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Intolerant India: Are We Teaching Our Young To Speak Up But Dumb Down?

17/01/2016 8:29 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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India, Rajasthan, two young boys using laptop computer

"Arguments have a shorter life in this country, and invariably, they are more incendiary than insightful, more spectacular than substantial," argues Siddharth Singh in his latest article for Open Magazine. Against the backdrop of several conversations that I have witnessed over the last few years on social media, at dinner tables and on prime time news television shows I find this observation to be a reasonably accurate summary of most of the arguments presented in these discussions.

While the raging debate on intolerance in India currently revolves around religion, it's the larger culture of intolerance in general that I want to talk about here.

The bigger picture

For a while now, general intolerance to a stance that goes against one's worldview has been on display on television and the internet. Comments on online news articles, on YouTube videos and on popular Facebook posts serve as strong reminders of the destructive nature of the arguments made by the general public in the country.

[Children] need to be taught to respectfully challenge the opinions of others, while exploring answers to questions... instead of trying to score points to win debate.

You will find that in their own little ways, these little discussions mirror the larger issue of intolerance globally. Regardless of whether the topic of debate has been on the veracity of the latest drought report, Ravindra Jadeja's inclusion in the Indian test team, or India's new National Security Advisor talks with Pakistan you will notice that it's easy to predict with reasonable accuracy the course that these discussions will take. The majority opinion dominates the discussion, aggression always begets aggression and if you give it enough time, you will see that the debate usually degenerates into personal comments on the participants involved. At which point, the debate ceases to address the issue at hand and instead spirals into a chain of responses, explanations and justifications irrelevant to the core of problem.

If you're watching TV, the clock will call off the debate, but if you're on social media or, worse, at a dinner table the debate usually only ends when one side decides that this is no longer worth the effort and stops responding -- neither side any wiser, the issue largely untouched.

A lot of the arguments that currently rubbish the intolerance debate related to religion right now, do so largely on the basis of two things -- the global context of intolerance in the world right now, especially in Muslim countries, and the history of religious intolerance in India. Without diving deep into the merits or demerits of these arguments, we must ensure that the ghosts of the past and the present, do not dull the vision of the future we want to build.

In a country where humility is fashionable only if you're Rahul Dravid and the objective of most discussions seems to be to win, a spirit of inquiry and openness to feedback that is the core of every healthy debate, is lacking. These are symptoms of a larger problem -- our culture dictates that the aggressor largely be forgiven, even celebrated, as long as he wins the fight. The Prime Minster of India and the captain of the Indian Cricket team, did I hear someone whisper?

The next generation

The larger issue that is a result of the intolerance on display is with the messaging around brand "aggression" that the younger generation is being exposed to day-by-day. Unless we take the time to engage with the next generation and teach them to maintain a spirit of collective inquiry while respectfully challenging the opinion of others, the deeper culture of intolerance is here to stay, and it's not doing the country any good.

Children in our schools need to be exposed to new-age social and political role models that display composure and collected calmness at the face of adversity...

Children in our schools need to be exposed to new-age social and political role models that display composure and collected calmness at the face of adversity, and as Singh rightly points out, move away from making arguments that are inflammatory and exaggerated. During a time when the worth of an online journalist is measured on the number of click-bait headlines he or she has delivered, the education sector in India needs to create constructive spaces where children can come together to debate and discuss key social issues at length. In these spaces they need to be taught to respectfully challenge the opinions of others, while exploring answers to questions that are beneficial to both parties, instead of trying to score points to win debate.

Given how the media isn't playing the role it needs to play -- and doesn't look like it's going to in the near future -- it's imperative that teachers and principals in schools step up to fill in this gap.

Written By Adithya Narayan, 2012-14 TFI Fellow and currently working as manager, Social Advocacy & Innovation with Teach For India.

Applications to the 2016-18 Teach For India Fellowship program are now open. Apply now at http://apply.teachforindia.org/user/register.

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