are seeking to exploit legitimate hurt and direct it at others. I was appalled to see that the mobs heavily beat an 80-year-old mother. What has been happening is truly scary and deeply disturbing.
However, this is not part of my discussion; instead, my focus is on abusive behaviour toward others. Dreadful things are happening across the world, and not only in West Bengal. We could all do with finding out what is happening elsewhere, not in the media, educating ourselves, and then finding a constructive way to do something positive about it. We can make a difference. Let us make it a positive one. We need respect, understanding and love. At this time, I would ask where the love is? I find myself wondering what we are doing to inspire the young. Are we encouraging them to think for themselves? Are we helping them to learn to seek new knowledge? Have we provided them with the compass to navigate their way to the wisdom of the past?
Some people in our society are very corrosive, greedy, dishonest and selfish. Power is abused at every stage of our national life, a thousand time a day by some individuals. As a member of civil society, we always forget that we have a civic duty to create a harmonise and inclusive community based on the premise of zero tolerance of bullying, injustices, and abusive disrespectful behaviours. We all must work assiduously in developing young people’s self-esteem, level of confidence, and moral character. Behavioural code of practices, principles and norms should be established so that we all can follow them to ensure power is not abused. Members of civil society, politicians, educators, doctors, artists, experts, and industry leaders should take bold steps to ensure they have a respectful attitude towards others with a calm, tolerant, and sincere mindset. Often, we see people interrupting during the discussion, disregards other’s opinion, showing disinterest with dismissive treatment or insidious non-verbal behaviour, appearing dull during debate on others. These should be avoided to make the discussion productive and fruitful.
In many TV talk shows or debate sessions, people like to show mood matching behaviour. Shouting against shouting, anger against anger, intimidation against intimidation, if someone disrespect, others follow the same patterns. This type of behaviour will not help to solve many challenging issues we are facing within a society. Such behaviours can cause serious problems not only to the opponents, but it has severe societal consequences. During the discussion, it can create a hostile and unhealthy environment in which individuals’ contribution can be reduced and undermines morale. Therefore, all concerned institutions, including Government, private and non-Governmental entities at all local and national level, must create a behavioural code of conduct to enhance inter-relationships and collaborations between colleagues and others. Zero tolerance policies should be applied against any misbehaviour through appropriate enforcement mechanisms. To ensure the environment is inclusive and friendly, intervention policy is essential as required to address such behaviours regardless of the offender’s societal status, position, wealth, popularity and connections. Enforcement consistency should have adhered to so that it will be widely accepted by society.
When we criticise others, we should have the courage to make positive and constructive criticism rather than making negative and fault-finding feedback. It is not right to state what is wrong or intentionally demonising others. Constructive criticism should come with suggesting appropriate avenues for improvements. Such type of criticism not only helping individuals reflect on their mistakes and learn about the areas of improvements. If criticisms come with specific personal interest or motivation such as displaying own’s superiority, demonising others, degrading or humiliating, such criticism will not be taken seriously or will cause harm. Therefore, criticism must be friendly, helpful and respectful. However, society is such abrasive that constructive criticism is unknown to many. When criticism provides in an impersonal and respectful fashion without any personal attack, it offers adequate support for others. Contemptuous criticism is unhealthy for personal growth and societal values.
Respect comes with openness, appreciation, honesty and a tenacious mindset, and such a person is always calm and does not lose their temper in any situational context. Such disposition is an essential human character, and society benefits from such values. Albert Einstein asserted this notion with the following quote “I speak to everyone in the same way whether he is the garbage man or the president of the University”. Very profound and powerful statement that shown equality and great respect to others. A great human character. When people respect others, they cannot talk bad things, demonise or underestimates others.
The Writer is Executive Chair, Centre for Business & Economic Research, UK