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Beware the single brush

Why this generalised climate of suspicion can be so self-defeating

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
November 23, 2010 4:27:41 am

The surface meaning of corruption,the use of public office for private gain,is now turning out to be a symptom of a deeper malaise. The threat to Indian democracy does not come merely from acts of corruption. It comes from the fact that the very sensibility that underlies corruption is beginning to infect much of public discourse,including efforts to counter corruption. To understand how insidious this deeper form of corruption is,we need to step back from debate over who is guilty and who is not and look at the larger institutional picture,which is revealing a deeper psychic malaise.

This phenomenon can best be understood by stepping out of a narrow understanding of corruption and returning to the core meaning of political corruption,most vividly outlined in the classical texts like Thucydides and Polybius. In this account,three elements are central to the moral psychology of corruption. The first is that every institution or act becomes merely instrumental to some extraneous end. A vocation is no longer defined by its core identity and mission; it is governed by external incentives. Using public office for private gain is merely one form of instrumentalism. But there are other manifestations of instrumentalism. The most obvious one is that lots of different institutions initially wear the mantle of virtue,and then use that mantle to further their own power beyond acceptable bounds. The aftermath of the “Raja” controversy has displayed this crass instrumentalism in full measure. Tapes of conversations between journalists and various lobbyists have been put online and some publications have carried stories on these conversations. The ostensible purpose is to show deep corruption in the media,where significant media personalities become power brokers and influence peddlers. To what extent these tapes establish corruption can be debated; and it would be inappropriate to comment on the guilt or innocence of particular individuals.

But we should worry about this. Often well-intentioned attempts to combat corruption enact the very instrumentalism that they seek to decry. First of all,there now seems to be virtually no check on the state in terms of what private conversations it can record,under what pretext. The state becomes even more deeply corrupt when it gives up the principles that should regulate its conduct; when in the name of pursuing investigations it gives itself carte blanche to do virtually anything. The fact that this “evidence” collected by the state is leaked,ostensibly for some instrumental purpose should worry us. The fact that all this purported evidence is published in the name of transparency,without context,without any institutional mediation at all,should worry us. We should worry that under the guise of promoting transparency we now promote a prurient interest in private conversations of people,irrespective of whether or not they are relevant to establishing guilt or innocence. Whether particular individuals are guilty or not should be investigated by proper means. But society exhibits a deeper form of corruption and corrosion of principles when all procedures and values are made instrumental to some external mission. What is now being revealed in the name of “anti-corruption” has echoes of totalitarian surveillance: the erasure of privacy,everyone is a snitch on everyone else,and every act other than it seems. The quest for justice becomes a rhetorical cloak for other vices: prurience,settling of private scores,or merely promotion of one’s own virtue.

Admittedly,it is hard to disguise the glee in some quarters that this has happened to the media; what goes around comes around. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt once wrote a great essay on how democracy was subverted more by “bullshit” than by “lies”. A liar at least acknowledges the distinction between a truth and a lie; he just wants to hide the truth. A “bull-shitter” is more dangerous because he does not care for the distinction between a truth and a lie: all subtle distinctions between innuendo and fact,speculation and reality,higher and lower values,relevant and irrelevant facts,are done away with. This is the point where you cannot tell the distinction between a lie and a truth; or rather even truth is simply a weapon for some other extraneous goal. All discourse operates at the same level. The danger is that in our democracy if there are no credible mediating institutions left,this is exactly the position where we end up: discourse without a sense of judgment and discrimination. Whether or not the media will now produce more measured discussions is an open question,but the corruption of discourse is hard to reverse.

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The final element of the moral psychology of corruption is impatience with institutional forms.

Institutional forms matter in society because they are the only contrivances we have to mediate matters of truth. Otherwise the test of truth will simply be what any individual can declaim loudly: some claim authority to pronounce on the truth simply on the basis of their own virtue,some because they think they have served the poor,some because they think they are smart,some because they think they have access to secrets. We are,understandably,impatient that our institutions have not done the job of mediating these rival claims; no one has authority we can trust. It is this vacuum that literally allows anything to fill up the space.

Edmund Burke was one the greatest political crusaders against corruption. He fought not just against patronage,but also deeper forms of corruption: the subversion by the state of its own principles,the propensity of society to make everything instrumental. But he warned that nothing is more dangerous to society than what he called “general invective”. He wrote: “An opinion of the indiscriminate corruption of the House of Commons will,at length,induce a disgust of Parliaments.” His point simply was that while specific cases of corruption needed to be pursued,the authority of institutions needed to be preserved. Fortunately our voters often exercise delicate political judgment in the face of limited choices. But there is a real danger that if we are not more discriminating in judging institutions we will suffer from a psychic corruption that is hard to

rectify. We will legitimise the idea of a crass instrumentalism in the pursuit of goals; our impatience will prompt us to set aside basic values like privacy and due process. And the generalised climate of suspicion will also be self-defeating. After all,when you can’t presume to know who is corrupt and who is not,not being corrupt has no social meaning.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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