Democratic Condescension

Recently, I came across an interesting term WEIRD- it is an acronym for western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. The term was used by the psychologist Joseph Heinrich and his associates. Their contention was that it is this small group of statistical outliers that provide us with both the producers and subjects of our contemporary psychological knowledge, which we then go on to happily generalise to the rest of humankind.

Heinrich’s proposition made intuitive sense to me but more importantly, I was struck by the incongruence inherent in the notion of WEIRD- on one hand, it suggests a kind of elitist exclusivity ( western, rich, educated) and on the other an egalitarian inclusivity of democracy. What would be the notion of democracy that such a group will have? A possible answer is suggested by the way election results are analysed by most political commentators, who presumably belong to the WEIRD group.

Elections come and go and each one brings its own set of surprises, but one thing which remains fairly consistent is the reaction of political commentators. If the results are aligned to their preference, then the electorate is commended for its wisdom, and if they are not, then the voter is regarded as a naive recipient of misinformation, false promises or other manipulations. One some times gets the impression that the voter is like a student who is being tested and the commentator is the teacher who is evaluating the performance of the student. If the student has given the right answer then he/she receives a pat on the back for having acted wisely, but if the student gives the wrong answer then the teacher admonishes him/her for having got misled and/or being guided by baser instincts.

For example, if the commentator is a Congress supporter then a congress victory will be interpreted as the intrinsic commitment of the electorate to secular,liberal, pluralistic values; but a congress critic will attribute it to the grip of the feudalistic mai-baap syndrome prevalent in the collectivity. Similarly a BJP supporter will interpret a BJP victory as the voter’s commitment to nationalism and development, but a BJP critic will reprimand the voters for having fallen prey to jingoism and divisive communal polarisation.

Thus the content of what the voter is praised or reprimanded for, will vary depending upon the analyst’s preferences, but the process is identical. Virtually all analysts will either praise the voters for their sagacity and wisdom or subtly reprimand them for allowing themselves to be misled. Needless to say, the praises are more direct and upfront, and the reprimands more subtle and indirect and sometimes even cloaked in the garb of understanding (e.g. people are so frustrated,uninformed and neglected that they become easy targets for false propaganda) Simply put, the WEIRD (in this case, the political analyst) puts him/herself on a platform from where he/she passes judgements on the commoner. The WEIRD is democratic but in a condescending sort of way.

This democratic condescension is visible in virtually all spheres of life. Whenever our personal preferences are at variance with the popular, majority trend, we are likely to feel disdainful towards the majority. In fact, the term populist has a definite derogatory association- as though popular appeal necessarily implies pandering to the baser instincts. This disdain for the majority is often expressed through statements like “you know how people are ..” or ” how can people be /do like this.. “If one were to do a simple experiment of collating all the statements one hears about “human nature” or “people in general”, chances are that the derogatory statements will beat the complimentary ones by a huge distance.

I do not have any substantive evidence to support my hypothesis, but I believe that WEIRDs are particularly susceptible to this condescension towards the majority. I say this, because I think WEIRDs are hyper conscious of their separateness and individualised identity. Consequently, it becomes extremely difficult for them to see themselves as a part of the collective. In contrast, the non-WEIRDs find it easier to see themselves as “one of the many” in a community. Not surprisingly, it is relatively easier to mobilise non-WEIRDS into a collective/political force than WEIRDS. The WEIRDS can voice the concerns of a community and even act on its behalf, but it is not easy for them to become a part of the community.

Given the historical split between the elite and the commoner in India, the issue becomes even more complex. However, the recent events suggest that even in the so called “developed” world, there is a huge disconnect between the WEIRD and the majority. I suspect that while the issue has a socio-economic dimension, it also has a psychological dimension. In case of WEIRDs, the “self-image” of the individual is so heavily governed by a certain idea of being progressive and liberal, that it does not allow any space for aspects which do not fit into it. For example, it is very difficult for a WEIRD to acknowledge any religious/racial paranoia,  gender stereotypes or interpersonal dependencies in him/herself. In contrast, the non-WEIRD has no such problem. He/she is often willing to be quite blasé about them, much to the discomfiture of the WEIRD. In fact, the more flak that he/she receives around these issues that more defiant he/she becomes.

In this scenario, it is easy for the WEIRD to take up the role of some sort of moral guardian of a progressive/liberal perspective and look at the majority as vulnerable children who must be protected from the potential regressive influences of vested interests. This only leads to further alienation of the WEIRDs from the majority. If this vicious circle is to be broken, then the WEIRDs will necessary have to step out of their present frozen notions, acknowledge their own vulnerabilities and anxieties and most importantly learn to grace their part hood and ordinariness.















6 thoughts on “Democratic Condescension

  1. agree with you in principle – we have seen this in BREXIT, in American Presidential elections and most recetly in the Indian state elections.

    some thoughts:
    a) you come across as one of the “WEIRDs” as you comment upon them in this piece. I guess we are in a manner of speaking, part of the so called “WEIRDs” in varying degree. so when we are commenting, aren’t we one of them? so what degree of stepping down has to be done here?
    b) while the so called WEIRDs have been defined very sharply, the so called non WEIRDS have been left as a mass. I wonder whether they are really that non-discernible? what about varying degrees of distinction there? Aren’t there any ambivalence or denial of stereotypes and religious/social paranoia that they have deal with?
    c) In my experience the moral guardianships and frozen notions exist on both sides of the WEIRDs and the so called non WEIRDS and what about the so called “Eastern” Educated Industrialised Rich and Democratic to a degree, kind of people? For instance what about the current head of censor board who does not even allow a film citing “women wants too much” kind of a reason?


    1. I am not sure if there is any ” Eastern” in the current censor board…The WEIRD can be both hyper nationalist and secularist. Gandhi and Nehru they are western education, democratic, rich…I am not sure if Gandhi and Nehru (to an extent) be called WEIRD…

      How do traditional, rural, feudal people look. They belong to a community based on relationship and order. They look at others either as enemies and friends, may be condescending, but not patronizing like the WEIRD

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      1. Agree with your observation. There are several “traditionalists” including intellectual Kshtriyas who are more WEIRD than their counterpoints in the so-called liberal world. I see their conflict as an intra-WEIRD process which may be of very little concern to what I am calling the Majority. Also, thank you for drawing the distinction between patronising and condescending. In hind sight, I should have called it patronising.

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    2. Thank you Sarbari for your insightful observations. You are right about my sounding like a WEIRD myself- after all, I am one. My intent however was not to pass judgement over WEIRDs but only to explore the growing alienation of the WEIRDs from the Majority. I believe this has significant implications and it is important to understand this phenomenon. You are also right that WEIRD and non-WEIRD is not a binary, though in my writing it may have come through as such. Finally, moral guardianship is not a monopoly of any single group- some may do it in name of liberty and freedom whereas others may do it in name of tradition and heritage. One difference which I have seen in the kind of people that you have mentioned is that they are unabashedly authoritarian with no compulsion to being democratic. The difficulty of the WEIRD is that he/she has to operate within the democratic frame and hence patronisation/condescension becomes important.

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  2. Very interesting perspective. I have referred to a set of people that I have referred to as the colourless, odourless, godless and casteless Indian. Sounds a bit like the WEIRD guys you are speaking about.


    1. Yes Raghu, I have often quoted you in my writings on Indian ness as I think, your description of the colourless, odourless — Indian is the most visible manifestation of the WEIRD phenomenon. However, i suspect there may be several other faces of the WEIRD, considering its prevalence at the international level.


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