Amid the growing protests against intolerance, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Raghuram Rajan on Saturday emphasised the need “to improve the environment for ideas through tolerance and mutual respect”. He also warned that “excessive political correctness stifles progress”, and “a quick resort to bans will chill all debate”.
Addressing students at the convocation of the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi, Rajan said protection should be given not to “specific ideas and traditions” but to the “right to question and challenge” and the “right to behave differently so long as it does not hurt others seriously”.
“India’s tradition of debate and an open spirit of enquiry is critical for its economic progress. Economic growth through new ideas and production methods is what our professors and alumni contribute to the nation. The first essential is to foster competition in the marketplace for ideas. This means encouraging challenge to all authority and tradition. What this rules out is anyone imposing a particular view or ideology because of their power,” said Rajan.
He said tolerance can take the offence out of debate and instill respect. “Tolerance means not being so insecure about one’s ideas that one cannot subject them to challenge — it implies a degree of detachment that is absolutely necessary for mature debate… Finally, respect requires that in the rare case when an idea is tightly associated with a group’s core personality, we are extra careful about challenging it,” said Rajan.
“A quick resort to bans will chill all debate as everyone will be anguished by ideas they dislike. It is far better to improve the environment for ideas through tolerance and mutual respect,” he said.
“Groups should not be looking for slights any and everywhere, so that too much is seen as offensive; the theory of confirmation bias in psychology suggests that once one starts looking for insults, one can find them everywhere, even in the most innocuous statements. Excessive political correctness stifles progress as much as excessive licence and disrespect,” he added.
Citing the example of economist Robert Solow, Rajan said: “(It’s) by encouraging the challenge of innovative rebels that society develops (and) gets the ideas that propel Solow’s total factor productivity growth”.
Rajan also cited an anecdote from physicist Richard Feynman’s autobiography. “In his autobiography, he writes how he found the atmosphere at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton stultifying because there were no students to ask him questions, questions that would force him to rethink his beliefs and perhaps discover new theories. So nothing should be excluded but everything should be subject to debate and constant testing. Without this competition for ideas, we have stagnation,” he said.
“As you go out in the world, remember our tradition of debate in an environment of respect and tolerance. By upholding it, by fighting for it, you will be repaying your teachers in this great institution, and your parents who worked so hard to send you here. And you will be doing our country a great patriotic service,” said Rajan.