On consensus

Swami Gulagulaananda quoted:
"One can wake a sleeping man, not a man pretending to sleep."

"Consensus" is an intriguing concept - It is difficult to get a group of people to agree to something. People who have tried to organise reunions or get-togethers will be familiar with the concept. It's incredibly hard to get people to agree to a date, a location, time - and eventually, some people will backoff nonetheless. Driving of consensus in a group is hard - and it becomes exponentially harder as the number of people increases.

It is the same with debates where the two teams have different opinions, and each tries to convince the other. Historically, scholars in India used to travel across towns challenging various schools to understand which school of thought was the best. One of the well-known contests is between Adi Shankaracharya and Mandan Mishra, where the defeated scholar had to follow the philosophy of the victor (Shankaracharya won). What is more important to note is that there was an actual winner. A debate that involves logic, rationality and facts can end because they are undeniable.

Data-driven decisions are vital in this era of data and information. Many large corporations like Amazon, Google and Facebook are using data to detect patterns and arrive at conclusions based on the result. Companies run A/B tests to verify their hypotheses and arrive at conclusions based on the results. One shouldn't draw inferences if there is inadequate data. Precision is another vital component in data-driven decisions. We have to be specific when we call something out. Amazon, in particular, requires documents to avoid 'weasel words' - words that don't add value and are vague.

Achieving consensus in discussions and polemics becomes virtually impossible when people are not open to a new view. Opinion-based arguments can further compound this challenge. One cannot convince a person who has already made up his mind about a topic that cannot be factually refuted.

However, one should also differentiate between opinions and facts. Facts are immutable while views are not. I am seeing several people who are well educated and from premiere institutions, sharing lies and claiming them to be 'an alternative viewpoint'. A lie is not an alternative viewpoint. I cannot say that the Earth is flat and claim that to be an alternative viewpoint, much to the chagrin of the Flat Earth Society. One correct approach could be for two teams to use the same set of facts and interpret them differently.

The government of India took a historically significant decision by repealing Article 370. While the majority of the nation rejoiced, there were a few that cried foul. Social media websites have become crowd-sourced battlefields and news spreads very quickly. For every view, there is a counterview, much like the arrows of Ramayana from the two camps that would cancel one other. And it is perfectly fine to have a counterview - In fact, counterviews should be encouraged in any healthy system.

If one wishes to write against what the government has done, one should be precise in their allegation. There are several posts circulated online that complain about the 'unconstitutional approach' of the government, and nothing in the writing justifies the specific nature of 'unconstitutional'. It is a quintessential weasel-word.

A combination of weasel words and opinions masquerading as facts become dangerous when there is bias. If one is already against the government, reading such material will further fan the flames of discord. As responsible citizens, we have to be careful about what we are sharing and what we are challenging.

It appears that most people take a challenge to be a personal affront. When asked to share evidence of the claim made, the response is usually a personal attack, like "Are you paid by the BJP?" That is not a valid response when one is asked to justify a lie, just like "I don't have to answer to you" isn't either; for it isn't it hypocritical? A healthy system, be it a society, a government or an organisation, should have its members answerable to one another, irrespective of your alignments. We may not always achieve consensus, but we should differ only in the interpretations.

To summarise, upstanding citizens of the country should strive to hold others to be accountable and be accountable themselves. We should challenge, debate and question one another, using facts wherever possible, for it is only through debates that the most advanced philosophies like the Upanishads took birth in India.


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